Hair of the dog

By Marti Benson

We have three animals. Two of them eat, bark, and chase squirrels. The third one— although it shares DNA with our beloved mutts—is pesky, sneaky, and hides under the bed even when my husband isn’t watching football on television. We call it The Gray Dog.

This beast’s unavoidable presence calls for vigilance with the vacuum, and sharp eyes when serving meals. Have you ever watched aghast as your mother-in-law waves goodbye with Fido’s fluff adorning her velvet skirt? Inwardly cringed as Trixie’s tresses become the secret ingredient in the fancy dessert you’re serving? This beast is dog hair.

Upkeep aside, a dog’s coat is actually quite a marvel. Coats can vary wildly in color, texture and pattern; even in volume. Most dogs have three types of hair—ground hairs (or undercoat), guard hairs, and whiskers. Ground hairs lie closest to the dog’s skin, and act primarily as insulation. These hairs grow in a cluster from a single follicle, and are generally downy. Guard hairs are coarser, thicker in diameter and longer than the undercoat.

These sentinels are considered the dog’s primary coat. They provide an additional layer of insulation and protect the skin from superficial injuries. Whiskers are the hairs that grow from deeply-rooted follicles in a dog’s muzzle and eyelids. They are sensory structures—or “feelers”—that alert a dog when something gets too close to its eyes or face.

Shedding occurs when a dog’s fur reaches a genetically determined length. At that point, it stops growing and falls out. Although it happens year round, shedding is more evident during changes in the length of sunlight and environmental temperature. When days are longer and warmer, shedding allows a lighter undercoat to grow in, and helps a dog stay cooler. As temperatures drop and days become shorter, the undercoat sheds again, to make room for a thicker undercoat.

This winter coat traps the air warmed by the dog’s body, and keeps it close to the skin. Shedding can also occur when a female dog comes out of heat or gives birth, or after a dog has had anesthesia. Excessive shedding—especially when accompanied by a dull or poor coat, itching or skin irritation—could signal a health problem, and may require a consult with your vet.

All dogs shed, although there are breeds that shed less than others. Shedding is a completely natural—and necessary—process. Frequent bathing may help, but is not a solution. Shaving certainly gets the fur off—but it, also, may leave a dog uncomfortable and unprotected from the cold in the winter, or susceptible to sunburn in the summer. The best way to minimize shedding is to feed your dog a healthy diet, and give him or her a gentle brushing daily.

As long as we are lucky enough to have dogs, we will always have The Gray Dog. At least it won’t tip the garbage, eat the contents, and need out at 3 a.m. … in the rain.

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