Hairballs in Dogs: How to Deal With This Cat-Like Problem

Hairballs in Dogs
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Hairballs in dogs are a rare occurrence but it does not mean that it will not happen to your dog. A lot of the times, we associate this phenomenon with cats especially since they are the ones who love to lick and groom their bodies most of the time. We rarely see a dog which will continuously lick his fur just to become clean.  When they get dirty, most would rub the dirty part on the floor or the walls to get it off. Hence people often think that a dog that seems to be “grooming itself” will only do so if they have a wound, a tick bite, or some skin irritation in a particular area of their body.

Although this is partly true, there are definitely some dogs that will groom their fur especially when they are medium to long in length. This and the fact that there are some dogs which seem to be very conscious of the cleanliness of their fur contribute to the fact that a dog really can cough up some hairballs at any particular time. Aside from this, you also need to take into consideration that dogs do have that season for shedding and the amount of fur that they shed will also depend upon the state of their health.

Therefore, it is also extremely important to look after the kind of diet that you provide for your pet as a part of an overall dog hairball remedy.

What are dog hairballs?

Hairballs are also known as tricholiths or trichobezoars which means a mass of concentrated hair material that has surrounded a non-digestible item which has become stuck in the stomach, the esophagus, or the intestines. It comes in a variety of shapes ranging from rounded, to tubular, to spherical and depending on how long they had been coughed up by your dog, can be a wet and soggy mass or a dry one.

Just like in cats, they are made of the dog’s fur and may come occasionally with other types of fibers such as grass and other non-soluble materials. Dogs are able to ingest their fur by licking and grooming or it could be on their surroundings. Although there are some more reasons why dogs lick, and you can read al about it in our article of the same title.

Dog with hairballs loss of appetite

A hairball can pose several levels of risk depending on how many and how long the hair materials had been in their gastrointestinal tract. A dog can usually eliminate a small amount of hair that they ingest if these are really few and the speed of his elimination is normal. But a dog that has a slower rate of elimination can have hairball problems even if he ingests them in small amounts.

As the hair accumulates, they tend to tangle themselves around each other forming an almost solid structure and if he happens to have a weak body, he may have problems vomiting or coughing it out.

Here are some of the symptoms to look out for if you want to know if your dog has gotten some hairballs:

  • Repeated attempts to cough or vomit something out of their mouths
  • Constipation
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Gagging
  • Diarrhea
  • A bloated stomach, in more serious cases

Hairballs can pose a huge risk to the life of your pet if it had grown hard inside your pet’s stomach. This is often due to a poor state of health as well as large amounts of ingested fur. As they become larger in size, they will somewhat harden and prevent the passage of food down the stomach.

Aside from this, it can also pierce your pet’s stomach as the hairs become much stiffer and harder as time goes on. It is therefore extremely important to have your pet healthy and regularly checked up by their vet in order to detect this condition early on and prevent it from getting more serious.

How do dogs get them?

Although dogs are not really known to be as dedicated to grooming as cats are, there can be instances when they do this rather obsessively leading them to ingest large amounts of fur.

Dog shedding

Here are some causes or reasons on how a dog can get a hairball:

  • Shedding. Dogs, especially those with two layers or coats of fur and those with longer fur, are prone to shedding and it can be one of their greatest problems if not dealt with properly. A dog will often begin to shed their fur during spring when their winter coats will begin to fall as the warmer seasons begin. If they are not properly groomed by their owners, they will end up doing it themselves and with the large amount of fur that they are shedding, it definitely poses a large opportunity for them to swallow those furs and develop a hairball. If your dog sheds a lot, find out in our article why your dog is suffering from hair loss to get to the root of the problem.
  • Eating prey. We all know dogs which have that prey instinct and which tend to eat them whole including feathers and furs. Since animal hair is indigestible, it will remain inside their stomach and if they are lucky, they will eliminate it together with other materials. But, if their digestive system is not that strong, it will end up staying on their digestive tract or large intestines where it will trap or block other decaying feces. This poses a great health risk since toxic gases and substances from the rotting materials will be reabsorbed by the bloodstream.
  • Excessive licking. When a dog licks their fur, some of them will often be swallowed by your pet. Here are some reasons why your dog may be excessively licking themselves:
    • This is one if the main reasons why a dog can lick themselves to the point that they do not get a good night’s sleep. A dog that is constantly feeling itchy will of course, try to alleviate their itchy by chewing and licking it. But since allergy cannot be easily cured by biting it, it will of course continue to itch. As the area becomes too much exposed to saliva, the furs will begin to fall off and when this happens, your dog can ingest some of them.
    • If a dog does not have sufficient physical or mental stimulation, they will try to do just anything to occupy their time and licking can be one of them. A dog that is bored will find a way to get rid of all the energies that they have and so you can expect them to do it incessantly until they get tired.
    • Flea and tick bites. If your dog has a problem with flea and tick infestations, chances are they will be biting and licking their fur a lot more often. Tick bites can be really itchy and can cause your dog to chew on their fur. When they do so, they also pull some of their fur out and swallow them as they try to get rid of these parasites. Check out our piece on how to effectively deal with fleas and other parasites that can help you a lot.

