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A Dog's Coat Plays An Important Role In Its Overall Health

Updated on January 1, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.

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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.

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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.

High quality dog food.
High quality dog food. | Source

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.

Not a good quality dog food.
Not a good quality dog food. | Source

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

Ingredients:
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.

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.

WHERE DO YOU STAND ON THE ISSUE OF SHAVING YOUR DOG'S COAT?

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Mary, great to see you. I just read your well written hub on Baby's blindness. I'm sorry you both are going through this. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad you're feeding a quality grain-free kibble...there are a number of good ones to choose from. In my experience, wheat and soy seem to irritate the skin of a lot of dogs. Maybe that's why there are so many wheat free products on the market now. If they're wheat free, you can pretty much rest assured they don't use soy or other problematic grains, either. I'm always recommending wheat-free foods and treats, and it seems to help a lot. Thanks for the votes and shares!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 2 years ago from Florida

      I spent a fortune with Baby, my Min. Schnauzer, for her itching problem. I researched and found some dogs are sensitive to gluten. I mentioned this to my vet, and he just pooed pooed the whole idea.

      I took her off commercial dog food, and just gave her chicken and rice with some Salmon oil on it. She improved a lot.

      I still feed her chicken, but now I mix some some good grain free kebbles in with it.

      Baby has beautiful hair. I would never shave her hair!

      Voted this UP, etc. and shared.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Thanks for the vote, peachpurple, and thanks for stopping by. Food and treats can certainly affect their skin and coat. The good ones support the skin, but the bad ones irritate it.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i thought that do's biscuit and food are the best for their silky coat, thanks for the information, voted up

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 3 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      It wouldn't necessarily have taken "just the right" food, To Start Again, just a high quality food . There are several on the market, and any one of them likely would have done the trick. But you've seen the difference a food can make.

      One can only imagine the relief the dog feels in not having to gnaw at its feet anymore. We know the relief we humans get in not having to deal with the gas!

      You also have to be aware of the treats she gets. Treats containing wheat and soy can work against a high quality food. And watch the weight gain because, not only will she lose her girlish figure, obesity comes with it's own entourage of health issues.

      Absent a metabolic disorder, about the only way she can gain weight is to be overfed, so you may be giving her too much food. Depending upon the foods you were using and now use, there could be a 30% to 50% difference in feeding recommendations.

      For every cup of a grocery brand of food, you'd feed 1/2 to 2/3 of a cup of one of the holisitic foods. So, overall, you'd see little change in your pet food budget. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • To Start Again profile image

      Selina Kyle 3 years ago

      We recently started our 6 year old Boxer on a new brand of food and a powdered supplement a couple times a month and the difference it has made in her coat is astounding! We had trouble finding just the right food for her as she tends to have rather bad gas. She struggles with a skin allergy as well that would make her bite at and chew on her feet. The supplement has helped tremendously with the itching and the new food (or a combination of the two) has made her fur so soft. It took about a month or a little less for the changes to have a noticeable effect. She's put on a few pounds, too so she must be enjoying it!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Adrienne, great to have you comment...especially pleased to have you validate my position on shaving dogs for the summer. I've written about your point, that it's counter-productive, because it exposes them to elements that can be problematic.

      I'll mention it in my annual "problems of summer" newspaper column and always hear from the folks who do it and "just know" that their dog appreciates it.

      My neighbor has a lab/poodle mix...her "designer" labradoodle, and she has him shaved for the summer. He's always indoors (they have central air), except for their walks, which only underscores the needlessness of shaving him. Actually, I think I'll go back in and add it to the hub. Thanks for stopping by, commenting and voting. Regards, Bob

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

      Great tips! Many owners often shave their dogs in the summer thinking it will help them deal with heat, but that's counterproductive. Voted up and useful!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi, AlisonRuth, I appreciate your taking the time to comment. I hope you found the hub helpful. Thanks, again, for stopping by.

      Hello tillsontitan, nice to see you again. The mange mite is a tough little bug(ger) to get rid of...it seems to take forever. Actually, I don't think they're bugs...I think they're arachnids. Good luck in dealing with it in any event.

      I don't know how important it is with fish oil, but most human supplements aren't dosed for pets. I'm not sure if there's any advantage to a human fish oil capsule over one that's labeled for dogs...I doubt there is...but perhaps the dosage could be meaningful to the pancreas of a small dog.

      Skin problem are tough, though. You go from summer's grasses and pollens to winter's cold, dry air. There isn't much of a break.

      Thanks for stopping by, commenting, and voting.

      Regards,

      Bob

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      Very good information. I have a Min Pin and dry skin is his middle name. I give him "human" fish oil capsules and Wellness brand food. He has allergies in the summer and this year to make our life interesting he has mange. But, I digress.

      Your information is spot on and more people need to pay attention to the ingredients in their dog's food.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • AlisonRuth profile image

      Alison 4 years ago from USA

      Nice hub go info