Although they’re more common with cats, dogs can suffer from the occasional hairball. They usually aren’t a big deal, but they can occasionally cause serious medical problems. So don’t ignore them!
We’ll explain which dogs are most likely to suffer from them and list some warning signs that should prompt a phone call to the vet. We’ll also explain a few of the ways you can help prevent them from happening in the first place.
Those who’ve never seen their dog cough up a hairball may be more than a bit startled upon seeing their first. Hairballs are – as the name implies – essentially clumps or balls of hair. But they don’t look like the tumbleweed-like clumps of hair that coat your couches and floors. Because they emerge from your pet’s digestive tract, hairballs are coated in saliva and other bodily fluids, which can make them look pretty gross.
Small bits of skin, food,or household debris are sometimes mixed in with the hairballs. They may even have a very faint green tint too. And they can also include hair from you or your other pets, especially if any of you happen to shed a lot of hair naturally.
Dogs ingest hair all the time. They do so while chewing and grooming their bodies or licking the floor and other items covered with hair. But most hair passes through the digestive tract without ever being noticed by owners.
Hairballs occur when the clump of hair is unable to pass through your dog’s pipes, so they exit the same way they entered – via the mouth. Usually, dogs will cough, heave, and retch quite a bit while working the hairball out. It, at times, can be a little tough to watch.
Your standard-issue hairball doesn’t cause any other problems once it’s barfed up. Your dog may just yawn and then go on his or her way. From this point forward, the only problem created by the hairball is the fact that you’ll have to clean it up.
But, hairballs aren’t always benign. Some can grow large enough to block a dog’s intestinal tract or esophagus. Your dog won’t be able to pass such hairballs (in either direction), which may prevent your dog from passing waste or swallowing food. It may even begin to ferment while it sits in your dog’s digestive tract, which may cause your dog to feel terrible.
You’ll need to take your pup to the vet in such scenarios for evaluation. Your vet may be able to administer fluids or prescribe medications that will help ease the hairball out, but surgical removal is required in some cases.
Most dogs can get hairballs, but some dogs are more susceptible to them than others. Generally speaking, dogs who fall into one of these three categories are the most likely to hack up hairballs on your floor.
Chihuahuas, Great Danes, and other short-haired dogs can get hairballs, but they aren’t terribly common. Short hairs don’t clump as readily as long hairs do. On the other hand, dogs with medium to long hair–border collies, poodles and every breed in between–get hairballs more frequently.
Whether it is caused by fleas, yeast, bacteria, or an allergic reaction, itchiness often causes dogs to lick or chew their skin and fur. Your dog will end up eating a bunch of hair while doing so.
Dogs who are under-stimulated, stressed, or otherwise unhappy may lick or chew their skin and fur as a coping mechanism. This can cause a lot of hair to enter your dog’s digestive tract.
And although I can’t find any studies specifically addressing the issue, it bears mentioning that small dogs have narrower digestive tracts. So, it stands to reason that smaller dogs are at aslightly higher risk of obstructive hairballs than larger dogs are.
As mentioned above, hairballs can occasionally cause relatively serious health problems that will require veterinary assistance to solve. One problem is the symptoms of an obstructive or problematic hairball are pretty vague and easy to mistake for other illnesses or issues.
That said, some of the most common signs your dog is having a problem with a hairball include:
If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your vet and follow the advice provided. Depending on your dog’s exact symptoms, medical history, and level of distress, your vet may advise you to simply observe your dog or bring him or her in immediately.
You probably can’t entirely eliminate the possibility of hairballs, but you can do a number of different things to help reduce their frequency (and potentially their size too). Some of the best strategies include:
Does your dog cough up spit-covered wads of fur around the house? Have you figured out any ways to limit the problem? We’d love to hear about what has worked, and what hasn’t. Let us know about your experiences in the comments below.
Ben is a lifelong environmental educator who writes about animals, trees, outdoor recreation, science and environmental issues. He lives with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler in Atlanta, Georgia. Read more by Ben at FootstepsInTheForest.com or @FootstepsForest on Twitter.
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