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Mammals have hair.  As a matter of fact, all mammals have hair, including dogs, cats, people, and even 'hairless' animals such as whales.  Since hair dies and falls out, any animal with hair must shed.  Therefore, all mammals shed.  No matter what you read or who tells you that it is true, there is no such thing as a dog or cat that will not shed.  Now obviously, there is not much hair to shed on a hairless cat or dog, but if your pet is not one of these few animals, expect the hair that you see on your pet to come off.  This means that all other dogs, including those breeds listed as 'non-shedders', still shed.  Their hair just tends to form clumps which stay on the body, rather than ending up on your floor or couch.  These non-shedding dogs will require stripping, clipping, or other grooming procedures to keep their coats and skin healthy.
This fact is worth repeating.  All dogs with hair coats will lose their hair.  It will end up in your house, in your yard, on your dog brush, in the groomer's vacuum cleaner, or in mats or clumps on the dog, but it will not stay in the follicles of your dog's skin.  Understanding this can reduce a lot of the frustration that you feel when your best black pants are covered with white fur or you have to have the dog professionally clipped every six weeks. 

A basic understanding of hair growth may help you feel more comfortable with your pet's need to shed.  There are basically three phases of hair growth - the hair grows (anagen); then it stops growing, rests, and falls out (telogen).  In between there is a transition period called catagen.  As long as the hair grows, it keeps getting longer.  It grows to a genetically pre-determined length that is dependent on the breed of pet and the site on the body.  When the hair stops growing, it rests in the follicles for varying lengths of time.  The hairs are now called club hairs and can be pulled out of the follicles by brushing.  If not removed by mechanical means, these club hairs will eventually be shed out and the cycle will continue.

The good news is that hair growth and loss are not synchronized over the entire animal.  Instead, each hair is at a different stage of the cycle, randomly distributed everywhere on the body.  Basically, there is a mosaic of growth and loss occurring continually on a healthy pet.  This means that some hairs are growing while others are being lost and that your pet sheds constantly, every single day.  Therefore, your pet always has hair, yet always loses hair.  If all hair growth cycles were synchronized, dogs and cats would be covered with hair, then shed all their hair and be totally bald, then take months to regrow their coats.  Because different hairs are at different stages of growth and shedding at all times, your pets always have a hair coat to protect their bodies, and your house will always have pet hair to cover your rug and couch.

In addition to daily shedding, there are many factors that can increase shedding by causing a great number of hairs to stop growing and enter telogen (resting and falling out) at the same time.  Nutrition, hormones, poor overall health, illness, parasites, and other stresses can cause this problem and lead to massive shedding and a poor hair coat.  So an animal that is injured or ingests a toxin may shed immense amounts of hair several weeks later.  This is also the reason that pregnant dogs 'blow' their coats a few weeks after the puppies are born.  Additionally, this explains the hair loss related to hormonal changes that accompany a dog in heat, a cat with diabetes, and pets with diseases that affect the thyroid, the adrenal, and other glands.  Although poor nutrition may not lead to a massive die-off of hair and a blown coat, it will contribute to dry, brittle hairs that are easily broken off and lost.

In normal pets, you should also expect to see increased shedding twice yearly.  This is because the hair growth cycle is influenced by the length of day (the hours of daylight), the temperature, and other environmental factors.  Since the length of day is the most important factor effecting shedding, animals that can 'see' the actual amount of light each day are influenced the most by seasonal changes.  So the shedding of dogs kept outdoors is most affected by day length and there is an enormous loss of coat biannually.  The phenomenon is less noticeable in cats and dogs kept indoors(except Corgis), as they are exposed to the same amount of illumination all year round because of artificial lights.  However, even indoor pets will increase their shedding twice a year. 

