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Grooming pets provides health and safety benefits

Bad breath and hairballs, and long nails, oh my!

These are only a few of the problems that ungroomed pets present. Some pet owners view grooming as being frivolous but when pets are left ungroomed they can develop serious health and safety problems that may impact their quality of life. Regular grooming provides opportunities to detect and possibly prevent some problems from occurring. Today's column is the first in a series to provide pet owners with general information regarding grooming and will focus on skin issues and care.

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Grooming your own pet requires time, patience, knowledge, skill and the right tools. For owners unable to groom their pets, there are numerous sources to turn to for professional pet grooming, such as grooming salons where the pet is dropped off and picked up later after receiving their "new 'do." Other groomers come to the pet's home and work from a vehicle that is fully equipped with a grooming table, sink, shampoos and grooming tools. Many pet supply stores, veterinary hospitals, and kennels offer grooming services as well. For owners who want to maintain their professionally groomed pets' appearance between professional grooming appointments can request instruction from the groomer for basic care tips, recommended tools and grooming products.

Before grooming can begin, pets need to be acclimated to having all body parts touched gently. This can be accomplished by providing tiny pieces of healthy treats as rewards during this process. Reputable breeders provide this type of handling for puppies and kittens as a part of their socialization to prepare them for their future homes. New owners should maintain this practice as well because grooming will involve the care of the animal's skin, coat, feet, ears, eyes, teeth.

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Skin issues and care tips

A pet's skin often reflects its health. Healthy skin is smooth and flexible and may range in color depending on the animal's coat color and breed. Gently run your fingertips all over your pet's body to feel for lumps, damp, oily or crusty areas and make a note of their location. Then separate the hair or fur and look for redness, scaly or flaking skin, oozing sores, bleeding, bald patches, "flea dirt," fleas and ticks.

Unusual odors may indicate problems like fungal infections (common in dogs with deep folds in the skin like pugs and bulldogs) or bacterial infections. Hairless, dark-coated and thin-coated animals may suffer from sunburn and develop skin cancer. Environmental factors can affect pets' skin. Dry flaky skin is common during the winter due to dry heat in homes. Frostbite damages ear tips, paws and thinly coated areas of a pet's body. Excessive scratching, chewing on paws and legs and hot spots may be symptoms of stress, boredom or allergic reactions to pollutants, gardening products, grasses, pollen, household cleaners, detergents, shampoos, human hair products, over-bathing, hot hair dryers, flea and tick deterrents, and the chemicals used for manufacturing plastic pet bowls.

Calluses often occur on large dogs when their skin rubs against rough or hard surfaces like concrete and develop on dog's elbows, buttocks and legs. Animals living in unsanitary or crowded conditions are likely to develop serious skin disorders because feces and urine gets absorbed into animals' coats and irritates skin. Bacterial and fungal infections also spread rapidly when animals live in a filthy crowded environment. Wounds resulting from territorial squabbles may develop into painful abscesses.

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As dogs age it is not unusual for them to develop skin lumps that may be benign, however dogs and other pets can develop skin cancer. Lumps on cats are of great concern as they may be malignant.

Monitor your pet's skin throughout its life by following these tips:

•Examine your pet's skin weekly through touch, sight and smell.

•Report changes in the color, texture, odor of the skin and if bald patches have appeared to a veterinarian. Skin problems may be symptoms of many diseases that require veterinary intervention.

•Consult with your vet before changing a pet's diet or adding supplements.

•Use pet-specific grooming products (shampoos, rinses, coat sprays, etc.). Your vet may prescribe therapeutic shampoos or other products to treat specific skin disorders. Always follow instructions carefully particularly if dilution is required.

•Thoroughly rinse out shampoo to prevent skin irritation.

•Set the hair dryer at room temperature to prevent skin damage from excessive heat.

•Consult with the vet before purchasing parasite control products.

•Reduce your pet's exposure to cold conditions and put sweaters or coats on thin-coated and elderly dogs.

•Apply vet-approved sunscreen on hairless and thin-coated dogs and limit their sun exposure time.

•Place washable cushions on hard or rough floor surfaces.

•Use stainless steel or smooth ceramic bowls for food and water.

•Provide your pet with a clean living environment.

Please note that unusual or serious skin disorders may require treatment from a veterinary allergist or dermatologist.

The next column will discuss coat care for dogs and cats.

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