#49 – Coat Condition: What Your Dog’s Coat Says About His Health

by | Jul 22, 2022 | Dog & Puppy Management

There is no better way to enjoy a movie than with popcorn on one side and your dog laying on the other, his head on your lap, giving you two hours to feel that luscious coat. It’s a therapy for me to run my hands over a dog’s coat, almost a hidden life secret.

As breeders we are constantly looking at our dogs with a critical eye, not in an effort to criticize them, but as a way to constantly evaluate their current status and areas of improvement. One of the main things I evaluate, with nearly every dog I see, is coat condition.

Most of the time you can assess a great deal about a dog just by looking at their coat. Running your fingers through it and taking a little whiff will give you even more information. I will tell you though, you’ll want to cultivate a subtle way to sniff dog coats as people tend to look at you funny when you do that.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of taking any cold weather injury prevention courses—as I was lucky to receive EVERY year while I served in the Army—you’ll recall that when the body is losing its ability to maintain warmth it will reduce blood flow to extremities, such as fingers and toes. This is why people who get frostbite generally get it on these parts rather than their stomach or other centrally located body part. The body knows that it needs to prioritize blood flow to the essentials, like the heart and lungs, thereby keeping these parts warm and functioning. It also knows that fingers, although helpful, are non essential for survival. The body is capable of prioritizing where its resources should go, such as water, nutrition, and blood circulation to name a few.

The skin and coat of your dog is about the least essential part of the dog. It can survive without a coat. The body won’t waste precious resources it needs for its vital organs on its coat if it doesn’t have them to spare, therefore, we can conclude that if the coat is healthy, the rest of the dog is probably doing okay, too.

Just the same, if something is going wrong with your dog’s health often one of the first warning signs will be a change in coat condition.

A dog’s coat should be soft and shiny, nearly no matter the breed. Even wired-hair dogs will have luscious curls when their coat and body are healthy.

Dull Coat

Sometimes the coat is dull, this can simply be because the coat is dirty from dirt. Here at the ranch, we have that semi-red dirt that is like a powder. It covers the dogs and gives them a dull appearance, however, when the light shines on them, their coat is still shiny. To get clarification if your dog’s coat is dull or dirty, take a few minutes and give them a bath.

If the coat is still dull after washing, look at the ends of the hair, healthy hair will have a finite end and will lay flat for shorthaired dogs. Dogs with longer hair will look like they have split ends. If you look at Huskies, or other breeds with undercoats, the outer coat (the one that protects and sheds water) can be evaluated like shorthaired dogs: the thick, almost waxy, hair will come to a simple point, inline with the rest of the hair shaft. The undercoat of these dogs will shed excessively and often matte if it is unhealthy—just note, there are generally two times of year that seasonal changes will cause an undercoat to “blow;” generally when the dog sheds its undercoat—and the more hair the dog has—the more scraggly it will look.

Dull coat is often the result of either poor general nutrition, over bathing with harsh shampoos, or anemia.

The easiest thing to help prevent a dull coat is to keep your dog on a quality dog food. There are many options that are affordable when taking in the entire picture. I have found that a good dog food is worth the slight increase in cost because of all the issues it prevents. Consider it like putting your electric bill on the “budget plan” where you pay the same each month since the electric company amortized the cost over the year, you may pay more in the months when the AC isn’t on, but you are never hit with a monster bill out of the blue because of a change in the weather. It’s the same with dog food, you won’t be wasting money trying to treat symptoms because your dog gets what he needs in the food—at the same cost—each month.

Sometimes we create the problem by doing things we think will help, such as over bathing our dogs. Often we use harsher shampoos on our dogs to remove oils and build up or in an effort to sanitize a dog that just came out of the pond. However, think if you used a clarifying shampoo every day, completely removing all the oils on your hair and scalp, your hair would look like straw. The same can happen with a dog’s coat.

