A dog’s coat serves to protect his largest organ, and if it’s not healthy, its role as protector is compromised.
Whether hair or fur, it protects his skin (the body’s largest organ, man or beast) from the harmful rays of the sun, the chilling effects of the cold winter wind, stinging and biting insects, and potential cuts and abrasions while roaming through fields and woodlands. The coat also helps them thermoregulate. That is why having your dog shaved down for the summer is not a good idea.
A healthy coat enables the skin to better resist infection. When the skin is dry, it’s itchy, and dogs will scratch incessantly, sometimes resulting in what veterinarians refer to as self-trauma, that can lead to a secondary infection.
An unhealthy coat easily becomes dry and matted, which causes a persistent and painful pulling on the skin. It also inhibits the dog’s mobility and interferes with his ability to groom.
To help keep your dog’s skin and coat healthy, there are three basic weapons in your arsenal: a high quality diet, regular grooming, and supplementation when necessary.
A HIGH QUALITY DIET
The marketplace abounds with pet food selections. Many are high quality, many are not. In the wild, the dog would hunt and consume animal protein and animal fat. Protein is necessary for the growth and maintenance of hair, indeed, keratin is the fibrous protein that makes up hair and nails…and also hoofs and horns, for that matter. Our knee-jerk reaction to fat is usually a negative one.
But fat enables the dog’s body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and it gives shine to the coat. When L-carnitine is in the food, it helps the body utilize fat for energy while maintaining the lean muscle mass. That helps reduce the overall body fat and may also help decrease the levels of cholesterol and lipids (fats) in the blood. So, fat can be a good thing.
When provided with satisfactory amounts of high quality animal protein and fat, a dog’s coat will be soft, luxuriant and shiny. Conversely, when the diet is lacking in quality protein and fat, the coat will be dull, dry and rough.
When selecting a dog food, read the ingredient panel and select one that puts a named-source meat as the first ingredient…such as chicken or lamb. Avoid unspecified protein such as meat and bone meal or poultry by-product meal.
And speaking of meal, most folks think meal isn’t good. The opposite is true. Chicken meal, for example, has up to 300% more protein than chicken. Chicken is the clean combination of flesh and skin, which contains about 80% water. Chicken meal is that same meat, but with the moisture extracted, down to about 8%. So look for a food that has chicken meal, lamb meal, etc. as the first or second ingredient.
Do a little experiment the next time you’re food shopping. Look for a food that lists chicken as the first ingredient. If chicken meal is the second ingredient, it's most likely a high quality food. If farther down the ingredient panel you find something like chicken by-product meal or poultry by-product meal, it's probably of lower quality. Here’s why:
By law, manufacturers are required to list ingredient in order of descending weight, and are allowed to weigh the ingredients with their water content prior to cooking. In a simplistic example, the company takes a pound of chicken, throws it in the pot with their other ingredients, and cooks it into dog food.
When it went into the pot, it was the predominant ingredient by weight, so it could be listed first. But, during the cooking process, the water evaporates. The chicken that went in as a pound comes out as about a third of a pound. Now they have to do something to get the protein level up to whatever is stated in the Guaranteed Analysis. Cue the chicken by-product meal.
Why not just use chicken meal as the first ingredient and be done with it? Money. Chicken and chicken by-product meal, together are satisfactory, but it’s a cheaper way of producing the food.
An exception to that example would be the holistic foods, which characteristically contain multiple protein sources anyway; and it could be in a combination of named-source meats and named-source meat meals. And they’ll also contain other quality ingredients aimed at specific organs and systems. For example, antioxidant-rich botanicals, probiotics for digestive health, glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health, etc.
Also look for foods with a balanced ratio of Omega 6 and 3 fatty acids. Some ingredients have both, others only one. For example sunflower oil has 6s but no 3s and fish oil has 3s but no 6s.
I’ve read articles from credible, professional sources that dismiss grain-free diets and deny that grains such as wheat contribute to dry skin. I’ve got 25 years of retail pet food sales experience and dealing with pet owners that beg to differ.
Although my experience is anecdotal, it’s undeniable. Customers who got their dogs off of grain-based diets and treats overwhelmingly saw improvements in skin and a drastic reduction in scratching. Many were able to take their dogs off steroids and supplements.
And in the past couple of decades, we’ve seen an influx of wheat-free and grain-free treats come to the marketplace. Detractors will say, “That’s just marketing.” Supporters point out that they’re often a preferable alternative to steroids.
But it’s not just the food. You have to consider treats. Some of the grocery brands are loaded with wheat. One popular bacon-like treat in particular has wheat as the first and third ingredients.
Then there are the table scraps…pizza crust, pasta, bagels, toast, English muffins, the last few nuggets of breakfast cereal…that many maintain contribute to dry skin. If you’re feeding a high quality diet, but also treats that are high in problematic grains such as wheat, you’ll often find that the negative effects of the grain trump the positive effects of the good food.
Also be aware that fish oil can be a double edged sword. It’s a good ingredient because of its Omega 3 fatty acid, but it’s anonymous. Some fish species are preserved with the controversial preservative ethoxyquin.
If a pet food manufacturer uses fish oil that arrives for processing preserved with the substance, it isn’t required to be listed in the ingredient panel since the pet food manufacturer didn’t add the ethoxyquin to the fish oil. Most people feel more comfortable when the species of fish is identified, such as salmon oil.
REGULAR BRUSHING AND GROOMING
Regular brushing of the coat helps prevent mats and facilitates the distribution of the dog’s natural oils, creating a healthy, lustrous coat. Brushing also gives owners the opportunity to examine the skin for trouble spots and parasites such as fleas, ticks and mites.
And of course, frequent brushing translates into quality time with your dog. That being said, there’s also a lot to be said for bringing your dog to a professional groomer. They’ve got the proper tools and techniques to do a better job in most cases, and their trained eye is more likely to spot trouble before you do.
SUPPLEMENTS ARE HELPFUL IN SUPPORTING THE SKIN
There’s no shortage of supplements that claim benefits to the skin and coat, and they’re often beneficial. But, they can’t cure allergies just as a good diet can’t. They can only support the skin.
More than 90% of the time a dog’s allergy is the body’s response to an inhaled or absorbed allergen (atopy, in vetspeak), not a food allergy. But…and your veterinarian may scoff at the notion…eliminating grains such as wheat, soy, sorghum and corn have been credited with lessening the intensity of the symptoms. I’ve seen it countless times in dealing with pet owners over a period that spans three decades in which dramatic advances in the quality of food and treats have occurred.
Absent an underlying health issue, most dogs on a diet of high quality food and treats will not require supplementation. If the skin and coat are in good condition, a supplement won’t make them any better.
A possible exception would be during the winter in cold weather regions. The air…both inside and outdoors…tends to be very dry. Sometimes even dogs fed quality food and treats will experience a seasonal dry skin condition. In those cases, a fatty acid supplement such as salmon oil or coconut oil would probably be helpful.
It would be beneficial to your dog’s overall health if you consider the quality of his coat as an integral component of his regular health care.
Bob Bamberg has been in the pet supply industry for more than a quarter century, including owning his own feed and grain store in South-eastern Massachusetts ,USA. He writes a weekly newspaper column on pet health, nutrition and behaviour and his articles appear at http://hubpages.com/@bobbamberg