Thursday, May 28, 2009

Beating the Heat

In the spring and summer, a lot of clients come to me for shave downs. While the right haircut and regular grooming can certainly help keep pets more comfortable, in most cases, the length of his coat is really not contributing a whole lot to the problem.

Dogs don't regulate their temperature the same way people do. Humans sweat and the evaporation of that moisture helps us cool off. Dogs don't sweat, so exposing skin with a shorter clip doesn't help them stay cool the same way shedding layers of clothing does for us. Dogs lose heat by panting -- the evaporation of saliva does most of their cooling work. They also find cool spots to lay on, which helps lower their core temperature. This is the reason you can usually find your dog laying on the cool kitchen tiles or in the basement when the heat rolls in.

Outdoors, dogs like to dig themselves a hole and lay on the cool dirt. Laying down a "bed" of stone or ceramic tiles in the shade will give your dog a cleaner, less destructive, alternative to help him cool off.

Always provide fresh water for your pet. You can also give him ice cubes, either in the water to keep it cooler, or just as a fun, crunchy, and cooling snack.

You can also wet your pet down to get the cooling benefit of evaporation. Hosing him down, providing a kiddie pool of water, or taking him for a swim will help cool him down quickly. Just remember that water helps mats to form more quickly and tightly! If your pet has any length to his coat and is prone to either matting or packed undercoat, be vigilant about regular brush and comb-outs. It doesn't help to give your pet a quick cool-down with water if he spends the rest of his time overheating because he is matted!

Regular grooming to keep your pet's coat at an appropriate length and untangled will help to maximize his coat's insulating properties. Like double-paned windows do for your house, the layer of air trapped in a well-groomed coat helps stabilize the dog's temperature and protect him from excessive heat.

Hot pets might appreciate laying on a cool towel -- toss it in the fridge or the freezer for a few minutes and then lay it down for him to lay on or wrap it around his abdomen to pull heat away from his core.

Another big contributor to overheating in dogs is their weight. They gain weight around their middle, and the excess fat locks in body heat and heats up their organs. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight will do far more to keep him cool than any other tip or trick out there!

You'll probably notice that when things are really sweltering, your dog doesn't like to move around as much. That's because getting the blood pumping also heats up the body. So minimize exercise with your dog during the hottest parts of the day.

Like people, dogs can suffer heat stroke and it can kill them. If your pet is panting and salivating heavily, has pale or purple gums or tongue, or seems weak or confused, he may be having a heat stroke. It is very important to get his body temperature down to a safe level as quickly as possible and you should seek veterinary help immediately. Elderly, overweight, or breathing-impaired dogs are at highest risk for heat stroke.

Have fun out there in the sun but remember to respect the heat. Be alert, plan ahead, and minimize its negative effects on your pet!

Shave Time!

This is the time of year when the hair starts flying! I've been shearing shedding dogs and matted dogs alike like sheep since the weather warmed up. Cats, too! Here are some insights about spring and summer shave-downs.

1. Non-shedding dogs with extensive matting, matted cats, and shedding dogs with packed undercoat are not the only pets who can benefit from a good, short clip. In fact, I highly recommend that shaves happen before pets get to that condition. If you have a high-maintenance pet and no time to maintain, or if you have a big shedder and you can't take it any more, a short haircut will help keep you and your pet much cleaner and more comfortable.

2. Many people clip dogs because it makes them "cooler." But a short shave does not necessarily help keep dogs cooler. Dogs with undercoat in particular often are more comfortable with their coat than without it. A properly kept coat will act as a good insulator against the heat. When the sun starts shining, the downy undercoat falls out, leaving a space between the guard hairs. The air in that space helps to buffer the animal against the heat and keep him comfortable. It's important that the undercoat is brushed regularly as it falls out so that it doesn't get tangled and caught and interfere with cooling.

3. Similarly, other types of coats can trap a layer of air if they are not taken too short. Non-shedding breeds like shih-tzus and bichons can benefit greatly from a "fluffier" clip. By leaving 1/4" - 1/2" of coat, we can mimic the summer coat of an undercoated breed and give them a little extra cooling power. However, if the dog is badly matted or lives a lifestyle that tends towards matting, shorter is always better! A matted coat is always hot and heavy and painful and should be removed ASAP.

4. Another complication sometimes seen in dogs shaved very short is sunburn! White dogs seem to be at greatest risk, but any dog is susceptible. They do not tan and are vulnerable for as long as their skin shows through their coat. Their backs are the most commonly affected. If your pet needs a very short shave, be sure to limit his sun exposure as much as possible. There are sunscreens made especially for dogs that can help. Also, a light t-shirt can help protect the dog from the sun. Sunburn in dog can result not only in painful burns, but scarring and permanent or semi-permanent hair loss in the affected area.

Because t-shirts and sunscreen are normally not good options for cats, and because cats are most safely clipped with a very short blade, it's always a good idea to keep shaved cats indoors until their coat has filled in enough to protect their skin from the sun.

5. While shaving is a great way to keep dogs clean and comfortable, keep in mind that some coats recover better than others. When a shedding coat is clipped short, it sometimes interferes with normal shedding. If the hairs don't fall out properly, sometimes new hair doesn't grow in to replace them. That can mean thin or short patches that don't grow as well as the rest of the coat, bald spots (particularly on the rump), or a coat that comes in with a much higher proportion of fuzzy undercoat (versus the more attractive topcoat). One way to counteract this is to spend time weekly either carding (pulling out undercoat by hand or with a special tool) or brushing with a rubber brush to encourage the short hairs to fall out as they normally would.