(Corgis get these little tufts that actually can be pulled out easily) 

For most pets, increased shedding is noticed in the spring and in the fall.  This is in response to the lengthening and shortening hours of daylight, respectively.  The spring shed helps to get rid of the dead, heavy winter undercoat that is designed to protect the animal from the cold.  The autumn shed helps to clear out the finer summer hairs and makes room for the winter coat.  Interestingly, hair growth rate is greater in the summer than the winter and dogs actually have increased numbers of non-growing, resting hairs in their coats in the winter.  This hair acts as insulation to protect them from the cold and then is shed in the spring.

So if shedding is a fact of life, what can you do to help your pet and your house?  First and foremost, keeping your pet and its coat healthy will reduce the amount of unwanted, shed hairs.  The skin and coat are external indications of your pet's internal health. A healthy pet has a shiny, healthy coat that only sheds as nature (and genetics) intended.  An unhealthy pet has brittle, easily damaged hairs that die and fall out rapidly.  So pay attention to the entire pet, not just its hair.  This means that preventive health care, proper vaccination, proper exercise, and attention to subtle changes that may signal diseases are critical for a healthy hair coat.  And since hair reflects nourishment, a pet must be fed a diet that meets it nutritional requirements and supplies necessary protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals.  These requirements may vary by pet, and supplements may be needed in addition to the pet's daily ration.  Some animals need zinc, others need vitamins, and some require additional fatty acids to keep their coats and skin healthy. 

Next, any changes in your pet's hair or skin require examination and may signal the need for a trip to the veterinarian.  Some hair losses are not treatable and include inherited genetic problems that result in sparse, thin coats or naked areas.  Some, such as autoimmune troubles, allergies, and certain hormonal diseases, may be controlled but not totally eliminated.  And many others problems, including internal and external parasites, bacteria, fungi, yeast, and some infectious diseases, can be identified and cured with proper treatment.  

Finally, pets should be brushed.  But if shedding is normal and natural, why bother to brush the hairs?  The answer is that brushing is a necessity for a healthy coat and a healthy pet.  Dead hairs may not shed out in a timely manner and need to be removed by brushing.  If allowed to mat against the skin, the dead hairs pull against the skin and make the pet uncomfortable.  The mats also provide a perfect hiding place for fleas and other parasites and a breeding ground for organisms such as bacteria and yeast.  These problems make the dog itchy and miserable.  This can lead to biting and chewing of the skin and result in areas of moist dermatitis.  If left untreated, these infections can lead to a general lack of well-being and systemic illness.  Additionally, there is the added benefit that brushed pets look better than their un-brushed counterparts.  So pets need to be brushed. 

For owners of healthy dogs with healthy coats, shedding is simply a management issue.  The goal is to control when and where the hair is shed.  The number one management tool to control shedding is a brush.  It is easy to understand that the more the pet is brushed, the more hair ends up in the brush and the less there is on the floor and furniture.  So take control of shedding by making time to brush your pet.  Instead of looking at brushing as a chore, regard it as a few minutes each day to slow down and bond with your pets.  Most pets really enjoy brushing and can be brushed on a daily basis.  Pick the proper tools for your pet's coat and start the process as soon as your pet enters your household.  Keep training sessions short and pleasant, so that the pet always enjoys being groomed.  Daily brushing will prevent the big knots and mats that make the process painful and tedious, so aim for daily sessions.  Most pets will learn to love brushing and actually look forward to it. 

Many owners are amazed at the amount of hair their pets lose and worry that their pets shed excessively.  Do not worry if hair is removed every single time you pet or brush your pet.  Pets will continually lose hair and it will pull out with any mechanical drag on the follicles.  So every time you run your fingers through your dog's coat, pet the cat, or brush either of them, hair will fall out.  As long as they are healthy, the skin looks healthy, and there are no bald or 'moth-eaten' spots, your pets' continual shedding is most likely normal and should be dealt with by daily brushing.   Add in proper health care, a proper diet, supplements if needed, and a big vacuum cleaner, and your worries about shedding should be a thing of the past.                  


Dr. Jane Leon

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