All about dog hair: Part One

By Tracie Korol

Dave lived to shed. When he came to live with me he was a bony, almost hairless farm mongrel. His first year was spent chained in front of a mobile home in rural Mt. Gilead, Ohio. He came to me in a clandestine-adoption arrangement after an over-eager shelter volunteer liberated him. He was, technically, a “hot” dog.

Within a couple months, with proper care, Dave became a 35-lb farm mongrel with a lush coat somewhat like a German shepherd’s but with terrier accents. He grew a beard, eyebrows, head crest and what I call Who-feet (fuzzy extensions of toe-hair that required constant trimming to keep him from looking like a Seuss character). As his coat began to fill in, it also began to fall out. There was Dave-hair on my clothes, on the furniture, smoldering in candle flames and even frozen like ancient artifacts, in the ice cubes.

To stay ahead of the constant rain of hair, I brushed Dave every day, my reward being kitten-sized wads. Once, I trimmed him in a traditional schnauzer-buzz thinking that would cut down on the shed. Instead, he dumped short hair till his coat returned, plus he was mortified to be seen in public for the duration. My son, fascinated with fly-fishing at the time, took to tying flies with Dave hair, at the very least putting it to good use. It took until Dave was middle-aged for me to discover the trick to reducing the hair-load: it was all about the food.

All dogs shed and re-grow hair at varying rates. Dogs that live indoors, with limited exposure to natural light or cold/hot temperatures, tend to shed in a more or less continuous fashion. Dogs in colder climates are more likely to shed for several weeks in the spring and fall in preparation for seasonal temperature variations. During these cycles the hair coat will change in appearance and texture but the absolute numbers of hair follicles and hair do not.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a dog that does not shed; there are only dogs that shed a lot less.  In all species, hair shafts, produced by hair follicles eventually die and fall out to be replaced when new hair regrows.  Humans have one hair to each follicle; dogs can have as many as 25. Human hair spends most of its life cycle in the growing, or anagen stage. Poodles have a similar anagen cycle like ours — they require regular haircuts, but eventually the hair does fall out.

Most dogs, though, have hair that spends time in the resting or telogen cycle. The anagen cycle is short, only long enough to achieve a breed signature coat. Then the hair cycles into a holding pattern and may remain there for prolonged periods of time. Hair stays tightly bound into the follicle and will not readily fall out or be pulled out.  Nordic breeds will have telegen cycles that may last for years. Thankfully, hairs are not all in the same phase at the same time so our dogs never become totally bald. Stresses such as anesthesia, pregnancy or certain medications can put most of the follicles into a resting phase. Two or three months after a stressful event, when follicles reactivate, abnormal shedding results.

The so-called low-shedding breeds include most terriers, Poodles, Shih-tzus, Bichons, Bouviers and the Mexican Hairless, the Xoloitzcuintli (sort of like petting a hot purse). Daily brushing of the low-shedders keeps the coat clean and removes dead hairs. The big shedders have thick, double coats but do not necessarily require more grooming than the light shedders. The trick is to brush every day. Heavy shedders include the Malamutes, Australian Shepherds, Collies, German Shepherds, Poms, Sammies, Akitas, Newfies, Corgis, Huskies and Great Pyrenees. My afternoon project, in fact, is to finally vacuum Corgi out of my car.

A healthy diet that fulfills a dog’s nutritional needs cuts excessive shedding in  half. Look at it this way: if you only ate Cheetos, your hair would fall out, too. Clean proteins, whole grains and lots of fruit and veggies are the easiest track to a less-haired house. Add extra oils — a teaspoon or two of olive or flaxseed oil or, even easier, chuck a sardine into his bowl once or twice a week. Tell your dog it’s Omega-6 on the hoof.

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