WEEKEND WEB: A time for fur coats and woolly hats

ANIMAL MAGIC: A new weekly column from Alder Veterinary Practice, of Spalding and Bourne

Walking the dog on Sunday morning, the temperature was two degrees but with the wind chill it felt more like minus fifteen.

Despite all this, my dog still decided to cool down by swimming in the river. She swam for five minutes, came out, shook herself dry and carried on without a single shiver. How I envied her fur coat, a wonder of insulation and protection.

Our dogs have three types of hair that make up the fur. Outer guard hairs are coarse and form a water proof protection for the deeper layers.

The waterproofing comes from oils produced in glands attached to each hair follicle. Under the guard hairs are the soft downy hairs that trap air next to the skin and act as an insulation. Humans have one hair per follicle, but dogs have several hairs per follicle, giving a very dense coat.

A common question asked is why dogs shed so much hair without going bald. The trigger for losing the dense winter downy hair is the increase in daylight length in spring.

Outdoor dogs have very thick fur and when curled up covering their noses with their tails, these dogs keep very warm.

Northern breeds have hairy feet to protect from the ice though Spaniels can often get feet impacted with snow and are better clipped off.

Our pets that live indoors lose this undercoat most of the time, to prevent them overheating. This produces the tumbleweed that floats around the house and under the furniture, clogging the hoover.

Those of you with long haired dogs know how thickly it comes out and the undercoat of breeds such as Chow chows, Huskies and St Bernards can be spun and knitted into jumpers.

The final type of hair makes up the whiskers. These specialised hairs are very sensitive to touch and give each dog extra information of their environment, so they should never be clipped.

Of course, some breeds shed very little or no hair such as poodles and their crosses, Shih Tzus and Havanese have little undercoat and these are good for owners with allergies to dog fur.

Coat condition often reflects the health of your dog. Itchiness, rashes and spots could mean flea infestation, bacterial infection or allergies. Various skin sampling, such as scrapes and swabs can be used to diagnose the superficial diseases although biopsies are also a common investigative tool. Food sensitivity is being recognised more and more as causing skin problems and food companies have responded by producing hypoallergenic diets and grain-free foods.

Most owners have heard of ringworm, a fungal infection of the skin, but the most common fungal infection is caused by a yeast which invades the skin and the ears leading to a smelly greasy coat.

Hormonal disease, such as an underactive thyroid, can cause thinning of the hair but also affects other organs too.

Blood tests are required to diagnose these internal conditions. Most skin conditions will respond well to treatment but there are some that are long term problems and I’ll discuss these later in the year.

Our dogs’ fur is a beautiful complex part of our pets and, when healthy, does its job to perfection, even when taking a swim on a cold winters day.

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