Is that a tickle in your nose? And fur all over your carpet?! The dog’s shedding again, isn’t he? If working out how often you should be grooming your dog’s coat is making you pull your hair out, stick around for this article where we will be discussing all things hairy. You’ll learn all about the surprisingly complicated science of doggy hair, why grooming your pooch is so important, and how frequently you should be doing it! We hope you can shave a few minutes off your day for us, because it will be un-fur-gettable (sorry, last pun!).

What makes a hair?

First thing’s first, let’s get some terminology out of the way. Hair, fur, wool and so on – what’s the difference? Technically, all of these are same thing; a long strand made up of tubular protein called keratin. We will explain the different kinds of hair later (which is sometimes why hair and fur colloquially refer to different things), but from now on we will be talking about hair, referring to everything from the hair on your head to the floof on your dog’s tail.

What does hair do?

Hair is important for mammals as it helps us regulate our temperature, trapping air to keep us warm when it is cold, and letting cold air close to the skin to cool us off. It is also important for signalling (think of how a dog’s hair stands on end when they are angry), colouring or camouflage, for sensation of touch, as well as helping disperse oil over the skin. 

How do hairs form and grow?

Hair grows from an area of living cells in skin called the hair bulb, which is supplied by blood vessels. Depending on various factors (more on this later), hair starts to grow up from the bulb towards the surface. Along the way, most individual hair connects to sebaceous (oil) glands, sweat glands and muscles that control movement of hair. This stage of growth is called anagen. Most human head hair remains in anagen and constantly grows, which is why we must cut it regularly – however, dogs’ hair generally reaches a certain length and stops growing. 

These hairs transition from the anagen, to the catagen stage where the hair bulb shuts down, and then to telogen where the hair does not change length anymore. The hair remains in the skin until a new bulb below it starts to produce a new hair that pushes out the old one. This explains why most dogs do not require regular haircuts, but shed instead. Once hair tissue has left its bulb, it has no living cells in it. 

What types of hair are there?

There are two main types of hair. Primary, or guard, hairs are the longer firmer hairs, like the hair on our heads. Secondary, or downy, hairs are shorter and have no sweat glands or muscles associated with them – these are better adapted for trapping heat near the skin. Sometimes the secondary hairs are known as the undercoat. The proportions of primary to secondary hairs varies depending on the species of animal and even the breed. On top of this, a single hair can emerge from one orifice in the skin (simple hair follicles) or multiple hairs can (compound hair follicles). All of these differences account for the different textures of coats between different dogs.

Doggy Coats

To make matters more complicated, not all dogs have the same kind of hair coats. As with hair versus fur, there are quite a few colloquialisms and misconceptions regarding categorisation.

First of all, we can categorise dog hair based on its length. 

Long-haired dogs include the old English sheep dog, akitas and Bernese mountain dogs. Medium-haired dogs include German shepherds, spaniels and collies. Finally, there are short-haired dogs like staffies, boxers, pugs and dobermanns. However, these categories are not fixed, and many individual dogs can overlap categories.

Next, there is the difference between ‘single-’ and ‘double-’ coated dogs. 

Single-coated dogs mainly have primary guard hairs – they have a finer thinner coat, as they generally evolved in climates where this hair was enough for warmth and protection. Most dogs are single-coated. Double-coated dogs have an increased number of secondary downy hairs underneath their primary hairs. This gives them a very thick fluffy coat, perfect for keeping them warm in cold weather. Breeds that are double-coated include collies, Alaskan malamutes and Bernese mountain dogs. Double-coated breeds are not necessarily all long-haired breeds. Single-coated breeds are often marketed as ‘hypoallergenic’ as they shed less than double-coated dogs, so there is less chance of an allergy sufferer reacting. However, remember that all dogs will shed to some degree, so no dog is truly hypoallergenic. 

Finally, we can categorise dog coats based on their texture. 

As with the length, this is somewhat subjective. Different textures include rough, silky, smooth, curly, wire-haired and more. All of these can be long- or short-haired, and double- or single-coated.

We should also mention that some dogs have hair similar to human hair in that it does not enter the telogen stage and stop growing, but instead it constantly grows in anagen phase; the poodle is the most well-known of these breeds. These dogs do shed hair, but generally less frequently than other dogs. However, they will require more regular grooming and maintenance, like human hair. Colloquially, these dogs are referred to as having ‘hair’ while other dogs have ‘fur’, but remember there really is no difference structurally. Don’t forget that there are some rare hairless breeds of dogs as well, such as the Mexican hairless dog.

Why Should You Groom?

Phew, that was a lot of explanation about hair! Let’s move on to something a bit simpler. Why do we want to groom dogs at all?

Well, grooming at home is good for your dog for many reasons. Grooming by brushing their coat helps ventilate the coat and remove old and damaged hair – this helps new hair healthily grow. It also removes excess skin oil that can block pores, trap bacteria and cause itchiness. For long-haired dogs especially, it prevents matting of the hair – mats can be irritating for the dog, get caught on things, and can damage the underlying skin if pulled off. 

Grooming also massages the skin, which improves the skin’s blood flow and calms your dog. It gives you a great excuse to check your dog over – you can use the time to look for any skin damage, look at their paws, check their eyes, ears and nose, and look for parasites. More grooming means less shedding of hair round the house, which we are sure you will appreciate. And most importantly, grooming is the perfect way for pets and their owners to bond!

You may occasionally take your dog to be groomed professionally, which is a great idea! On top of all the benefits listed above, the groomers will also check for any skin and hair problems, can help remove any matting, can give your dog a nice shampoo bath, and advise you on products to help keep your dog’s hair heathy. On top of all this, it’s a great way to socialise your dog, especially puppies.

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