A Dog's Coat Plays An Important Role In Its Overall Health
Everyone likes to see a soft shiny coat on their dog because, well, because it just looks healthy. But, it goes much deeper than just looks. A dog’s coat serves to protect his largest organ, and if it’s not healthy, its role as protector is compromised.
Whether hair or fur, it protects his skin (the body’s largest organ, man or beast) from the harmful rays of the sun, the chilling effects of the cold winter wind, summer’s stinging and biting insects, and potential cuts and abrasions while roaming through fields and woodlands.
A healthy coat enables the skin to better resist infection. When the skin is dry, it’s itchy, and dogs will scratch incessantly, sometimes resulting in what veterinarians refer to as self-trauma, that can lead to a secondary infection.
An unhealthy coat easily becomes dry and matted, which causes a persistent and painful pulling on the skin. It also inhibits the dog’s mobility and interferes with his ability to groom.
To help keep your dog’s skin and coat healthy, there are three basic weapons in your arsenal: a high quality diet, regular grooming, and supplementation when necessary.
A High Quality Diet
The marketplace abounds with pet food selections. Many are high quality, many are not. In the wild, the dog would hunt and consume animal protein and animal fat. Protein is necessary for the growth and maintenance of hair, indeed, keratin is the fibrous protein that makes up hair and nails…and also hooves and horns, for that matter. Our knee-jerk reaction to fat is usually a negative one. But fat enables the dog’s body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and it gives shine to the coat.
When provided with satisfactory amounts of high quality animal protein and fat, a dog’s coat will be soft, luxuriant and shiny.
Conversely, when the diet is lacking in quality protein and fat, the coat will be dull, dry and rough.
When selecting a dog food, read the ingredient panel and select one that puts a named-source meat as the first ingredient…such as chicken or lamb.
Avoid unspecified protein such as meat and bone meal or poultry by-product meal.
And speaking of meal, most folks think meal isn’t good. The opposite is true. Chicken meal, for example, has up to 400% more protein than chicken. Chicken is the clean combination of flesh and skin and contains about 80% water.
When used in dog or cat food, it is pulverized into slurry and delivered through pipes to the cooking unit where most of the water evaporates, leaving substantially less chicken than what "went into the pot."
Chicken meal is that same meat, but instead of pulverizing it into slurry, it's cooked in water until all the water is gone. Then the meat is baked until it crumbles into a protein-dense powder called chicken meal, with as much as four times the protein of chicken.
Do a little experiment the next time you’re food shopping. Look for a food that lists chicken as the first ingredient. Farther down the ingredient panel you’ll find something like chicken by-product meal or poultry bi-product meal. Here’s why:
By law, manufacturers are required to list ingredient in order of descending weight, and are allowed to weigh the ingredients with their water content prior to cooking. In a simplistic example, the company takes a pound of chicken, throws it in the pot with their other ingredients, and cooks it into dog food.
When it went into the pot, it was the predominant ingredient by weight, so it could be listed first. But, during the cooking process, the water evaporates. The chicken that went in as a pound comes out as about a third of a pound. Now they have to do something to get the protein level up to whatever is stated in the Guaranteed Analysis. Cue the chicken by-product meal.
Why not just use chicken meal as the first ingredient and be done with it? Money. Chicken and chicken by-product meal, together are satisfactory, but it’s a cheaper way of producing the food. When the chicken is immediately backed up by chicken meal it produces good quality protein yet still cuts production costs.
An exception to that example would be the holistic foods, which characteristically contain multiple protein sources anyway; and it could be in a combination of named-source meats and named-source meat meals. And they’ll also contain other quality ingredients aimed at specific organs and systems. For example, antioxidant-rich botanicals, probiotics for digestive health, glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health, etc.
Also look for foods with a balanced ratio of Omega 6 and 3 fatty acids. Some ingredients have both, others only one. For example flaxseed and canola oil have both, but sunflower oil has 6s but no 3s and fish oil has 3s but no 6s.
I’ve read articles from credible, professional sources that dismiss grain-free diets and deny that grains such as wheat contribute to dry skin. I’ve got over 20 years of retail pet food sales experience, and dealing with pet owners that beg to differ.
Although my experience is anecdotal, it’s undeniable. Customers who got their dogs off of grain-based diets and treats overwhelmingly saw improvements in skin and a drastic reduction in scratching. Many were able to take their dogs off steroids and supplements.
