Tips From a Vet: Skin & Coat

Healthy Skin and Coat

What is the largest organ in the body of your dog and cat?

The answer of course is the SKIN.

Most people don’t think too much about the skin and have never thought of the skin as an organ. What exactly is an organ? An organ is a group of tissues in a living organism that have been adapted to perform a specific function. We all commonly think of the eyes, heart, liver, kidneys, etc. as organs but usually leave out the skin. Without the skin, our pets wouldn’t have the great fur we love but they also would not be able to keep fluids inside their body, would not have any sense of touch, pain, itch, heat, and cold, would not have protection against the outside world and would not be able to regulate their body temperature…. All pretty important things!!

Let’s learn more basic information about the skin…

Depending on the species and age, the skin may be 12 to 24% of an animal’s body weight. The skin has 3 main layers: the epidermis or outer layer, the dermis or middle layer, and the subcutis or innermost layer.

Epidermis – It provides protection from foreign substances. The epidermis is constantly regenerating, and the rate of cell replacement is affected by nutrition, hormones, tissue factors, immune cells in the skin, and genetics. The epidermis also contains specialized immune cells to protect the body from invading organisms and injuries as well as specialized sensory cells associated with the whiskers and certain hair follicles that provide an improved sense of touch.

Dermis – The dermis supports and nourishes the epidermis and hair. It contains a network of blood vessels that supply the epidermis with nutrients. Blood vessels are also responsible for regulating skin and body temperature. This is where most of the sensory and motor nerves are located. There are also immune cells in the dermis that defend against infectious agents that pass through the epidermis.

Subcutis – It contains the subcutaneous fat and muscles. The twitch muscle is the major muscle immediately beneath the skin. The subcutaneous fat provides insulation; a reservoir for fluids, electrolytes, and energy; and a shock absorber.

What about the fur?

The hair coat protects the skin from physical and ultraviolet light damage and helps regulate body temperature. Trapping air between hairs conserves heat which requires the hairs be dry and waterproof. Your pet’s cold-weather coat is often longer and finer to facilitate heat conservation. The hair coat can also help cool the skin. The warm-weather coat has shorter, thicker hairs and fewer secondary hairs. This anatomic change allows air to move easily through the coat, which facilitates cooling. Therefore, cutting your pet’s hair very short in the summer isn’t necessarily good for keeping her cool.

Hair growth is affected by nutrition, hormones, and change of season. Hair is normally shed in the early spring and early fall and may shed in response to changes in temperature or the amount of sunlight. The size, shape, color and length of hair ar

e controlled by genetics. Hormones have a significant effect on the growth of hair. Disease, drugs, nutrition, and environment also affect the health of hair. If your pet’s hair doesn’t grow back in a timely manner after being cut by the groomer or vet – don’t blame them. This is a sign that something might be wrong, and you need to visit your veterinarian.


Oil glands (also called sebaceous glands) secrete an oily substance called sebum into the hair follicles and onto the skin. They are present in large numbers on the face, paws, back of the neck, rump, chin, and tail area. Sebum is a mixture of fatty acids. It is important for keeping the skin soft and pliable and for maintaining proper hydration. Sebum gives the hair coat sheen and has antimicrobial properties.

Dogs and cats have sweat glands on the feet that have a minor role in cooling the body. Cats also will sweat through their paws when excited; this is most commonly seen as wet paw prints on shiny countertops or tile floors. Cats primarily regulate their temperature by grooming (spreading their saliva on their skin) and sometimes by panting or drooling. Your dog primarily releases excess body heat by panting and drooling…. Or lying spread eagle face down on your cool kitchen floor!

Enough of the biology lesion – what can we do to keep our pet’s skin and coat healthy?

According to veterinary dermatologist Heide Newton, DVM, Diplomate ACVD, Associate Professor at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine,

“A pet’s skin and coat reflect general health. Good nutrition, routine bathing and grooming, and preventative wellness care including protection against skin parasites such as fleas, ticks and mites will keep your pet’s skin and coat looking great. If your pet develops problems such as itchiness, hair loss, or odor despite good wellness care, consult your veterinarian.”

A healthy coat should be shiny and smooth, not brittle or coarse, and healthy skin should be supple and clear, not greasy, flaky, or bumpy. Although health and nutrition influence the shine and texture of your pet’s coat from the inside, regular grooming and skin care on the outside will also help keep her coat clean and free of tangles, no matter what type of hair coat she has.

Here are some tips to a healthy skin and coat:

A side-view shot of a cocker spaniel, he is eating from a dog bowl.

Diet – It is important the nutrients in your pet’s food are digested well and are of high quality.  Poor quality nutrients will be unavailable to meet the body’s needs causing the liver and kidneys to work harder to eliminate the waste products. The ideal diet should be individualized to your pet’s specific life stage e.g. puppy/kitten, adult, senior) and health status. In all cases, quality and balance are the keys to good nutrition. Most good quality food sold through pet stores will be fine for your pet. If you are having difficulty finding the best food for your pet, work with your veterinarian.

Grooming – All dogs and cats benefit from regular grooming to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells, to keep the coat free of dirt, debris, and external parasites, and to distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts. Pets with long, silky or curly fur require daily brushing to keep their hair from becoming tangled or matted. Pets with short hair coats may require less frequent brushing, however, daily brushing of any pet will cut down dramatically on the amount of loose hair and dander floating around the home and will also cut down on the amount of hair that your pet swallows in the course of self-grooming.

