A Little Hair of the Dog*

This article appeared in the Bagpipes in December 2007.

All mammals have some sort of hair covering some, much, or virtually all of their bodies. Animals that have short fine hair that thickly covers their body are often referenced as having "fur". The word "fur" is also used for any animal pelt that becomes a coat.

Hair is made of the protein keratin and dead epidermal or skin cells and it grows from follicles in the dermis or inner layer of the skin. Some hairs are densely packed into stiff, fibrous outgrowths that, depending on species and location on the body, become horns, fingernails, and toenails. Dogs depend on fur coats for temperature regulation and often have several or many hairs per follicle. Each follicle has an oil or sebaceous gland to keep skin and hair smooth and elastic. Hair also protects your Beardie from injury to feet, eyes, and ears.

Your Beardie has three types of hair: soft downy undercoat; stiffer and longer guard hairs that form a protective layer to protect undercoat and skin from harsh weather and cold water; and whiskers, those specialized hairs that grow on the face. In mammals, hair grows in cycles. Each strand of hair grows from the root, and each strand goes through a cycle of growing and not growing. The period of new hair growth is called anagen; the longer the anagen cycle the longer the hair grows. Catagen is the transition phase, and telogen is the resting phase. In dogs, as with all mammals, some hair follicles are in anagen, some in catagen and some in the telogen phase. Shedding, length of hair, and the presence or absence of an undercoat depends upon the timing of these cycles and the ratio of hair follicles in the various stages. Some breeds are low shedding because almost all their follicles are in the anagen (growth) phase. Therefore, the coats of dogs’ with long hair, such as Beardies, will shed less. How long a particular hair follicle is in the active growth cycle depends on many factors. It could be genetically programmed to remain in active growth for years, or only for a few weeks.

Skin and hair color come from special cells in the skin that produce melanin according to your Beardie’s genetic code for color, and the amount of melanin is governed by the animal's genetic code, a complex genetic interaction of several pairs of genes that determine color, pattern, and distribution of white hairs on the body. Basic coat color research in dogs was done by geneticist Clarence Little in 1957. Little identified 10 sets of genetic markers for color type, distribution, intensity, black masks, changes as the dog grows, dapple pattern, white pattern, and ticking pattern.

Dogs with dilution factors in their color genes will be lighter versions of the basic body color. Those with white pattern factors will have more or less white distributed according to the distribution factors. To further complicate matters, the color of your Beardie’s undercoat may be different from color of his guard hairs.

What’s going on outside is reflective of what is going on inside. Coat condition is, therefore, as important to monitor as appetite, behavior, and temperature when assessing your Beardie’s health. Thyroid problems, insufficient dietary fats, poor nutrition, hormone imbalances, seborrhea, ringworm, pore infections, hot spots, inhalant allergies, and external/internal parasites can directly or indirectly affect hair health and growth. A Study appearing in the June issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) indicates that essential fatty acids (EFAs) such as omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids play a critical role in the health of a dog’s skin and coat and also contribute to the animal’s overall good health. “Pet foods are manufactured to maintain the health of healthy pets’ and already contain adequate essential fatty acids”, says Dr. John Bauer a professor of clinical nutrition at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and one of the study’s authors. But some pets may need more EFAs in their diet from time to time. The body cannot make EFAs, so they must be obtained through the diet. If you are feeding a special diet, such as a raw diet, be sure your Beardie is getting the recommended amount of EFAs and supplement if necessary.

The shampoo you use can also affect your Beardie’s coat. Dog shampoo is designed to cleanse away the dirt and excess oils, working exactly the way human shampoo does. The difference between the two is that dog shampoo should have lower pH levels more suited to canines and a non-tearing formula in case a little shampoo should get in your dog's eyes. Interesting fact - of all mammals, dogs have the highest skin pH level. Be sure you use a brand formulated just for canines and save the Paul Mitchell® products for yourself.

Since the mercury is falling, now is a good time to observe your Beardie’s coat doing its job. Muscles in the skin allow your furry friend to fluff his coat up, thus trapping a layer of air warmed by his body temperature between the skin and the environment. Thus shielded, he is quite comfortable playing outside in the snow and can’t figure out why you are yelling for him to come inside! Shaved down Beardies, older dogs, puppies, sick dogs, or dogs with a thinning may be good candidates for outerwear. To be effective against the cold, a coat or sweater should completely cover a dog's belly, keep his legs free for easy movement, and fit snugly and end at the base of the tail. Coats should be waterproof to provide maximum protection.

In conclusion, the healthiest dog coats are a result of a high quality nutritionally complete diet and regular grooming routines. Genetics can lay the groundwork for a good coat, but diet, exercise and grooming will maintain and/or improve your Beardie’s coat.

*The origin of the phrase is literal, and comes from an erroneous method of treatment of a rabid dog bite by placing hair from the dog in the bite wound. The use of the phrase as a metaphor for a hangover treatment dates back to the time of William Shakespeare.

Maryann Szalka