And in the past decade or so, we’ve seen an influx of wheat-free and grain-free treats come to the marketplace. Detractors will say, “That’s just marketing.” Supporters point out that they’re often a preferable alternative to steroids.
A Popular Low End Treat
Ground wheat, corn gluten meal, wheat flour, ground yellow corn, water, sugar, glycerin, soybean meal, meat, hydrogenated starch hydrolysate, bacon fat (preserved with BHA), salt, phosphoric acid, sorbic acid (a preservative), calcium propionate (a preservative), natural and artificial smoke flavors, added color (Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 1, Yellow 6), choline chloride.
But it’s not just the food. You have to consider treats. Some of the grocery brands are loaded with wheat. One heavily advertised grocery brand treat in particular has wheat as the first and third ingredients.
Then there are the table scraps…pizza crust, pasta, bagels, toast, English muffins, the last few nuggets of breakfast cereal…that many maintain contribute to dry skin. If you’re feeding a high quality diet, but also treats that are high in problematic grains such as wheat, you’ll often find that the negative effects of the grain trump the positive effects of the good food.
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Also be aware that fish oil can be a double edged sword. It’s a good ingredient because of its Omega 3 fatty acid, but it’s anonymous. Some fish species are preserved with the controversial preservative ethoxyquin.
If a pet food manufacturer uses fish oil that’s preserved with the substance, it isn’t required to be listed in the ingredient panel since the pet food manufacturer didn’t add the ethoxyquin to the fish oil. Most people feel more comfortable when the species of fish is identified, such as salmon oil.
Regular Brushing and Grooming
Regular brushing of the coat helps prevent mats and facilitates the distribution of the dog’s natural oils, creating a healthy, lustrous coat. Brushing also gives owners the opportunity to examine the skin for trouble spots and parasites such as fleas, ticks and mites.
And of course, frequent brushing translates into quality time with your dog. That being said, there’s also a lot to be said for bringing your dog to a professional groomer. The sidebar to the right links you to my hub that elaborates on the benefits of having your dog professionally groomed.
Supplements Are Helpful In Supporting The Skin
There’s no shortage of supplements that claim benefits to the skin and coat, and they’re often beneficial. But, they can’t cure allergies just as a good diet can’t. They can only support the skin.
More than 90% of the time a dog’s allergy is the body’s response to an inhaled or absorbed allergen (atopy, in vetspeak), not a food allergy. But…and your veterinarian may scoff at the notion…eliminating grains such as wheat, soy, sorghum and corn have been credited with lessening the intensity of the symptoms. I’ve seen it countless times in dealing with pet owners over a period that spans three decades in which dramatic advances in the quality of food and treats have occurred.
Absent an underlying health issue, most dogs on a diet of high quality food and treats will not require supplementation. If the skin and coat are in good condition, a supplement won’t make them any better.
A possible exception would be during the winter in cold weather regions. The air…both inside and outdoors…tends to be very dry. Sometimes even dogs fed quality food and treats will experience a seasonal dry skin condition. In those cases, a fatty acid supplement would probably be helpful.
To Shave or Not to Shave, That Is the Question
The sight of a dog panting on a hot summer day draws great sympathy from us, when actually he's generally in no more trouble than a perspiring human is, assuming both are sufficiently hydrated and not currently experiencing some medical emergency.
Because a panting dog appears to be in trouble, many dog owners have their dogs shaved for the warm summer months, but it's a practice that can do more harm than good. He won't suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke unless he's put into a dangerous situation, such as being left in a car with the windows cranked a bit...or left tied out in the yard without shade and water.
Aside from protecting the dog from the various elements mentioned earlier, the coat helps the dog thermal-regulate. His coat insulates him from the sun's heat and the winter's cold. Shaving him down exposes him to the heat and dangerous rays of the summer sun, and the chill of air conditioning.
I have a neighbor who has her labradoodle shaved for the summer. He's an indoor dog except for being walked a couple of times a day, and on hot days the walks are pretty much just a nature call. They have central air conditioning. The dog is a poster dog for not having his coat shaved off.
When planning the course of your dog's health care regimen...proper diet, wellness visits, current vaccinations, parasite control, etc...it would be wise to consider the importance of his coat and of keeping it in optimal condition.