What are the available treatments for dog hairballs?

You will find a lot of commercial products in the market which promise to eliminate your dog’s hairballs but not all of them can treat your specific case. This is because of the fact that dog hairballs come in different stages: there are those which are yet on their early stages that are still quite soft and easy to eliminate and there are those which have been in your dog’s stomach for a significant amount of time that they have already hardened.

Dog eating petroleum jelly

Aside from that, dog hairballs can also be stuck in different areas in your pet’s gastrointestinal tract – in the esophagus, the stomach, or the small intestines.

Here are some of solutions that you can apply if you ever encounter this problem:

  • Petroleum jelly. Giving your dog petroleum jelly will help to “smoothen” out the passage of the hairball either through their throat or through their stomach. It will also help soften up the hairball in case it has gotten a large quantity of hair.
  • Pumpkin. Pumpkin is known to contain a large amount of fiber which can help “pull out” the hairball as they pass through the gastrointestinal tract. Aside from this, it will help support the mucus membranes of the tract giving it a smoother travel time in the stomach.
  • Laxatives. Since laxatives can pose a significant effect on your dog’s body, you should only use it under a vet’s supervision. The type and dosage will depend upon your pet’s age and health condition. Any underlying medical condition especially those related to the gastrointestinal area and other major organs will have to be taken into consideration before giving this treatment.
  • Surgery. If the hairball is already stiff and hard or is too large to be eliminated through the anus, a surgery will be required in order to remove it.

How do you prevent hairballs from developing?

Since prevention is still better than treating any illness, it would be much better if you as a pet owner can help prevent your dog from getting it in the first place. This way, you would not have to face the prospect of a possible surgery in case your dog is unable to eliminate it in a natural way.

Akita grooming

Here are some steps that you can take in order to keep your dog from getting a hairball:

  • Groom your pet regularly. Constantly cleaning and brushing your pet’s hair will help them get rid of lose and dead hair more effectively. If your dog has a medium hair you need to brush them at least once a day before they go to bed. A dog with a longer hair will need to be brushed twice a day especially during the shedding season. Make sure to throw the hairs in a bin that they will not be able to reach or open. Read our article on the top dog shampoos to give you more choices for your pet.
  • Provide a diet healthy in essential oils. Essential oils are those which help to maintain the shine, luster and strength of your pet’s fur and they include fish, meats, and some vegetables. Make sure that they are getting a sufficient amount of these through natural foods or by giving them Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acid supplements.
  • Treat their allergies if they have any. If your dog is biting and chewing his skin constantly, chances are he may be suffering from an allergy and is manifesting itself through skin conditions. Have him checked upon by your vet for any type of allergy and make sure to avoid any situation in which they will be exposed to allergens such as pollen, plastics, and certain types of foods.
  • Give your pet sufficient water. A healthy gut needs sufficient hydration and this can come only if you are giving your dog enough water. Water in the stomach will also help assure a smoother elimination for your pet. The amount that your pet needs will vary from case to case and will depend on their activity level, weather, age, breed, etc. Make sure to ask your vet about this.
  • Provide your pet with sufficient stimulation. Since boredom can cause your dog to lick his fur incessantly, it is therefore important to provide him with enough physical or mental activity to keep his mind occupied. Give him a chew toy and make sure that you spend enough time playing or going on walks with him to prevent boredom or even anxiety. Bonding with your dog is just as important as giving him a place to stay and food to eat.

Hairballs are not an exclusive phenomenon to cats only, even dogs can get them and they can pose a serious risk to their health if left unattended.

A dog can get hairballs by excessively licking and chewing their skin and which in turn, can be caused by allergies, boredom, or flea and tick problems. Your dog is also prone to having hairballs during the shedding season especially if they are left to groom on their own. Hairballs can develop into stiff and hard masses in your dog’s gastrointestinal tract and can puncture or rupture their stomach. Make sure that you look well after your dog in order to avoid this situation and lose your pet forever. If you believe you can’t deal with all that shedding, here’s our article on non-shedding dogs, if you think you are better off with this breed.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.

  • Daisy Simmons

    While I have never actually had a dog with a hairy problem, I thing it’s best to be well informed and well-prepared. Thanks to this article, I’m currently equipped with both. I just hope that our numerous dogs won’t ever encounter this problem!

    • Wyatt Robinson

      You are very welcome, Daisy! It is best to prepare for the worst because while this is more common to cats, it is not a unique case for dogs.

