Reprint from the Tri-County News, Feb. 26, 2009.
It makes absolutely no sense, right? Of all the times to enjoy the thickest, warmest coat possible, why do our pets' bodies drop so much hair all of a sudden in the middle of winter? Pet shedding is one of the big draw-backs to having house pets, as they make quick work of what once was nice furniture, carpeting, and clothing, annoyingly covering everything with a layer of themselves. My wife makes daily threats that if I don't vacuum more often, the dogs and cats and I will be living in the garage. Thinking I was clever, I bought a Roomba® so I can vacuum when I'm not home.
Indeed, there is a multimillion- dollar industry capitalizing on this biological phenomenon with our pets, including vacuum cleaners that are supposedly designed for pet hair, an infinite array of pet brushes (my favorite: The Furminator®), lint rollers, anti-shedding shampoos, specially formulated foods and dietary supplements. Some pets are even marketed and chosen, based on their minimal-shedding reputation. The fact is that shedding is in most cases normal and healthy. There can, however, be some light cast upon the reasons for shedding and the excessiveness of it at certain times of the year.
Starting with the basic anatomy, pet hair follicles actually contain several hairs: the longer, courser main hair, and several shorter, softer hairs. All of these hairs have a life-cycle consisting of growing, transitional, and resting phases, and when they die they are replaced. The main factors affecting this cycle are temperature, photoperiod (length of daylight), hormones, and nutrition. As we've all seen, our pets get thicker coats in the winter, mainly consisting of more of the shorter, softer hairs making up the "undercoat." Once it gets cold, undercoat production kicks into high gear to provide warmth, then at the end of those hairs' life cycle, there is a mass die-off, or shedding. If it is still cold out with shorter days like it is now, the body will still produce a thick undercoat, and there will be another massive shedding episode later in the spring when the new hairs' life cycle ends. Basically, the hair's life cycle does not match exactly the length of the cold season, so winter shedding is more a reflection of how long an individual hair lives than it is a sign spring is coming. By this summer when it is warm and the days are long, those follicles might not have many undercoat hairs at all.
Other causes of shedding such as hormones, nutrition, infection, or allergy can be alleviated to some degree with things other than vacuum cleaners and brushes. Ever notice your pet sheds an enormous amount in the car or at the vet's office? Stress causes increases in the hormone cortisol, and one of the manifestations is hair falling out. Pregnant dogs will lose some hair because of hormonal changes pertaining to pregnancy and lactation. Thyroid and adrenal hormonal imbalances are respon-sible for hair loss in affected pets as well. Decreasing stress in our pets can help this, and if your female is not going to be a breeding animal, spaying is always a good idea. Feeding premium foods containing the proper vitamins, minerals, and omega fatty acid ratio can be very rewarding in terms of coat quality. "You get what you pay for" has never applied to anything better than pet food. Fatty acid/vitamin/mineral supplements are available and can help with shedding and general coat quality, but you should consult with us prior to starting these. Skin infections, whether bacterial, fungal, or parasitic, and allergies are common in pets, and all can certainly cause hair loss. These conditions are often accompanied by itchiness and various lesions on the skin, and definitely need an examination to properly diagnose and treat.
So for now, rather than moving into the garage, I will join the ranks of those finding themselves vacuuming daily (or at least turning on the Roomba), burning through lint rollers, and wondering if a $40 pet brush really could be that good, and hopefully summer will get here soon.