Regardless of the type of hair coat, you should inspect your pet’s coat every day to make sure there are no tangles or clumps that have developed under the armpits, in the groin, or behind the ears. After a romp through the grass or in the woods, it is a good idea to look for burrs, twigs or ticks that might be in the coat. Regular inspection of the coat and skin will give you a better chance of detecting any unusual lumps and bumps, parasites such as fleas and ticks, or areas of sensitivity on your pet’s body. Plus, it’s good bonding time with your pet!

Bath time – Most dogs require bathing on an occasional basis – usually when their coat becomes dirty or when they develop a ‘doggy odor’. Cat’s not so much. They rarely need to be bathed although they may occasionally need to be spot cleaned.

There is no such thing as a dog breed that doesn’t shed – all animals with hair will go through a

natural specific hair growth cycle. Some dogs have a very light or sparse undercoat which greatly reduces the amount of hair lost during their normal shedding cycle. Dogs that have no health issues need to be bathed about every six to eight weeks. Dogs that have a heavy undercoat will benefit from bathing in the spring or fall, when they are undergoing their seasonal shedding.

How often your individual dog needs to be bathed will vary somewhat with her age, lifestyle, type of hair coat, and underlying health status. A dog that enjoys running through puddles or jumping into water may need a bath after a stroll through the mud or a romp in a dirty pond. Some dogs enjoy rubbing their head in decomposing debris in the park, or rolling in objectionable objects, and will need a bath to be allowed back into the house! Finally, if your dog has allergies, your veterinarian may prescribe frequent bathing as part of the treatment regime – with some of these dogs, daily bathing may be necessary until the problem is under control.

Dogs and cats should only be bathed with a shampoo that is formulated for use on their species – their skin has a different thickness and pH (acidity) than human skin. Human shampoo, including baby shampoo, is far too harsh for their skin. For regular bathing, a hypoallergenic shampoo without any added perfumes is the best choice. For optimum results, a conditioning product should be applied afterwards to restore any lost moisture to the skin and minimize the development of dandruff after the bath.

If you find that your dog requires frequent bathing, discuss this with your veterinarian, who may recommend the use of a special shampoo, conditioning rinse, or ‘dry shampoo’ to prevent skin problems associated with the repeated baths.

Skin supplements – Most dogs and cats on a high-quality diet and with no health issues do not need supplements for their skin or coat.

Omega-6 fatty acids – Most dog and cat foods are very high in omega-6 fatty acids which can be helpful just to give a shine to the coat, add some luster back, and help replace the oils in the skin. Vegetable oils such as sunflower oil or safflower are also a good source of omega-6 fatty acids. For a small pet, stir in one teaspoon of oil per meal. For a large dog, give one tablespoon per meal. Just make sure that the oil is fresh, as oils can go rancid.

Omega-3 fatty acids – Omega-3’s have other beneficial effects for skin problems as they have very good anti-inflammatory effects, so they can be used for dogs that have allergies or other inflammatory skin diseases. Flaxseed oil and fish oil are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. To relieve itching or inflamed skin, owners should look for supplements that contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

But – be careful not to give too many fatty acid supplements as excessive amounts can cause upset stomachs and vomiting.

Vitamins and minerals – There are specific skin diseases that can be helped by supplementation. For example, zinc deficiency can cause crusting on the skin. Also, some animals with seborrhea, or scaly skin, may require extra vitamin A. It is always best to seek veterinary help before starting your dog on vitamin and mineral supplements as too much zinc or vitamin A can cause disease if given for long periods.

Skin problems – If your pet has a dull coat, itchy or flaky skin, bald patches or other skin or hair problems – your first step is to visit your veterinarian. Some skin conditions can be helped by changing the diet to a food that is better tolerated. If the diet is not the problem your veterinarian will work to diagnose the problems and prescribe treatments. There are veterinary skin specialists that have specialized training after veterinary college to become board certified in veterinary dermatology (DACVD). These specially trained veterinarians are the allergists of the pet world and can help pets that have allergies to the environment, food, insects as well as any other skin disease. Your veterinarian will work closely with the dermatologist, when needed, to help your pet get the best care possible.

Bottom lineYour pet’s skin and coat appearance may be the first indicator of health problems. A healthy pet will not shed excessively and will have a shiny coat that is free from dandruff or greasiness. Before reaching for the bottle of shampoo, think about whether that lackluster coat could be telling you something else. If you have any concerns, contact your veterinarian for a consultation.


Meet Petland’s Consulting Veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Edling, DVM, MSpVM, MPH:

Dr. Edling received his BS in Industrial Engineering from Texas A&M University in 1981 and his degree in Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from Colorado State University. He previously served as Vice President of Veterinary Medicine for Petco and was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. In addition, Dr. Edling completed the American Board of Veterinary Practitioner’s residency program for Companion and Wild Avian Medicine and Surgery, at North Carolina State University, where he also received his Master in Specialized Veterinary Medicine (MSpVM) in 2001. In 2011, Dr. Edling completed the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Johns Hopkins University. As a veterinarian, Dr. Edling works closely with the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV).

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