The general condition of your dog's skin and coat are good indicators of his health. A healthy coat should be shiny and smooth, not brittle or coarse, and healthy skin should be supple and clear, not greasy, flaky, or bumpy. Although health and nutrition influence the shine and texture of your dog’s coat from the inside, regular grooming and skin care on the outside will also help keep your dog's coat clean and free of tangles, no matter what type of hair coat he has.
What are the different types of hair coat that a dog might have?
Selective breeding has led to the development of dogs with a number of different types of coat characteristics. Some breeds have hair that grows continuously and does not shed. These breeds of dog require regular trips to the 'doggy salon' for a shampoo and cut. Breeds such as Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes and many Retrievers have long, thick hair coats with both an outer coat of guard hairs and an undercoat of fine hair that serves as an insulating layer. These breeds often go through two heavy seasonal shedding cycles per year (late spring and late fall), during which much of the undercoat falls out in clumps. Many short-haired breeds lack a distinctive undercoat, and these breeds often shed hair in low levels all year round.
How does nutrition influence the appearance of my dog's hair and skin?
The skin is the largest organ of the body, and the cells of the skin turn over rapidly. For most dogs, virtually all of the skin is covered with hair, which is either being shed regularly or, in non-shedding breeds, is growing constantly. In order to maintain the skin and hair in a healthy state, your dog requires a properly balanced diet that contains high quality digestible proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins, as well as provides the appropriate number of calories to meet its energy needs.
If the nutrients are not digested well and are of poor quality, not only will they be unavailable to meet the body's needs, but they will also cause the liver and kidneys to work harder to eliminate the indigestible waste products. The ideal diet should be individualized to your dog's specific life stage (i.e., puppy, adult, senior) and health status. In all cases, quality and balance are the keys to good nutrition.
A dog whose diet is inadequate to meet his dietary needs will have a dull, dry hair coat and will often shed excessively. For more information about dog nutrition related to specific conditions, it is recommended that you read the appropriate client education handouts and discuss the best nutrition plan for your dog with your veterinarian.
What role does health play in the appearance of my dog's coat and skin?
Illness or stress, especially if it is chronic or long-standing, will affect the appearance of your dog’s coat, particularly its shine and texture, and many dogs will shed excessively when they are under stress. Some of the more common examples of diseases that can affect your dog’s coat include hormone imbalances or other metabolic problems, digestive disturbances such as chronic diarrhea, parasites, both internal (intestinal worms) and external (fleas, ticks, mange mites), and cancer. Even arthritis or obesity can cause skin problems such as dandruff or matting if the dog is unable to groom itself properly.
"Illness or stress, especially if it is chronic or long-standing, will affect the appearance of your dog's coat."
Many skin conditions will affect both the shininess and the appearance of your dog’s fur. Allergic skin disease and seborrhea cause itching and changes in the normal production of skin oils, resulting in a dull coat and excessive shedding, either in patches or over the entire body.
If your dog’s skin or coat problem is caused by an underlying health issue, the general health of the skin and the quality of the hair often improve dramatically when the illness is brought under control through treatment, which may include dietary changes.
What role does regular grooming play in the appearance of my dog's coat and skin?
All dogs benefit from regular grooming to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells, to keep the coat free of dirt, debris, and external parasites, and to distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts.
"All dogs benefit from regular grooming."
Dogs with long, silky or curly coats require daily brushing to keep their hair from becoming tangled or matted, especially around the ears, in the armpits, or along the back of the legs. Dogs with short hair coats may require less frequent brushing. However, daily brushing of any dog that sheds will cut down dramatically on the amount of loose hair and dog dander floating around the home and will also cut down on the amount of hair that the dog swallows in the course of self-grooming with his tongue.
Regardless of the type of hair coat, you should inspect your dog's coat every day to make sure there are no tangles or clumps that have developed under the armpits, in the groin, or behind the ears. After a romp through the grass or in the woods, it is a good idea to look for burrs or twigs that might have become trapped in the coat and could potentially cause irritation.
If you regularly check your dog's coat and skin, you will also have a better chance of detecting any unusual lumps and bumps, parasites such as fleas and ticks, or areas of sensitivity on your dog's body.
How often should I bathe my dog?
Most dogs require bathing on an occasional basis usually when their coat becomes dirty or when they develop a 'doggy odor'. Non-shedding breeds that have no health issues usually need to be bathed about every six to eight weeks, at the time of their regular grooming. Dogs that have a heavy undercoat will benefit from bathing in the spring or fall, when they are undergoing their seasonal shedding.
"Most dogs require bathing on an occasional basis, usually when their coat becomes dirty or when they develop a doggy odor."
How often your individual dog needs to be bathed will vary somewhat with his age, lifestyle, type of hair coat, and underlying health status. If you have a young puppy that is just being house trained and he accidentally soils himself, there is no question that he should be bathed immediately. A dog that enjoys running through puddles or jumping into water may need a bath after a stroll through the mud or a romp in a dirty pond. Some dogs enjoy rubbing their head in decomposing debris in the park, or rolling in objectionable objects, and will need a bath to be allowed back into the house! Finally, if your dog has allergies, your veterinarian may prescribe frequent bathing as part of the treatment regime - with some of these dogs, daily bathing may be necessary until the problem is under control.
Dogs should only be bathed with a shampoo that is formulated for use on dogs - their skin has a different thickness and pH (acidity) than human skin. Human shampoo, including baby shampoo, is far too harsh for their skin. For regular bathing, a hypoallergenic shampoo without any added perfumes is the best choice. For optimum results, a conditioning product should be applied afterwards to restore any lost moisture to the skin and minimize the development of dandruff after the bath.
If you find that your dog requires frequent bathing, discuss this with your veterinarian, who may recommend the use of a special shampoo, conditioning rinse, or 'dry shampoo' to prevent skin problems associated with the repeated baths.
For specific information about grooming or bathing your dog, see the handout "Grooming and Coat Care for your Dog".
My dog seems to only have skin or coat problems at specific times of the year. Why is this?
Some dogs may suffer from skin irritation related to dry winter conditions, particularly from lack of humidity in our homes. Other dogs that have allergies to pollens from trees, plants, or grass may develop skin problems during pollen season - this may occur in the spring with tree pollens, or during summer or fall for plant pollen allergies. Some dogs are allergic to fleas or other biting insects and can develop a rash or patchy hair loss with even a single insect bite.
If you bathe or groom your dog and the skin or coat problem returns quickly, you should bring him or her to your veterinary clinic for an examination. Sometimes, skin problems such as excessive dandruff, doggy odor, a greasy coat, or excessive shedding can indicate a more serious underlying problem. Sometimes this problem will be easy to diagnose and treat, but occasionally, the underlying disorder can present a diagnostic challenge and might even require referral to a dermatologist. Once the underlying problem is diagnosed, the appropriate treatment can be prescribed to control your dog's symptoms.
Your take home message is that your dog’s general coat appearance may be the first indicator of health problems. A healthy dog will not shed excessively and will have a shiny coat that is free from dandruff or greasiness. Before reaching for the bottle of shampoo, think about whether that lackluster coat could be telling you something else. If you have any concerns, contact your veterinarian for a consultation.