Canine Fur: What is it?
In the most blunt terms possible, the fur, or hair, of all mammals is made up of both the protein keratin and dead skin cells. Growing from the dermis, or inner layer of the skin, dogs depend on their fur (sometimes hair) often much more than humans to regulate body temperature.
Having evolved from Grey Wolves, the general theory being around 14,000 years ago, these early dogs originated in a very cold climate. So, from a biological standpoint, they would need heavy coats to help keep them warm.
Arctic Wolves, along with most Spitz breeds, had/have very heavy, usually double layered and water resistant, coats (‘double’ coats). This makes a lot of sense when you consider their intended biological environment. For example:
Siberian Husky- Russia
Chow Chow- Northern China (some say Mongolia)
Alaskan Malamute- Alaska
Shiba Inu- Japan
We get the shifts in coat length and type along with changes in environment. The basic theory is (some breeds span recorded history; we only have theories as to where they came from) dogs began traveling alongside early man, changing and adapting to suit their environmental needs. For example, these three have much less ‘fur’:
African Hairless (now extinct)- Native to the intense climate of Africa, no need for a heavy coat
Basenji- Very old hunting breed Originating in central Africa
Pharaoh Hound- Ancient Egyptian dog breed
Most dogs have three types of fur, called their undercoat, guard hair and whiskers. The undercoat lies closest to the dog’s skin, growing in clusters from a single follicle. This usually has a soft appearance, and helps protect the dog from cold weather.
The guard hairs are thicker, harder in texture and longer than the downy undercoat. The guard hairs both protect the dog’s skin from injuries, and add additional protection from the cold weather.
Dogs with both of these, like the Spitz types mentioned above, are said to have ‘double coats’.
Whiskers grow from deep follicles on/around the muzzle and eyelids, functioning as sensory receptors for the dog. Not all, but some are vascular, containing blood vessels and characterized by a darker appearance.
Some breeds have something more akin to human hair than fur, hair that doesn’t shed allergens like the others. Others simply don’t shed. Listed below are a few, interestingly all toy breeds:
Poodle (all three types)
Mexican Hairless (Xoloitzcuintli)
Peruvian Inca Orchid
American Hairless Terrier
Although the majority of these breeds are toys/small, some, like the Poodle and Xolo, are found in standard sizes as well. Although this list isn’t complete, none of the dogs above are large breeds.
If you or a family member is allergic to pet dander, you can still adopt a dog!
The color of a dog’s fir comes from melanin producing cells in the skin, and depends on the dog’s genetic makeup. In this way, no one breed is superior to the other. Rather, it isn’t far fetched to believe coat color has evolved as a form of environmental protection (mostly whitish animals in cold, snowy climates, brownish in desert/sandy areas, etc).
In the past 100 years or so (especially in recent years), however, man has eliminated this evolution with selective breeding. Breeders constantly develop new ‘designer breeds’ because they are cute or a profit can be made by their sale. These dog’s coats, and coloring, often no longer reflect their environments, but are rather a result of a random pairing of genetics.
Before you start grooming, wash/bathe your dog. Bathing your dog prior helps get rid of tangles, clumps, and of course dirt that would otherwise make your job that much more difficult and possibly even painful to your pooch. Move slowly along the growth of the dog’s hair (direction) for a natural effect.
For many owners, it’s calming their pup that is the hardest part. A shaking, trembling, anxious dog trying to constantly get away is going to make the job that much harder. Try to do your best to make this a happy, enjoyable (if you can consider grooming fun) time, or at least a calm time.
It’s best to start things like this early, during puppyhood, to help your pet adjust to the experience.
When Not to Groom
Some dogs, like Siberian Huskies, shouldn’t have their fur trimmed at all and can actually suffer the elements without it. Be sure to look up the prefered grooming technique for your breed before taking action!
Your Dog’s Health
Your dog’s coat can be a pretty big indicator of his current health. A diet lacking in sufficient fatty acids or the wrong types of proteins can easily lead to a deficit, leaving your pet’s coat looking dry, dull, and brittle. Without getting too deep into it, a blunt signature of a poor/cheap dog food would be the first 1-3 ingredients listed on the back of the package- are they plant products, like corn, or a type of animal meat (dogs find it difficult to get the amino acids they need from plant proteins).
And then there is the biggest indicator of all- hair loss. Whether your pup has a flea problem, an allergic reaction, or some other type of rash, hair loss resulting in bald patches isn’t normal and should be attended to.
The obvious course would be to bathe your dog, which is recommended, but you need to be thorough. The little fleas like to hide down deep underneath your dog’s coat; specially designed shampoos are available for this.