Anemia can be more difficult to treat in dogs. Anemia, low red-blood cell count, can be caused by many things beyond trauma or injury, most often in dogs it is caused by parasites. Fleas can cause enough blood loss to induce anemia and this can dull the coat. The same is true for internal parasites, like round worms, hook worms, or even giardia. In my experience I have seen a puppy’s coat go from healthy-and-lush to dull-and-strung-out in about 48 hours, but remember, the immature immune system of puppies lends to more severe consequences on a much swifter time frame.

The goal of treating an anemia-induced dull coat is to correct the source of the anemia. Through deworming procedures, flea treatments, or a combination. The best solution is to determine the cause of the anemia prior to treatment. Although a routine deworming schedule is often a convenient option for hunting dog owners—since they are constantly exposed to grunge in the environment like dirty pond water, dead wildlife they bring back to their owners, and just being out in the elements in general, subject to new dirt, wildlife feces, etc.

The good news is that despite the cause of a dull coat, most dogs can recover to a shiny, healthy coat in 14-30 days. I wish my hair would do that.

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Oily Coat

Have you ever pet a dog and then immediately decided you needed to wash your hands because it looked like they were white with chalk and felt greasy? This is from overactive sebaceous glands (the glands at the base of the hair follicle that releases oil..the same glands that gave me wonderful acne in high school). Although there are many reasons for overactive sebaceous glands, I have found food quality to be the main contributor.

Dogs need a certain amount of fat to function, just like humans. The amount of fat will depend on the energy level and age of the dog. Generally speaking, younger, more active dogs need more fat than older, less active dogs. Animal fat is preferred over plant-based fats for dogs as it is more bioavailable than plant-based fat for energy purposes. This is why a dog food that uses corn oil or soybean oil will do less for your dog than one that contains chicken fat or salmon oil. You’ll notice for marketing purposes they will sometimes write “oil” instead of “fat”; salmon oil sounds like a supplement, while salmon fat would seem like a filler, but oil is fat and it is necessary.

As you know, not all fats are created equal. Each fat is made up of a unique combination of fatty acids. The different fatty acids are responsible for different functions in the body. Most people are familiar with omega-3s, these fatty acids are particularly helpful with the coat. This is why many dog foods use sunflower seed oil, it is high in omega-3s and is cheaper than salmon oil. Despite being plant-based, many dogs do very well with sunflower seed oil, although I wouldn’t rate it as the same quality as salmon oil.

Overactive sebaceous glands have been found to be related to low levels of omega-3s, often upping the intake of omega-3s can improve this problem. This is where you can buy fish oil supplements for dogs, however, again, for most dogs, a good quality dog food will have a high-enough amount of this to negate the need of a supplement.

Some recommend adding a fish oil supplement to the diet of nursing dogs since it helps them blow and regrow their coat; a process that is common for many dogs after whelping. I have found that blowing coat has been reduced in my dogs when they’re on a higher quality feed.

A thought on high quality feed. Many breeders tell me they don’t see a difference on cheaper foods or they’ll say, “I’m not having any problems on the food.” I would encourage you to evaluate the feed you’re feeding against even just this criteria. I’ve noticed easier pregnancies and whelpings with better dog food, I’ve seen healthier puppies, and moms that recover better, and I never fed a bad diet, but I did work to find one that works really well for my dogs. I don’t supplement my moms with anything extra either, they just eat a little more of the same dog food during gestation.

I’ll also note that I saw the biggest improvement with food on moms who were over 4 and their puppies. Poor quality feed will take its toll on dogs, and their puppies, but you often won’t feel that until the dogs are older, they have enough resources when they’re younger to compensate for poor diet (much like kids in high school), but that does catch up over time, and will happen faster when you’re whelping litters with them.

Complications with Oily Coats

A thick bed of oil and grease mixed with dead skin cells and protected by a coat of fur is one of the most welcoming locations for bacteria and fungus. It is warm, has plenty of food in the dead skin cells, and is water resistant.

If your dog already has an oily coat often you detect a change in odor when the bacteria or fungus starts to kick in. Some people refer to this as a “dog smell” but your dog does not have to smell like this.

