Dog hair grows in cycles. Each follicle has a period of rapid growth (the anagen phase), followed by slower growth and then a resting phase (the catagen phase). During the resting phase, mature hair remains in the follicles and eventually detaches at the base. When the dog sheds her coat (the telogen phase), a young hair pushes out the old hair and the cycle begins anew. The average dog takes about four months to grow a coat, but there are individual and breed variations. The Afghan Hound, for example, grows her coat in about 18 months.
Many people assume that temperature changes govern when a dog sheds her coat. In fact, the seasonal length of daylight exerts the major influence. Longer periods of daylight in spring activate a shedding process that lasts four to six weeks. In fall, as the daylight hours grow shorter, many dogs may again shed their coat. Sensitivity to ambient light is most pronounced in dogs who live outdoors. Dogs who live primarily indoors are exposed to artificial light and a rather fixed photoperiod. These dogs may shed and grow new coats all year long.
Some breeds, such as Poodles, Bedlington Terriers, and Kerry Blue Terriers, have what is called a nonshedding curly coat. These breeds do not shed loose hair into your house. Instead, their loose hair tends to collect into mats that remain on the body. Dogs with corded coats, such as the Puli and Komondor, have similar coats, but their hair works itself into cords.
Some dogs have a double coat comprised of long, coarse outer guard hairs and a soft, fine, wooly undercoat. When a dog with a double coat begins to shed, the appearance of the coat can be quite alarming. The undercoat is shed in a mosaic or patchy fashion, giving the dog a moth-eaten appearance that may suggest a skin disease.
When shedding begins, remove as much of the irritating dead hair as possible by daily brushing. In breeds with a thick double coat, a bath will loosen the dead hair and make it easier to remove. Always brush out a dog before bathing to help prevent the formation of mats.
Grooming at regular intervals will keep your dog's coat and skin in good condition and prevent many problems. Even hairless breeds require some grooming for healthy skin. Establish a grooming schedule during puppyhood and stick to it throughout the dog's life. Initially, keep the sessions brief and make grooming a pleasurable experience. If the puppy grows to dislike the basic grooming routine, a simple procedure will become most difficult.
It is important that the bristles on the brush and the teeth on the comb be the right length for the dog's coat. For example, if the coat is thick and the bristles and teeth are too short, the top coat may look smooth for a time but the undercoat will mat. Eventually the top coat becomes involved and the dog may have to be shaved. On the other hand, if the dog has a thin undercoat, grooming with tools that have long bristles and teeth can scratch and injure the skin.
Mats are solid clumps of fur that can form anywhere on the body but are usually found behind the ears, in the folds of the armpits, around the anus, on the backs of the thighs, in the groin area, and between the toes. Mats are evidence of neglected grooming or grooming with the wrong tools. Dogs with softer hair are more prone to develop mats.
To remove mats, first saturate the clumps of hair with coat conditioner for several minutes. This rehydrates the hair and closes the barbs. Then separate as much of the mat as you can with your fingers.
Some mats can be removed with the tip of a comb. However, most require the use of scissors, an electric clipper, or a mat splitter. Cutting into mats with scissors must be done with extreme care, because a dog's skin is not attached to the underlying muscle and tents up as the mat is pulled. Do not slide the scissors beneath the mat and attempt to remove it flush with the skin. You will almost certainly remove a piece of skin. When possible, slide a comb beneath the mat as a barrier between the scissors and the skin. Then hold the scissors perpendicular to the comb and carefully snip into the fur ball in narrow strips. Similar care must be taken with electric clippers. Tease the mat out gently. After the mat has been removed, comb out residual snarls.
This technique also works for removing burdocks and tangled plant material. Nonstick cooking sprays may help to ease the plant material out of the hair without cutting any coat.
To remove gum, put an ice cube on the gum first, then try to slide it off. If that doesn't work, you will need to carefully cut it out.
This article is excerpted from “Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.