As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, you may be observing what seems rather odd for a body preparing for winter: Your dog is shedding more than usual.
Be reassured: It's perfectly normal.
Dogs typically lose their winter coats in the spring, when it is replaced by a shorter, lighter one for summer. In the fall, this cycle is reversed, as the summer coat is shed to make room for heavy protective fur for winter. The change is most obvious in "double-coated" breeds such as collies, shelties and keeshonden. Those breeds carry not only a harsh, protective long overcoat, but also a soft, insulating undercoat -- and they lose masses of fur from both in spring and fall.
The amount of shedding varies widely from breed to breed. German shepherds, for example, are prolific year-round shedders, while poodles seem to lose little fur at all. Shorthaired breeds may shed as much as the longhairs, but since the hair they shed is easily overlooked, it may seem as if they are shedding less.
All shedders -- even the heaviest -- can be tamed by a regular and frequent schedule of combing and brushing. After all, the fur you catch on a comb won't end up on a rug. Work against the grain and close to the skin to catch as much of the ready-to-fall fur as possible.
If you have a purebred, or a dog that has the characteristics of a purebred, ask a breeder for grooming advice, especially in regard to the proper kind of grooming equipment. The slicker brush that works fine on a poodle won't make much headway in the thick mane of a full-coated collie at the height of a seasonal shed. For a shorthaired dog, a curry comb or hound glove will do the job well, catching the short fur before it ends up on your rug.
No matter what the breed, shedding -- and heavy seasonal shedding -- is normal, but some heavy shedding can be a sign of health problems. Skin allergies and skin parasites may trigger shedding, and poor nutrition can also be a cause of coat problems.
Become familiar with your pet's normal pattern of shedding, and ask your veterinarian for advice if coat condition seems to dull or excessive hair loss is noticed.
Other fall pet-care tips:
-- Antifreeze. If you're into do-it-yourself car care, consider using one of the new brands of antifreeze that are safer around pets and children. The other kind is so deadly that a cat walking through a puddle of it can die after cleaning fluid off a paw. Clean up any spills promptly and dispose of used fluids safely and properly.
-- Cold-weather cautions. Assess your pet's condition, age, level of exercise and weight, and make adjustments for the cold. In general, inside pets need less food (to offset a decrease in activity), and outside pets need more (keeping warm requires energy, and food is the fuel). Cold weather is especially tough on older pets. For elderly animals, it's not ridiculous to help out by putting a sweater on them when they go outside. Don't forget shelter, and make sure your pet always has access to water that hasn't been frozen. Outside or in, heated beds are a good idea, too, and there are many models to choose from in pet-supply catalogs, stores or Web sites.
PETS ON THE WEB
While I always recommend that dogs become part of the family by being an indoor pet, I recognize that some situations call for a dog to spend all or most of his time outside. If your dog spends much time outside, you need to provide a shelter that will keep him warm when winter rolls in. Dog-lover Mike Strong has probably put more thought into the construction of dog houses than anyone else alive, and his Dog House Construction Web site (www.mikestrong.com/doghouse/index.html) is proof. He provides step-by-step detail and pictures of the houses he made for his dogs, along with links to other construction plans and a funny page of answers to people who write to ask him who made him an expert on building dog houses. This site is much more entertaining that it has a right to be, given the subject matter.
Looking for a dog food that offers real meat, whole grains and no artificial preservatives? The current edition of The Whole Dog Journal comes up with 18 canned foods that offer the very best -- with human-grade ingredients, in some cases. WDJ is the one pet-related publication I can't wait to read every month, an advertising-free newsletter aimed at people who are interested in reward-based training, alternative veterinary care and top nutrition. Subscriptions to the monthly newsletter are $29 per year, and that price includes access to articles in back issues on the publication's Web site, www.whole-dog-journal.com. You can also subscribe by writing to P.O. Box 420235, Palm Coast, FL 32142.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I don't know what to do about our dog Sasha's disgusting desire to eat cat feces out of the litter box. She's obsessive about it! We punish her, but nothing stops her. If she sees a chance to indulge, she can't resist. She's such a good dog otherwise, but this problem is really getting to us (and it can't be good for her, either). Every time she wants to kiss one of us, I think where her mouth has been and it makes me sick. Help us! -- K.F., via e-mail
A: Yours is one of the most common complaints I get from those who have both dogs and cats. Even pet experts have such troubles: When I was at a two-week course on pet behavior at the Denver Dumb Friends League, we had some of the shelter kittens visit us one day while we worked. Later that day, one of the instructors brought in her dogs -- and they both made a beeline for the litter box the kittens had used. We all smiled in rueful recognition: Most of us in the class have the problem in our own homes, too.
Litter boxes are irresistible to dogs: They're drawn to the undigested protein that remains in feline feces. Faced with constant supply and ready access, no dog will be able to resist for long, which is why efforts to train your pet haven't been successful.
The better plan would be to restrict access, which can be accomplished in many ways, including:
-- Covered litter boxes. You can find litter boxes with lids at almost any pet-supply store, and this might fix the problem. Cats who have asthma shouldn't use them, some cats won't use them, and some dogs are strong enough (or small enough) to get to the box anyway. But for some households, a covered box will solve the problem.
-- Change the litter box location. Make any change slowly, so as not to discourage litter box use by your cat. But it doesn't hurt to experiment with such things as moving the litter box to a location above the dog's reach.
-- Provide barriers. One way is to rig the door so it stays open wide enough for the cat but not for the dog. One friend of mine did this by putting hooks on the edge of a closest door and the door jamb, and then by putting a length of chain between them to allow the door to stay open wide enough for the cat, but not for the dog. Another possibility is to cut a cat-sized hole through the door to the litter box room. For a small dog able to fit through any opening a cat can, a baby gate is an alternative: The cat can jump over, but the dog cannot. You might also be able to put the box in an unused bathtub, if your dog is small enough.
Experiment with what works, and realize punishment doesn't when the reward is as wonderful (to your dog) as the litter box contents. This is one case in which training the people in the house to make adjustments works much better than trying to train the dog.
Q: Recently we adopted a female Rottweiler from the SPCA. The dog was fixed while in heat. Will this make the animal emotionally unbalanced? -- F.D., via e-mail
A: Not at all. Although many veterinarians would prefer not to spay when a dog is in season because the surgery is more difficult, once the procedure is done, the animal's body will adjust just fine. As with any surgery, it's important to follow the veterinarian's advice for aftercare, and call for help if you notice any problems, such as post-operative infection.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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