If you find your dog in this situation I’ve found one of the best things you can do is wash him with a degreasing liquid soap, I use a liquid dish soap, like Dawn—think saving the ducks in an oil spill. This will manually remove the oil and grease and—if all goes well—the bacteria and fungus, too. Remember this treats the symptoms, but the actual problem that needs solving is why your dog’s coat was this way in the first place. Figure that out and you’re on your route to preventing the problem from occurring again.

Hair Loss and Mange

Hair loss can come in many forms, sometimes it’s from a scar, sometimes from shedding, sometimes it’s from laying down on a hard surface and a callus is developing, and then sometimes it’s from a parasite like mites. Mange is the common term for a mite infestation.

There are a few types of mange, the most common in younger dogs, demodectic mange, is not contagious. There is also sarcoptic mange, this is contagious.

Demodectic mange, also referred to as demodex, is a mite that all dogs carry, they are graciously given this mite at birth from their mothers. Although a little gross to think about, we all have mites on our skin, it’s part of the many things that live on us. When the body has lowered immunity, for any reason, these living organisms can take advantage and overpopulate. When younger dogs hit puberty, the immune system drops. This occurs differently for each breed, but for medium to large dogs it’s usually around 6-7 months or about half the age of sexual maturity for any breed. Demodex is generally characterized by small patches of hair loss on the dog that are localized. A small patch on the nose is common, around the eyes, where there are shorter hairs. I have also experienced this with dogs on their short ribs, on only one side, and it is also common on toes. Demodex will generally resolve itself in a matter of weeks as the hormones regulate and the dog’s immune system matures. If demodex does not correct itself in a few weeks or spreads beyond small, isolated areas, I would recommend seeing a vet, this can be a sign of a compromised immune system. I found that when I got a handle on the giardia in my kennel, I stopped seeing demodex.

Sarcoptic mange is less forgiving than demodectic mange. Sarcoptic mange is from a different type of mite that is not natural to the body. It burrows deep under the skin and generally starts on areas of the dog that are sparsely haired, such as behind the ears, the elbows and then abdomen. If you’ve ever seen a “mangy” coyote, you’re seeing sarcoptic mange. Without proper treatment it can take over the whole body. The dogs immune system can slow its progression, but rarely will it eradicate sarcoptic mange by itself, generally vet treatment is required. It is contagious and it is recommended that you quarantine the dog if this occurs.

Hopefully you’re lucky and never have to deal with the nasty sarcoptic mange, but know that consciously assessing your pup’s coat every time you pet him will help you notice any changes and give you a head start on correcting issues as soon as they rear their heads.

There’s also ringworm. I’ve found this to be less common, but I did have it with a litter once when the mom encountered feral cats. It resolved itself over a few weeks, but did look pretty funny. The patches of hairless started small and moved out in a ring. It took a few weeks for the puppies to show any rings after the encounter, about 3-4 weeks, and it grew and then resolved itself, going away in about 3-4 weeks without treatment. I think the only thing I put on it twice was a little lavender oil and MOOM topically. If you want the recipe for MOOM—which we usually use orally, you can learn all about it and grab the recipe. I would say my puppies had a mild case, they only had 2-3 rings on them each. The mom didn’t even have any symptoms. If it were more severe, it would’ve definitely been worth contacting a vet.

To recap, the things I evaluate when looking at the coat of my dogs—and lots of dogs I see—are if the coat is dull or shiny, is it oily, if so, does it smell or not? Don’t forget to craft 3 semi-believable reasons why you sniffed the dog. Lastly, note if they’re losing hair or have mange. This is by no means extensive, and I am not a groomer nor veterinarian, but it is helpful to train your brain to subconsciously notice if there are any issues, the sooner we notice, the better our ability to fix the problem without complications.

I hope this list helps you build these habits of evaluation with your dogs. I’ll be honest, I don’t even consciously think about these things until I notice something is off and then I work with it. So if it felt a little overwhelming, don’t worry, it becomes a habit.

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