Week Eight: Healthy Grooming

As we finish our 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog Program, we'll turn our attention to your pet's grooming needs. It may seem odd to discuss grooming your pet in a book about pet health. Yet, paying attention to your dog's coat, skin, ears and nails is very important to maintaining a healthy pet. Why?

Remember that, just as with people, the skin and hair make up the largest organ of your pet's body. While most owners are more concerned with external disease (parasites and tumors) seen on the skin or hair, internal disease such as liver disease, adrenal gland disease or thyroid gland disease often shows itself through abnormal skin and hair. It is vital to constantly examine and groom your pet to allow for early detection of problems that may occur inside as well as outside your dog's body.

Many of the most common diseases my colleagues and I treat, such as allergies, mange, bacterial and fungal hair follicle infections and external ear infections (technically called otitis externa) are related to skin and ear problems. Regular grooming and cleaning of the skin and ears decreases the chance of problems with these areas of the body.

Bathing and Brushing
While many breeds may not need regular professional grooming and clipping, all dogs need regular bathing and brushing. A regular routine of bathing and brushing removes dead skin and hair and encourages normalization of the skin and hair growth cycles.

In general, weekly bathing will encourage a healthy coat and skin, reduce "doggie odors" and teach your dog to accept bathing. You should brush your dog at least once a week. To prevent mats from forming, it's a good idea to brush longhaired breeds every day. If your dog spends a lot of time outdoors, either playing and getting into all kinds of stuff that smells great to dogs but foul to us, or hunting and getting lots of burs, briars, weeds and so on in his coat, you'll need to bathe and brush more often than my once-a-week baseline. And any skunk encounters call for immediate action!

Okay, I've convinced you to bathe your dog, right? But why bother with grooming? One word: mats. Ungroomed medium-haired and longhaired dogs can easily develop matted hair. Mats can be uncomfortable, harbor external parasites, and actually cause destruction of the skin, and sores if they become wet. If your dog's constantly scratching matted areas, you can bet the mats are pulled and he's feeling miserable and may even be bruised from the pull of the mats when he tries to move. Help him be comfortable and parasite-free by brushing him often. You can use any type of dog brush or comb. There are many varieties, and I always encourage my clients to try several to see which kind they and their dogs like best. It's important that both of you be comfortable with the brush, because the whole point is to brush often!

If your dog has mats and you want to try to remove them yourself, you can carefully clip them off using blunt-nosed scissors or a grooming shaver with a number 40 blade. However, it's best to have your doctor or groomer demonstrate this to you -- you'll need to be really careful to avoid cutting your dog's skin. I've found that most owners aren't comfortable de-matting their dogs, and some dogs will resist efforts to de-mat them (especially if the mats are really painful) and need sedation or even anesthesia to have their mats cut out. If you don't want to remove mats yourself, your veterinarian or groomer can do it for you. Or better still, keep brushing your dog regularly so he won't have mats in the first place!

If you're not used to brushing your dog, you may wonder where to start. Here's what I do: I prefer to brush my dog Rita's body first to get her comfortable. I start along her spine and brush down toward her legs. I tackle the inner legs and abdomen after I've finished the general body brushing. Then I use a comb to comb out the "feathering" on her legs. Finally, I use the same grooming comb to comb out the fur on the outer surfaces of the ears.

Rita is Cavalier King Charles spaniel, so she has different grooming needs than a shorter-haired breed such as a Labrador retriever. Labs and other short-haired breeds don't have the long, silky fur known as feathering on the backs of their legs, so they can just be brushed out and don't usually need combing.

Learn about paw care, nail trimming, ear cleaning, dental care and much more in 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog, by Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M.

Reprinted from 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog: An Easy-to-Follow Program for the Life of Your Dog
© 2003 by Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.

Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M., is a holistic veterinarian and nationally recognized expert on integrative medicine for animals. He is the author of several books, including The Allergy Solution for Dogs, The Arthritis Solution for Dogs and the award-winning Natural Health Bible for Dogs and Cats.

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