The days are getting longer. The drifts of pet hair are getting deeper as the drifts of snow recede and our furry friends say good-bye to their winter coats and prepare for the summer season. As the temperatures are stretching toward the seventies we may look to our pets and ask ourselves the annual question: To shave or not to shave.
Shaving the coat on your dog or cat doesn’t exactly reduce the amount of shedding, they just shed shorter hairs that are less obnoxiously visible on the carpet and furniture. It may not bring a perfect resolution to the hair war, but it can at least bring a noticeable benefit. In breeds that are traditionally groomed with a short hair coat it can also reduce the maintenance required to prevent tangles and mats. Cats can benefit from shaving when they have coats that develop mats that pull at the skin and make them quite uncomfortable. These are usually the cats that won’t let you within a five yard radius of them while you are holding the comb that could prevent all the mat problems in the first place. At a veterinary hospital we can get around the major obstacle to shaving cantankerous cats-- the amount of first aid needed by the wielder of the clippers by the end of the procedure--by sedating or even anesthetizing them so as to get the job done with maximum swiftness and aesthetic value and minimum bloodshed. Beware the temptation to pull out the scissors in order to trim off that one pesky mat. It is nearly impossible to tell the difference between the end of the mat and the beginning of the skin. We spend quite a bit of time sewing up some dramatic lacerations caused in the name of de-matting a pet with scissors.
Outside of general grooming, the other reason many people decide to have their pet shaved is to keep them cooler during the hot weather. It is a perfectly understandable impulse when you are sweltering on a hot day to look over to your Husky, or Pomeranian and think to yourself “I am miserably hot as it is, if I had to go around in a fur coat like that I think I would die.” It turns out, however, that a dog’s body temperature regulation system is very different than ours, so cutting that coat off may not be doing the favor you think it is.
People cool their bodies by sweating. As the sweat evaporates from the skin it carries heat with it. Anything that makes a barrier to that evaporation, for instance a fur coat, reduces the effectiveness of our cooling process and we stay hot. Dogs, however, do not cool their bodies by evaporation of sweat from the skin, they rely primarily on evaporation of saliva from the tongue. Their coats actually play a secondary role in keeping them cool. The hairs of the undercoat trap a layer of body temperature air around the skin and the longer guard hairs of the top coat reflect the heat from the sun. So that hot looking fur coat actually functions like a portable air conditioner that reduces the amount of heat absorbed from the outside and makes for less work panting to keep cool. When we shave that system off we are allowing all the hot outside air and radiant heat from the sun to go directly to the skin and thus make the dog even hotter as well as putting all that newly exposed skin at risk for sunburn.
The last thing to consider before having your dog shaved down is what the long term consequences to the coat may be. Clippers, even when expertly used, will cause a little inflammation in the skin. Often this is of no consequence, especially in breeds that are traditionally clipped close. Many breeds that are not commonly shaved are that way for a reason. It is not unusual for Golden Retrievers, Chows, Pomeranians, and most arctic breeds to have their hair follicles so angered by the small amount of inflammation caused by the clippers that they never grow hair normally again. If you see a Malamute walking down the street with a wooly, felted coat there is a good chance that he has been shaved before and his coat has been ruined. This does not always happen with these types of dogs, but it is nearly impossible to guess which individuals will be affected. Your groomer will probably do whatever you ask, but if you talk with her she may be able to give you some sound advice about whether a shave-down is the best choice for your breed of dog.