What’s the Deal With... Cats and Dogs Who Have No Hair?

Vidar Skauen, Animal Photography

Hairless kitties and pups haven’t just been subjected to a bad experience with an overzealous groomer. In the words of Lady Gaga, "Baby, they were born this way."

The question is why?

How Exactly Hairless Cats and Dogs Came to Be

“It’s a genetic defect,” says Dr. Patrick Hensel, DVM, DACVD, associate professor of veterinary dermatology at the University of Georgia. “Then someone thought it was a cool trait and decided to breed it.”

The results: cat breeds, like the Sphynx, and hairless dogs, including the Peruvian Inca Orchid and the Chinese Crested.

There are typically two main reasons why people choose hairless animals for pets: They want a critter who doesn’t shed, or they're allergic to animals and hoping that a hairless dog or cat will be hypoallergenic.

According to Dr. Hensel, that second feature is up for debate.

“There’s a question whether it’s the actual hair people are allergic to or the skin scales that are shed,” he says. “We’re not 100 percent sure.”

But one thing is certain — fur-free breeds are predisposed to more dermatological problems.

5 Popular Breeds of Hairless Cats and Dogs

Chinese Crested dog breed

Eva-Maria Kramer, Animal Photography

Chinese Crested

Hairless dogs appeared in China as early as the 13th century. Chinese Cresteds, which were recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1991, come in two varieties — hairless and coated (also known as Powderpuffs). The hairless version has a ridge of fur on his head resembling a mohawk, as well as soft, silky hair on his ears, face, tail, feet and part of his legs. The hair and skin can be any color or combination of colors. This is a people-loving pup who's agile — he’s an excellent climber and jumper — and very bright. Translation: Keep his mind busy with puzzle toys if you don’t want him to spend his time figuring out how to place orders online for cases of dog cookies.

Sphynx Cat Breed

Vidar Skauen, Animal Photography

Sphynx

The Sphynx is the best known of the hairless cat breeds, and he was developed in the 1970s through crosses between hairless cats and Rex cats. The medium-size Sphynx has a suede-like coat, a wrinkled face and satellite-dish ears that give him the expression of a wise and kindly visitor from outer space. His skin comes in almost any color or pattern, including solid, pointed, tabby and tortoiseshell. (Be aware that grooming a Sphynx is a labor-intensive project that involves wiping his eyes daily and bathing his oily skin weekly to monthly to prevent clogged pores.) This smart and curious feline has a distinct sense of humor, and he'll do anything for attention. Expect him to bask in the sunniest spots of a room during the day and snuggle beneath the bedcovers at night.

Peruvian Inca Orchid Dog Breed

Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography

Peruvian Inca Orchid

Like his cousin, the Chinese Crested, this Andean sighthound comes in hairless and coated varieties. The dogs were called perros flora (flower dogs) by Spanish conquistadors because they were found living amid orchids in the homes of the Incas. In Quechua, the language of the Incas, their name meant “dog without vestments” — in other words, naked canine. The hairless Peruvian Inca Orchid is born without fur, except for the occasional small thatch of hair atop his head, his toes and the tip of his tail. They come in three sizes: small, medium and large. Most PIOs are black with pink spots, but they can also sport such colors as gold, tan, mahogany, chocolate, blue or gray.

Peterbald cat breed

Vidar Skauen, Animal Photography

Peterbald

This unusual Russian breed originated in the city of St. Petersburg as the offspring of a Don Sphynx (also known as a Don Hairless) and an Oriental Shorthair. These cats come in all colors and patterns recognized by the American Cat Fanciers Association and four coat types: The Ultrabald is born completely hairless, with soft skin that's sticky to the touch. The Chamois, or Flock, also has soft skin, with little to no visible hair (some cats have slightly longer or more dense fur on the legs, tail and face). The Velour variety has soft hair covering his entire body that may be sparse or dense, ranging in length from 1 millimeter to 5 millimeters. The Brush coat is unlike any other breed: Some of their coats are fine, with both long and short hairs, while others are heavier, with a dense, wiry and irregular texture. Whiskers are always kinky, curly or broken in appearance.

Xoloitzcuintli

Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography

Xoloitzcuintli

This breed’s name isn’t as difficult to pronounce as it looks: show-low-eats-queent-lee. Or just call him “show-low,” for short. Depictions of the Xoloitzcuintli in Mexico date as far back as pre-Columbian times, so he's considered to be a primitive breed that developed with little human intervention. The clever canine is characterized by his bare-naked body, with large ears that stand erect, satiny skin and a jaunty, low-set tail. (His coated sibling sports short, smooth hair.) And like the Peruvian Inca Orchid, this breed comes in toy, miniature and standard sizes. Xolos are intelligent, independent dogs who tend to be aloof around strangers, but they are very loving, loyal and protective toward their family members.

What You Need to Know About Their Skin

“An animal’s coat has many specific functions,” Dr. Hensel says. “It protects the skin from sunlight, and it regulates the skin’s surface temperature and humidity.”

For this reason, hairless dogs and cats are more prone to sunburns and skin cancer. Their skin also tends to dry out more because water evaporates faster without hair to lock it in.

“We’ll also see more skin infections, especially in hairless cats who tend to get an overgrowth of yeast on their skin and around their nail beds,” Dr. Hensel says.

If you have a hairless dog or cat, it’s important to use an animal-safe sunscreen if your pet is going to be exposed to sunlight. And if your hairless pet's skin appears dry or scaly, mention it to your vet.

“There are plenty of topical creams, both prescription and over-the-counter, that can be used for moisturizing and maintenance,” Dr. Hensel says. Ask your veterinarian about the right ones for your hairless pet.


For answers to other curious questions about animals, check out our other "What's the Deal With . . ." stories.

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