Today I noticed that Bronte was looking red and open.
Now before you go all assuming I’m saying something hinky, I mean her COAT. Her normally inky-black coat looked dull and had a reddish cast, and instead of lying smoothly against her body it was kind of puffed out oddly.
AHA. Coat blow.
Contrary to everything you may think about dogs–or may have experienced in your own dogs–dogs do not shed constantly. No dog should be walking around dropping hairs every day. The fact that so many DO is a sign of 1) malnutrition, and 2) stress.
More on the malnutrition later–it’s a big soapbox of mine. Suffice it to say that my dogs rarely if ever shed, but a couple or three times a year they blow coat. This is a healthy body’s way of renewing the coat, emptying the follicles and preparing for new growth. If you address the coat blow properly, you can minimize hair around the house and you’ll be shocked at how little you’re sweeping or vacuuming up.
Unlike our hair, which has one or a few hairs coming out of each little follicle, dogs have up to twenty-five hairs that grow out of each. Selective breeding has changed some of that, but the vast majority of all dogs still have skin that grows two kinds of hair at once: topcoat and undercoat. This is true even of the very smooth-coated dogs, the wire-haired dogs, many of the drop-coated dogs like the Havanese, etc.
The Cardigans belong to the group called “double coated” dogs, which is closest to the prototypical wolf coat. Shepherds, arctic dogs, Goldens, Labs, and about a hundred other breeds have a double coat.
In a double coat, the follicles grow a thick, shiny, hard, and water-repellent hair that makes what’s called the topcoat. The topcoat is what you see when you look at a dog. It is what establishes the color of the dog; it’s what reflects light. Topcoat hairs grow slowly and stay on the dog for a very long time; they shed after lots of months of growth.
In between and among the topcoat hairs are the hairs that actually form the majority of the coat. These are kinky, soft, extremely fine, and make up the undercoat. Undercoat does a marvelous job of insulating the dog against heat and cold; it also forms a very effective water barrier. Undercoat is often a different color from the topcoat, most often a red-grey, several shades lighter than the topcoat.
The undercoat sheds several times a year, renewing itself frequently. In unspayed bitches, which is what we’re swimming in at my house, the coat blow (shed of undercoat) usually happens a month or so after the end of the false pregnancy (so three or four months after the heat cycle), and/or on the dog’s birthday. I don’t know why the birthday shed happens, and it seems to be less dramatic than the hormonal sheds, but it definitely does occur. So I generally see two or three big coat blows each year, corresponding to their heat cycles and birthday. Each time, the whole undercoat is shed. Topcoat sheds are much less common; Clue has lost hers just once in 2.5 years and Bronte has never conspicuously shed her topcoat.
Aside from remembering when their heat cycles took place, the biggest sign for me that they are about to blow coat is a major color change in the coat. That’s because the undercoat is no longer behaving itself–it’s not lying politely under the topcoat. The follicles are getting ready to let it go, so the hair is pushed up and out and becomes visible at the surface of the dog’s coat. Clue, who has a silver grey and black topcoat, has an undercoat the color of cinnamon. When she is about ready to blow coat, she looks like she’s been dipped in tea. Instead of a cool platinum, she’s a rusty reddish grey. Bronte, who has a black topcoat and a yellow-grey undercoat, looks like her color is fading and there’s no shine to her coat.
So when I saw that she looked kind of wan and dull, I went over and pinched a bit of coat and pulled. Sure enough, I came away with a pinch of soft kinky undercoat.
So up went Bronte on the grooming table, and ten minutes later I had this:
An entire shopping bag (Cherrybrook, natch) full of lovely Cardi undercoat.
By the way, the tool I use for this is not that sold-on-TV object that rhymes with a Schwarzenegger movie. It’s a good old Mars stripping knife, held so the teeth are slightly toward me and then pulled through the coat. I could get just as good results using an undercoat rake if I was using my dryer (in fact, I probably will do exactly that tomorrow).
I like to force the coat blow to take place over just a couple of days (you can do this too)–it is easier on my vacuum and it brings the new coat in faster. Today I got a ton of undercoat out, and the action of pulling on the hair stimulated the follicles to let the hair go. Tomorrow she’ll be prime to drop even more, and a hot bath and massage, and then a good drying and raking, will probably bring just about all of it out. And then she’ll look “naked” (her coat won’t be puffed out by undercoat anymore, so she’ll look thin and “dry”–all of these are show-dog terms, with “dry” being the opposite of “dripping with coat”) but shiny and blue-black again. In a month or so the undercoat will be back in place and she’ll look like her gorgeous self once more.