As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, you may observe something that seems odd for a body preparing for winter: Your dog is shedding more than usual.
But rest assured, it's perfectly normal. Dogs typically lose their winter coats in the spring, when it's replaced by a shorter, lighter summer coat. In the fall, this cycle is reversed -- 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, Samoyeds and malamutes. These breeds carry a protective overcoat of long hair, and also an insulating undercoat that's softer, almost downlike. They lose masses of fur from both these coats 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 very little fur at all. Shorthaired breeds may shed as much as the longhairs, but since the hair that light-coated dogs 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.
If you have a purebred, or a dog that has the characteristics of a purebred, seek out breed-specific advice in regard to the proper kind of grooming equipment. The slicker brush that works fine on a close-cropped poodle may not make much headway in the thick mane of a full-coated chow at the height of a seasonal shed.
My favorite grooming tool to control shedding is the one with a loop of metal with teeth on one side, attached to a comfortable handle. For my medium-coated dogs, this tool is all that's needed to keep coats in fine shape; for my double-coated dog, the shedding loop pulls out the clumps of loose fur and then I follow up with a thorough combing and brushing to catch the rest.
No matter what the breed or mix of dog, 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 or other health problems 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 their coat condition seems too dull, or you notice excessive hair loss.
Something else to think about in fall: Are your pets ready for colder weather? It's important at this time of year to assess your pet's condition, age, weight and level of exercise, and make adjustments for the cold.
In general, healthy, normal-weight pets who spend most of their time indoors need less food in winter (to offset a decrease in activity), and while those who spend more time outside need slightly more (keeping warm requires energy, and food is the fuel).
While you're evaluating your pet, be sure to assess his surroundings as well. If your pet ever sleeps outdoors, be sure his shelter is adequately insulated and placed in an area protected from wind gusts and bad weather. It's also essential to have a source of nonfrozen water available at all times.
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. Boots, too, may be a mercy for tenderfooted house pets who enjoy a daily walk. Outside or in, heated beds are a good idea, and there are many models to choose from in pet-supply catalogs, stores or Web sites.
Pat Miller is board president of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (www.apdt.com) and an editor at one of my favorite publications, the Whole Dog Journal (www.whole-dog-journal.com). Her training articles, as you might imagine, are wonderful, but I like her product reviews even more. Which was why I was delighted to see her favorable review of a harness she says works well to control even strong dogs on leash. The SENSE-ation Harness has the leash attachment on the front, and is designed to put steady pressure on shoulders of dogs who insist on pulling as if they're running the Iditarod. Prices run a very reasonable $20 to $30, depending on size, with the harness available from SofTouch Concepts, toll free (866) 305-6145 or www.softouchconcepts.com.
PETS ON THE WEB
Everyone has days when it seems the world is conspiring to bring unhappiness. When I'm having one of those days, I know one thing that will bring a smile to my face no matter what -- Joop's Fotolog (www.fotolog.net/joop).
For those who haven't run across Fotolog, the service offers thousands of people around the world the chance to keep an online diary, using images instead of words. Joop is a handsome dog who lives in a lovely village in Holland, and whose owner takes a picture of him in his surroundings almost every day. (My friend Kevin, also in Holland, tells me "Joop" is pronounced "Yope.") The whimsical pictures show a picture-perfect town and its farmland surroundings, with an impish black-and-white terrier as the tour guide. I want to visit!
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: An information sheet from our local shelter states that plastic bowls are a safer choice for feeding outside pets in the wintertime. It said that there's a chance of both food and the pet's tongue freezing to the stainless steel. Would you please pass that along? -- C.S., via e-mail
A: Their point is well-taken, but it's not the whole story. Plastic bowls may be a little safer when left outdoors, but the contents in them will still freeze.
I know people who have sled dogs housed outdoors in winter, and they use stainless steel for the reasons I mentioned -- they're durable and easy to keep clean. They are careful to limit the amount of time the bowls are available: The bowls go down, the dogs eat and the bowls are picked up.
Water dishes are a different matter entirely, since neither stainless steel nor plastic bowls will keep water from freezing. An investment in a heated bowl or drop-in heating element is a must-have item for dogs who spend time outdoors.
Q: We recently bought a hand-fed baby cockatoo. It was a big outlay, not just for the bird, but also the cage, a play gym, toys, perches and more. The bird shop recommends buying an air cleaner, too, but I wonder if that's really necessary. We want to do things right, so if we need it, we'll get it. What do you think? -- D.B., via e-mail
A: Paying attention to air quality is good for your bird and good for you too. Some species of pet birds --- your cockatoo is perhaps the best example -- give off a lot of feather dust, a natural, powdery grooming material that originates from the powderdown feathers over the flank and hip areas.
How bad can it be? I once spent a few minutes snuggling with an adorable Moluccan cockatoo at my bird's veterinary hospital, and ended up with my dark T-shirt almost completely covered in white powder.
The problem is more than aesthetics, though. One dusty bird can really reduce the air quality of a room. More than one bird can make it downright unbreathable for both you and your birds. (Remember: Feather dust is not a problem when a bird's in his natural outside environment.)
It's a matter of personal preference, of course, but if you're living with one or more dusty birds, you really ought to spring for the air filter. You and your bird will both breathe better for your decision.
Another related item to consider is a humidifier. Our climate-controlled houses are often too dry for our birds, many of whom are most at home in tropical rainforests. Frequent misting or bathing of your bird is a great idea, but so is keeping a high moisture content in your air with a humidifier.
If you live in Hawaii, southern Florida or another tropical environment, lack of humidity isn't a concern. In other parts of the country, however, dry air can make your bird uncomfortable, especially in wintertime, when home heating systems make the atmosphere inside very dry indeed.
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. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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