  • Sarah Johnson

    Sometimes dogs who are averse to coughing up hair balls would do their best to stall the discomfort of coughing it out. There are effective herbal paste in the market, those found in tubes, that help the passing of hairballs. It’s easy to apply, just putting it between the dog’s nose and mouth. In this way, the dog will lick it throughout the day and the hairball would be aided in passing it. It’s another remedy that would work well and was sadly overlooked, although the article was plenty informative nonetheless.

    • Wyatt Robinson

      This is true, Sarah. Some dogs who tend to have high pain tolerance often just endure the hairball because most of the time it is just a painless accumulation.

  • juliannewylie

    We think our 7 year old rescue beagle passed up a hairball this morning. Neither my husband nor I heard him cough,etc . We did hear him moving around a bit this morning, Do dogs pass hairballs thru intestinal tracks or do they cough it up. It didn’t smell like poop, wasn’t there when DH got up but was there when he came up an hour later. Our beagle did have his sutures removed yesterday from his neutering and his lyme vaccine booster. He is eating, playing and walking pretty much normal. A little bit of lethargy yesterday but that’s how he usually is with his shots. He bounces and runs as well as walks on his walks. He hasn’t had an issue before , so do I need to worry or since it seems to be a one time occurrence.

    • Wyatt Robinson

      Hairballs form as a very dense solid, it is more often regurgitated than passed through the stool. It is often tubular or spherical depending on how much the accumulation of the hair was.

  • Janessa Harrell

    How much petrolleum jelly should i give a 1 1/2 year old Great Pyr? Hes been coughing and gagging.

    • Wyatt Robinson

      Janessa, you can try with a tablespoon first, then make a follow-through after about three hours.

  • Jenn Rehmel

    i have a ten week old lab mix puppy who has had a problem with diarrhea since I rescued him at seven weeks old. At first my vet and I thought it was a side effect of having worms. He went through two rounds of de-worming but the diarrhea continued and only occurred after eating. I talked to the vet again, who thought that maybe this puppy has a corn intolerance. So I switched his food to a corn free food but the diarrhea continued. Last night was the worse case of diarrhea this puppy had. Every two hours he had to go out and it was pure liquid. After it stopped he vomited up a large wet mass. When I cleaned it up, I realized it was a very large tubular shaped hairball. I have three cats, so I’m no stranger to hairballs. Tonight I fed him brown rice and hamburger with pumpkin to help settle his tummy. Do you think that his hairball was causing his chronic issue with diarrhea or could there still be an issue with the puppy chow?

    • Wyatt Robinson

      Some hairballs can stay inside the stomach for a very long time, which can exarcerbate any existing health problems (primarily digestive or systemic) to your dog. Did the veterinarian recommended any tests to be done? Because based on what you’ve mentioned, the problem might be non-parasitic in nature.

      • Jenn Rehmel

        My vet told me to give him the hairball formula that I give my Himalayan cat. He vomited up one more hairball and passed the rest. Because the puppy was still not gaining weight, he tested him for gluten intolerance. Turned out that the hairballs and the corn and gluten intolerances were causing his problem. He has now begun to gain weight and no more diarrhea. He is on a grain free diet. Even doggie treats are grain free. He is doing better.

        • Wyatt Robinson

          That’s great to hear, Jenn. It’s great that the issue about the diet (particularly the intolerances) have been identified already and the diarrhea is now all gone!

  • Virgil Chandler

    Dr. Robinson, in the reply you gave Sarah, I was wondering if there is any herbal paste in particular that you will recommend. I have a feeling that our dog is full of hair but refuses to cough it up. Please I will love to hear your recommendations on this.

    • Wyatt Robinson

      Most gels are for cat hairballs and may have adverse effects on dogs. You can try SynergyLabs Richard’s Organics Chicken Flavored Hairball Remedy. Let me know how’s your dog after giving this hairball remedy. Good luck!

  • Kelly Yates

    About the pumpkin, how do I give it to my dog? Do I blend it or what? Which do you think will work best? The petroleum jelly, pumpkin or the laxatives, as surgery is something that scares me a lot. I don’t take I can take that kind of scare.

    • Wyatt Robinson

      Kelly does your dog like snacking on vegetables? if yes, make sure to steam the pumpkin before giving it to your dog. Each dog have different reactions to different types of medication. Ensure to check for allergies and reactions.

  • Gwen Hanson

    Hey! Very informative read Mr. Wyatt, our poor dog is a hell of a shedder and after many trips to the vet, turns out that his case is at rock bottom and he has to be operated on for the hairball to be removed. Do you have any idea how the surgery process is like, so we will be prepared for whatever may come. I know I can easily ask my vet this question but I don’t want to seem like a worried mother.

    • Wyatt Robinson

      Hi Gwen! Thank you! Hairballs causes so much issue with dogs who have are heavy shedders. They lick their bodies and even floors where their toys are. In cases of surgeries, this is a case to case basis . It may cost from $1,000 or more. It is best to check with your vet as he/she may be able to provide you with a breakdown of the cost. Don’t worry, you won’t be judged for asking.