Grooming and Coat Care for Your Dog

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH

The general condition of your dog's skin and coat are good indicators of his health. Although health and nutrition influence the luster and texture of your pet's coat from the inside, regular grooming and skin care on the outside will help keep your dog's coat clean and free of tangles, no matter what type of haircoat he has.

What are the different types of hair coats that a dog might have?

Selective breeding has led to the development of dogs with different coat characteristics and grooming needs. Some breeds (e.g., Yorkshire Terriers, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzus) have hair that grows continuously and does not shed. These breeds 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 haircoats with 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 yearly (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 at low levels all year round.

How often should I groom my dog?

All dogs benefit from regular brushing to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells, keep the coat free of dirt, debris, and external parasites, and distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts. 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 haircoats 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 a dog swallows when self-grooming with his tongue.

"...daily brushing of any dog that sheds will cut down dramatically on the amount of loose hair and dog dander floating around the home..."

Regardless of the type of hair coat, you should inspect your dog's coat every day to ensure no tangles or clumps 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 or bumps, parasites such as fleas and ticks, or areas of sensitivity on your dog's body.

What type of brush or comb should I use?

Different styles of brushes work better on certain types of hair coats. Slicker brushes work well for dogs such as Poodles, with curly non-shedding coats, while combs or stiff bristle brushes are suitable for dogs with medium-length hair that sheds, such as Retrievers. Brushes with short bristles or flexible grooming gloves are ideal for smooth-coated dogs such as Pointers or Boxer Dogs. Long-toothed combs, especially ones made with several offset rows, are good for use in dogs with long hair, such as Collies; these combs are also helpful in removing tangled clumps or clumps of loose undercoat hair when your dog is undergoing a seasonal shedding.

Your breeder or groomer will have specific recommendations for a grooming tool that will work particularly well for your dog's coat type. Whatever the choice of brush you use, it is important to be gentle when using it and to avoid excessive pulling on tangles.

How should I remove tangles or burrs?

If a tangle is small or relatively minor, or if your dog has just picked up a burr or twig, you may be able to gently remove it by brushing or combing it out. If the tangle is extensive or there is a large clump of burrs or grass awns forming a mat, it may be necessary to cut out the clump of hair. In this case, you need to be extremely CAREFUL that you do not accidentally cut your dog's skin. For this reason, scissors are never recommended, and only clippers should be used. When tangles are severe or extensive, it is strongly recommended that you seek professional care from a dog groomer or your veterinarian. If a mat has caused any skin irritation, take your dog to your veterinarian so that the appropriate treatment can be prescribed.

"When tangles are severe or extensive, it is strongly recommended that you seek professional care from a dog groomer or your veterinarian."

If you are planning on bathing your dog, make sure that you brush out as many burrs or tangles from the coat BEFORE bathing since tangles can become impossible to remove after a bath!

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 typically need to be bathed about every six to eight weeks. Dogs with a heavy undercoat will benefit from bathing in the spring or fall when they undergo their seasonal shedding.

How often your dog needs to be bathed will vary with age, lifestyle, hair coat type, and underlying health. If you have a young puppy 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.

If you find that your dog requires frequent bathing, discuss this with your veterinarian, who may recommend using a special shampoo, conditioning rinse, or 'dry shampoo' to prevent skin problems associated with the repeated baths.

Can I use baby shampoo?

No. Dogs should only be bathed with shampoo 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. A hypoallergenic shampoo without added perfumes is the best choice for regular bathing.

How should I bathe my dog?

You should always bathe your dog in warm water, partly for the comfort of the dog and partially because shampoos clean more effectively in warm water. Depending on your dog's size, you may find it convenient to bathe him in the laundry tub, bathtub, or even in a walk-in shower stall. The common habit of washing dogs under the garden hose, using cold water, is not recommended and is often why dogs dislike being bathed.

After you have applied the shampoo, work it through the entire coat to remove all dirt and debris. Some owners of dogs with particularly thick coats find it best to dilute the shampoo in some water, so it is easier to apply and rinse out. For routine bathing, you can rinse the shampoo out right away, but if you are using a medicated shampoo, it must sit on the coat for 5-10 minutes before being rinsed out (for more information on bathing your dog with medicated shampoo, see handout "How to Bathe Dogs with Medicated Shampoo"). Make sure you read the instructions on the shampoo label for the specific product you are using or follow your veterinarian's directions if you use a medicated shampoo.

Once the shampoo has done its job, it must be thoroughly rinsed out. For best results, a conditioning product could be applied afterward to restore any lost moisture to the skin and minimize the development of dandruff after the bath.

Should I have my long-haired dog shaved down in the summer?

Depending on the circumstances, dogs with long hair may be more comfortable if their coat is cut short for the summer. If you do cut your dog’s haircoat, it is important to leave at least 1” (2.5 cm) of haircoat on your dog to avoid sunburn or sun damage to the skin. Speak to your groomer or veterinarian to determine what is best for your dog’s haircoat and comfort. Be aware that a rare complication called ‘post-clipping alopecia’ may occur, especially in plush-coated breeds like Huskies and Pomeranians. This is a condition that results in delayed hair regrowth for up to two years.

Are there any final recommendations?

Your take-home message is that your dog’s general coat appearance may be the first indicator of health problems. A healthy animal will not shed excessively and will have a shiny coat 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.

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