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May 25, 2022

How to Prevent and Treat Hairballs in Small Mammals

by Cayla Iske, Ph.D. and Dianne Cook, LVT

What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you see the word “hairball”? Is it the distinctly shaped wad of hairy yuck cats are known to hack up on occasion?  If so, you share space with a large percentage of animal lovers. Though many of our feline friends do deal with hairball hardship from time to time, it can come as a surprise to learn that many exotic companion mammals are also susceptible. Hairballs in any species originate from the same source (ingested fur), but the impact they have on the afflicted animal can vary depending on a multitude of factors.  

Keep reading to learn more about: 

  • Small mammal species most likely to be affected 
  • Causes of hairballs in small pets 
  • Common signs and symptoms 
  • Are hairballs harmful? 
  • Hairball prevention 
  • Treatment options  

Can All Exotic Companion Mammals Get Hairballs? 

Technically, any animal who ingests hair can form a hairball, but they tend to be more common in certain species. When referencing exotic companion mammals specifically, rabbits and chinchillas have an increased risk of hairball formation due to their naturally dense hair coats.  

Longhaired rabbit breeds like angoras, lionheads, and Jersey woolies, have an even greater risk due to the length of their hair.  

Guinea pig breeds like silkies, Peruvians, and texels, also have their long, luxurious locks to thank for an elevated chance of hairballs as compared to their shorter-haired piggy kin. 

While hairballs in rats, hamsters, mice, and gerbils are less common, they can still occur. 

What Causes Hairballs? 

Because rabbits and rodents are instinctively fastidious creatures, they routinely swallow some of their hair whenever they groom themselves. As a result, it is completely normal for them to have hair in their stomach and along their digestive tract. Under normal circumstances, this hair passes in their stool without incident and often goes unnoticed by even the most observant pet parent.  

True hairballs (also called trichobezoars or “wool block”), on the other hand, are tightly compacted wads of ingested hair or hair-like fibers that accumulate in the stomach. Though true hairballs are not overly common in small companion mammals, little ones with exceptionally long or thick coats (as mentioned above) are more likely to have issues, as are those who are molting or prone to excessive grooming or barbering (hair chewing).  

Other common causes of hairballs, like the ones mentioned below, often result in low fiber intake and/or decreased gastric motility, thereby increasing the risk of true hairball formation: 

  • Improper diet 
  • Stress 
  • Pain or illness 
  • Dental disease 

What Are the Most Common Signs and Symptoms of Hairballs? 

Unlike cats, our rabbit and rodent friends are unable to vomit. Unfortunately, that means if a true hairball forms, it only has one direction to go, and the only way forward is quite narrow. This can result in the hairball becoming lodged, effectively bringing your pet’s digestive tract to a grinding halt. While this is problematic in all species, it is particularly scary in our small herbivores, and can easily result in (or result from) gastrointestinal stasis.  

Because small mammals are prey species, they are intrinsically designed to mask signs of pain or illness. Unfortunately, this means the initial signs of a hairball can be quite subtle. If your pet exhibits any of the following signs or symptoms, contact a trusted veterinarian immediately. 

  • Decreased or absent appetite 
  • Decreased fluid intake 
  • Decreased fecal output 
  • Small and/or oddly shaped fecal pellets – “string of pearls” feces (small pellets of feces strung together with strands of hair) is quite common 
  • Inconsistent stool consistency – alternating between dry and firm and soft or watery 
  • Lethargy 
  • Abdominal distention – stomach looks enlarged 
  • Abnormal vocalization – teeth grinding, thumping, and whimpering can indicate pain 
  • Abnormal posture – sitting or lying rigidly in one position or “abdominal pressing” (lying stretched out with their abdomen pressed against the ground) can also be a sign of discomfort 

4 Easy Ways to Prevent Hairballs in Small Mammals

While some animals are prone to hairballs, there are measures you can take to reduce your pet’s chances of developing issues.  These measures include making thoughtful choices and developing healthy habits when it comes to nutrition, hydration, supplements, and grooming.    

Provide Appropriate, High Fiber Nutrition  

As mentioned above, an improper diet can contribute to any ingested hair clumping and getting stuck along the digestive tract. This is yet another reason adequate fiber in the diet of a small mammal is crucial. Sufficient volumes of insoluble fiber help maintain peristalsis and keep the digestive tract moving, reducing the likelihood that hair will congregate throughout.  

Ensure Adequate Hydration  

In addition to fiber, proper hydration also aids in maintaining peristalsis. Dehydration can be avoided by offering fresh water in multiple formats (crock and bottle) as well as feeding a proper amount of fresh greens and veggies.  Fresh produce adds great nutritional variety to the diet and is also high in moisture to help hydrate your pet. 

Offer Digestive Supplements as Appropriate 

If your little one is predisposed to hairballs or has a history of hairball issues, adding a digestive supplement to the diet may be a great option as well. Oxbow’s Natural Science Digestive Support or Papaya support, or even both, can help boost digestive health and movement. Papaya Support specifically contains active, plant-based enzymes which help break down proteins in the digestive tract, which could include accumulations of hair.  As always, consult with your animal’s veterinarian before adding any supplement to the diet. 

Practice Consistent Grooming 

In addition to a fiber-rich diet and ample water intake, a consistent grooming routine can also minimize the chances of hairball formation by ensuring your little one isn’t ingesting excessive quantities of hair. Daily brushing is especially important if your pet has long hair or is going through a molt. Though it can take a bit of time to get your furry friend accustomed to a regular grooming habit, many small mammals learn to love this special bonding time with their favorite humans. This frequent one-on-one time will also allow you to keep a close eye on your pet’s overall coat health and body condition. 

Are Hairballs in Small Mammals Treatable? 

Should your little one form a true hairball, it can come as a comfort to know that they, and any accompanying digestive woes, are generally treatable. Because true hairballs are often the result of gastrointestinal stasis and other serious digestive diseases, however, they are considered a major health concern. It is imperative to have the guidance and expertise of an exotics-savvy veterinarian throughout the treatment process. Depending on the size and location of the true hairball, coupled with your pet’s overall condition, your veterinarian may recommend treatment including some (or all) of the following options. 

Fluid Therapy 

Though fluids can be given orally or subcutaneously, often intravenous fluids (and a short hospital stay) are the best option to rehydrate your kiddo’s system and get the hairball moving through 

Assist Feeding 

If your pet isn’t eating, their digestive tract isn’t moving. Providing a recovery diet (like Critical Care) can help stimulate peristalsis (movement of the intestines) and provide your pet with the macro- and micro-nutrients they need until they are able to resume self-feeding and are passing consistent bowel movements 

Medication 

A variety of medications may be prescribed based on your little one’s unique case and overall condition. Analgesics (pain medication), antibiotics, prokinetics (medications that promote gastrointestinal movement), and anti-gas meds are used most commonly. 

Surgery 

Occasionally a true hairball can cause a complete intestinal obstruction and will have to be removed surgically. Because little ones in this state are generally quite ill (and therefore not the best anesthetic candidates), surgery is generally a last resort.