By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
A pet’s coat is one of his or her most distinctive features. They come in so many forms: the luxurious red tresses on an Irish setter, the shiny stripes on a Bengal, the mohawk of a Chinese Crested, or the pouf of a Pomeranian. A pet’s coat is a crowning glory when healthy, and one of the first things people notice when its health begins to waver through neglect or an underlying medical condition. So what are the keys to a healthy and beautiful coat, and what should you do if your dog or cat is starting to look a little mangy?
The Scoop on Shedding
Hair growth occurs in three phases: the anagen, or growing phase; the catagen, or transitional stage; and the telogen phase, or resting phase. In people and in some dogs such as poodles, the hairs spend much of their time in the anagen phase, necessitating regular cuts as the hairs continue to grow. In most breeds of dogs, the hair spends the majority of its time in the resting phase. The length of time a hair grows before stopping is highly breed dependent; this is why you don’t see a Jack Russell with a floor-length coat like a Lhasa Apso no matter how long you let it grow.
At the end of the resting phase, the hair falls out of the follicle so a new one may grow in its place, which we know as shedding. The degree to which you notice a pet’s shedding depends on the density and length of the coat; while Siamese and Persians both shed the same amount, the long hairs on a Persian may make it much more noticeable.
Although pets shed fur year-round, you may notice increased shedding in the fall as the denser winter coat comes in, and in the spring as the lighter summer coat takes over. This is most pronounced in pets with a double coat such as Akitas, Huskies, Chow Chows and Australian Shepherds. Fluffy cats, such as Maine Coons and the Norwegian Forest Cat, also experience a distinct shedding season, usually the spring.
How to Keep the Coat Healthy
In both dogs and cats, brushing is the number one thing you can do to help keep your pet’s coat shiny and healthy. In addition to removing the loosening hairs that are on the way to being shed, brushing stimulates the skin, distributes oils and helps brush off the top layer of skin that, like the hairs, sheds itself regularly. During the spring and fall shedding seasons you will need to increase the number of times a week your pet is brushed.
Bathing is also an excellent tool for coat and skin health, though the type of shampoo and frequency of grooming is highly individualized. A healthy cat who grooms frequently may not ever need a bath (much to the relief of both cat and owner). While shampooing removes dirt and accumulated oil, it can also be drying if done too frequently. Once a month is sufficient for most pets. Make sure you choose a shampoo that is specific to dogs and cats; people shampoo is often too harsh for a pet’s more sensitive skin. Pets with specific medical conditions such as seborrhea often benefit from medicated shampoos; it’s vital to follow the instructions closely to get the desired result.
Stand in front of the grooming section at any pet store and you will quickly appreciate the variety of tools and gadgets at your disposal for grooming purposes. Some brushes with flat metal blades are designed for deshedding thick undercoats, while others with softer bristles lack the strength to detangle but are better for sensitive skin. Dogs and cats who shed heavily require more frequent brushing and grooming to maintain coat health. Your groomer, veterinarian, or even breed clubs and websites can be invaluable resources to help you figure out the best tools and grooming frequencies for your individual pet.
Regular grooming also gives you the chance to evaluate your pet’s skin on a routine basis. You can check for external parasites such as fleas and ticks, feel for masses, and catch hot spots early. Skin that seems very oily or thickened, flaky, greasy, reddened, or extra-smelly warrants a trip to the veterinarian. In many cats, an unkempt coat is one of the earliest signs of illness as grooming is one of the first behaviors they stop performing when they are nauseated, tired or sore.
Does Diet Matter?
Absolutely! You’ve probably seen recommendations for a variety of supplements, pills, oils or home remedies promising to improve a pet’s coat, and with good reason—they can make a big difference. So which ones work the best?
When I was a kid, my mother used to pour a tablespoon of canola oil on our dog’s food. It made us feel like we were doing something, and sure it made our dog’s coat shiny, but it didn’t do a whole lot to actually make it healthier. These days, canola oil has been replaced by trendier choices like olive oil and coconut oil, but if you truly want to invest in the healthiest skin and coat supplements, you need to consider a quality essential fatty acid (EFA) supplement specifically formulated for a pet’s skin and coat.
Essential fatty acids are those that a pet cannot synthesize himself and therefore must be included in the diet. EFAs play a vital role as building blocks in the cells, the inflammatory response, as well as in maintaining the integrity of the skin as a barrier to the outside world. They fall into two general categories depending on their molecular makeup: omega-3 and omega-6. EFAs occur naturally from a number of sources such as flaxseed oil and fish.
What we have learned over time is that it’s not only which EFAs are present in a supplement, but in what ratios, that really determine how well they improve a pet’s health. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be between 10:1 to 4:1. Although many pet foods add EFAs to the final product, most people prefer adding their own supplementation as you have better control over both the source and the dosing of the EFAs. Your veterinarian should be able to help you find a quality supplement from a reputable manufacturer.
The time and expense of maintaining a pet’s coat is just one of the responsibilities we take on with a pet, but the rewards of a shiny, touchable pet make it all worthwhile.
All that hair driving you crazy? Find out how to stay ahead of your dog's shedding.