Shaving is a good option for a lot of pet owners for a number of reasons. Just remember, it's not appropriate for every pet and sometimes there are better ways to achieve your goals. Your groomer is a great source for advice regarding your best options for keeping your pet happy and healthy as the weather warms up.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

More on Anxiety

"Sometimes I think the primary difference between how my dog and I experience fear is that he tends to be afraid when there is legitimate danger, while I have the capacity -- and the inclination -- to scare myself with my highly evolved mind in the absence of any real threat." - Thom Rutledge, Embracing Fear

While I love the insight behind this statement, I think dogs are not quite immune from our particular brand of fear. More and more often humans are guilty of inadvertently creating and/or reinforcing inappropriate fears in dogs. In other words, we can teach our dogs to be afraid in the absence of real threat. Whoops! I think this is partly because of the growing social empathy towards dogs -- the move, as a society, to treat pets as family members rather than tools or property. From that perspective, the embracement of pets as people is fantastic and heart-warming and well, frankly, long overdue. But there are some side-effects, like an increased risk for "doggie phobias" in otherwise well-kept pets.

My last blog post talked about techniques for reducing stress surrounding the grooming experience. This is a more general top-down view on what causes dogs stress and how we can take steps to ensure that our dogs are not experiencing unnecessary or excessive anxiety and stress. The only pets with no stress are the ones who are beyond all harm, so it's important to recognize that anxiety, fear, and stress are natural, useful emotions that all living, breathing, problem-solving beings face. However, prolonged stress without reasonable cause takes a huge toll on the quality and length of life for both pets and people. Stress is not a bad thing. It serves a very important purpose -- it helps us act and react in ways that help to keep us safe and healthy. But like anything else, it should be experienced in moderation!

So let's talk about how stress develops. Although dogs do not have the level of self-awareness or memory capacity that people do, they experience the world similarly in a lot of ways. Mentally, intellectually, they are a lot like young children. They observe, they react, they record outcomes of behavior, and their brains automatically adjust based on their past experiences. Hunger is a kind of stress -- it's the body calling out that it requires more fuel. If dogs are fed at the same time every day, their brains and bodies become attuned. They get hungry at that time of day. People also learn to recognize "feeding times" and our family schedules develop to first create and then take advantage of this kind of body/mind conditioning. Our brains are constantly trying to anticipate what's coming and how to react. The brains of dogs do the same.

Like hunger, fear and anxiety are stress reactions wherein the body releases hormones and prepares itself for action. The brain believes that something significant is going to happen and triggers the body to prepare. Pupils dilate, the heart speeds up, and a host of other processes kick in. The big difference between when that starts and stops in pets and in people is that we have self-awareness and the ability to rationalize. We can think to ourselves, "There's no reason to be afraid," take some deep breaths, calm ourselves, slow our heart rate, and basically call off the alert. (Some of us are better at this than others!) But unlike dogs, we can choose to desensitize ourselves, develop a plan to do that, and then carry out that plan. We can make a conscious decision to expose ourselves to the source of our fear over and over until our body doesn't react anymore.

But dogs don't put value judgements on their emotions the way we do. They don't have any sense of whether or not a fear is irrational or not. They simply react, evaluate the outcome, and adjust. In other words, they learn from experience, automatically and unselfconsciously. When dogs hear thunder, they might be naturally afraid because it is loud and threatening. But when nothing happens to them, eventually thunder stops affecting them. They will certainly take shelter from the rain, but the noise is no more threatening than grass or rocks.

But thunderstorms are a great example of when human interaction with pets commonly creates or exacerbates fears. Rather than allowing the desensitization process to happen naturally and contribute zero energy of our own to the experience, we tend to want to jump in and fix it. But when we bring our concern and our stress about our pet's anxiety into the mix, we often inadvertently reinforce the fear. Or worse, if we've had a dog in the past with thunder phobias, we might go on high alert during a storm and help create anxiety in a new dog! The thunder is scary because it does affect the environment -- it makes the people stressed out. Thus fear is reinforced and thunder will continue to trigger anxiety in the dog. Often times, the human stress and dog stress will continue to escalate and the fear will become extraordinarily powerful. In the wild, wolves and bears and chipmunks do not leap through windows in a frenzied panic attack during thunderstorms. But if we domesticated them and tied their survival sense to our state of mind, they very well might!

There are plenty of specific techniques out there -- recipes if you will -- that give step by step ways to relate to dogs in a way that will prevent escalation of phobias, so I won't get into that here. But don't try to reinvent the wheel -- learn from the mistakes and successes of others. A search for "dog phobia" or "operant conditioning" will give you lots of places to start. And then customize your approach to suit you and your pet's unique needs. Keep your observations neutral, cultivate your curiosity, and don't get lost in frustration! The key is to remember not to feed the drama. Take the drama away. Neutralize the situation. Then set out to teach your dog, one situation at a time, when it is and is not appropriate to be afraid. Your dog wants to look to you for leadership, wants to know and depend on your assessments, so the path to a more peaceful pooch is open and unblocked before you. It's a never-ending process, not a destination, but it's a highly rewarding journey!