The condition of dogs' and cats' coats is affected by genetics, environmental conditions, nutrition, health issues and grooming. Dogs and cats come with a variety of coat lengths and textures that have developed from climatic conditions and human intervention through selective breeding practices.
Dog breeds originating in cold harsh climates (like Siberian Huskies and Samoyeds) and cat breeds (such as the Norwegian Forest and Persians) developed thick double coats providing insulation. Warmer climates produced thinly coated dogs (greyhounds, Basenjis) and natural short-haired cat breeds that include Abyssinians and Siamese. More densely coated short-hair cats like British shorthairs and Russian Blues acclimated to colder living conditions. The dense and almost water-proof coats found on some sporting dog breeds that retrieve waterfowl and other game are desired traits that breeders seek to perpetuate. Naturally occurring mutations in cats have produced uniquely textured coats in breeds such as the curly-coated Selkirk Rex, the wavy-coated Devon Rex and the hairless Sphinx.
Damage to a pet's coat can be caused by environmental factors such as dry heat, sunburn, rough-textured bedding and sleeping on hard surfaces. Tight or choke chain collars may damage dogs' neck hair. Poor or damaged coats can be caused by internal parasites (worms) and external parasites (fleas and ticks). Unbalanced or inadequate nutrition is another culprit especially for pets fed only table scraps or nutritionally incomplete homemade diets that lack the essential dietary elements promoting healthy coat development. Health disorders such as hypothyroidism, bacterial or fungal infections (like ringworm) and Cushing's disease may impact the condition and quality of a pet's coat. Pets lacking regular coat care may be itchy, smelly, matted and feel miserable.
The most common coat-related complaints from pet owners are shedding, matting, and hairballs (produced by cats). Almost all dogs and cats shed with the exception of the hairless breeds like the Hairless variety of the Chinese Crested dog and Sphinx cat. Curly-coated dogs like poodles, poodle mixes, curly and rough-coated terriers do shed but that hair becomes entangled with the existing coat, causing mats and body sores. Shedding is usually seasonal however other factors such as hormonal conditions in female dogs and cats following the birth of litters or after a female has been in season. Illness and stress also contribute to excessive shedding.
Mats are the result of loose hair that gets twisted into the coat (as with poodles and poodle mixes), debris like burrs that become imbedded into the coat causing pets to scratch themselves or knots that have become wet and meshed in with the surrounding hair. Matting usually occurs in longer coated cats and can become a serious problem for a high-maintenance breed like Persians. Obese, elderly and arthritic cats tend to develop mats due to their limited ability to turn their bodies to groom themselves. Dense mats may prevent air from reaching a pet's skin surface and lead to skin infections. Mats often occur under and on ears, in "armpits" and in the groin areas of dogs and cats. Heavily matted pets may express pain when trying to stretch or move.
Hairballs are a messy wads of digested food, saliva and gastric secretions that develop when cats self-groom and their sandpaper-textured tongues catch loose hair that is swallowed. Most of the time the swallowed hair passes through the digestive tract without problems, however heavily- coated and shedding cats may ingest large amounts of hair that irritate the lining of the stomach and interfere with digestion. Hairballs can develop into potentially deadly obstructions requiring surgical removal.
Coat care tips
Before you start a grooming session, select a quiet area with a towel-covered non-slippery sturdy surface and have the tools needed (see below) on hand. Be sure that your pet is "on empty" and not stressed. Speak in a soft soothing voice. Keep healthy treats easy for you to reach and periodically "pay" your pet for cooperating! Periodically massaging your pet's favorite touch spots (like throat, chest, shoulders) enhances the bond between you and your furry companion.
- After an initial professional grooming session request coat care maintenance advice regarding tools, techniques, and products that can be used at home.
- Consult with your vet regarding coat quality changes that may indicate underlying health problems, before changing a pet's diet or using coat-improving dietary supplements.
- Regular weekly grooming (more often for long- or heavily coated pets) is the best method to control shedding and matting by using two basic tools: a slicker brush (small size for cats or small dogs) and a metal comb ("greyhound" style). Slicker brushes have bent wire teeth that are set close together and aid with removal of mats and dead hair. They come in different sizes and styles including ergonomic designs that provide a comfortable grip. A suitable metal comb has coarsely spaced teeth on one end and closely spaced teeth on the other and is a versatile coat tool. It aids in mat removal and creates a smoother and "finished" appearance.
- Avoid using dog coat detangling products on cats which they will ingest when they lick themselves.
- A warning from veterinarians: Never use scissors to remove mats! Scissoring mats has caused countless pets to require suturing for serious wounds and antibiotic treatment.
- Heavily matted pets may require professional grooming and shaving to prevent future mats from occurring.
- Remove small mats using the end of the metal comb by slowly separating the hairs from the bottom of the mat and working upward.
- Gently brush and comb pets in the direction the fur grows.
- Use smoothly woven fabric bedding instead of coarsely fabric which may catch and break hair.
Regular coat care improves pets' overall well-being and enhances their appearance. They do take pride in how they look and feel, don't they?
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Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.