A stroke of your hand along your dog's or cat's coat is the simplest way to say, "I love you." But the benefits go beyond a mutual exchange of affection. Petting and paying attention can also give you clues about your pet's health.
"If there's noticeable change in your pet's general coat quality, that could be the sign of a problem," says Jennifer Pendergraft, DVM, assistant professor of dermatology at Colorado State University's James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Some common fur issues you might spot include:
Thinning hair. Is your dog's hair thinning all over? A thyroid gland that doesn't make enough hormones may be to blame. It's most common in middle-aged medium and large breeds, particularly golden retrievers, Dobermans, and Irish setters. Dogs with hypothyroidism might also have a lackluster coat, scaling skin, weight gain, and intolerance for cold weather.
Other hormone problems, such as Cushing's disease, can cause hair loss. A dog with Cushing's disease may only lose hair on the torso, and might eat and pee more than usual.
Overall hair loss on a cat and patchy bald spots on cats and dogs probably mean your pet is licking, biting, or scratching too much. "Their hair doesn't usually just fall out. The skin is irritated, and they're itching," Pendergraft says. "That's usually an allergy -- the most common skin problem in dogs and cats."
Other inflammation or infections can cause skin irritation. Whatever the cause, your pet is uncomfortable and needs to see the vet, who might also want to rule out skin, thyroid, and pancreatic cancers.
Dull hair. If your dog's fur has lost its luster, he may need more healthy fats in his diet. "Commercial diets supply adequate fatty acids. But there's a renewed interest in home-cooking pet food," Pendergraft says. "That can be beneficial, but get guidance from a veterinarian to be sure your pet's diet is balanced in fats, calcium, phosphorous, and other nutrients."
Unkempt appearance. Even the laziest cats keep themselves neat and clean. A greasy and matted kitty has let her looks go because something is wrong. When weight isn't the problem, many illnesses could mean your cat isn't up to primping. "It's not usually the skin's response to a disease. It's the animal not feeling well enough to groom."
Smelly fur. Does Fido's coat stink even when he's clean? A skin condition could be the culprit. "Some dogs' skin responds to a skin problem by increasing oil production. Sometimes there's an odor with that. It's usually a bacterial yeast infection, allergy, or occasionally hypothyroidism," Pendergraft says.
A final word of advice: "Get them used to being touched when they're young," she says. "Know what their skin and coat normally look like, so you can identify problems when they arise."
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