Cat getting combed

When you think of your pet’s health, grooming might not be the first thing that springs to mind. But your dog’s or cat’s coat, ears and nails tell a bigger story about his well being than you might realize. Grooming is more than superficial — it helps to keep your pet comfortable.  

Equally important, grooming helps keep you in tune with how your pet is feeling. It’s a chance to get a close-up view of what’s happening on the outside of his body. Lumps, bumps or skin discharge can all come to light during a grooming session. Unfortunately, all too often I see pet owners make grooming mistakes that affect their pets’ health.

Poor Brushing Habits

Brushing your dog or cat may seem like a simple chore, but not doing it right can lead to bigger issues.

Dogs with thick double coats, such as Shetland Sheepdogs, may get a surface brushing, but if you’re not getting all the way down to the skin, mats can form and tighten. And it’s a vicious cycle: Your dog’s fur mats because you’re not doing the deep brushing, and then the mats go unnoticed because you’re not doing the deep brushing.

It’s also common for pet owners to miss brushing behind the ears or where the legs meet the body. Usually it’s because the animal fusses at being touched in those areas, but the result can be more mats. If you see your dog or cat biting at himself, it’s not necessarily because he has fleas — it may be because his skin is irritated from the tangles.

Speaking of mats and tangles, when they get wet, they get worse. To help prevent this, always brush pets thoroughly before a bath.

Brushing takes time and patience, but one of the biggest mistakes pet owners make is not brushing their pets at all. It’s not unusual to see this in medium- or long-haired breeds, such as Yorkshire Terriers or Persian cats. If brushing is a hassle, it’s better to have a professional trim your pet’s coat short than to let him get painfully matted or tangled.

Dealing with matted hair can lead to other injuries. I’ve seen dogs and cats with painful cuts and stab wounds caused by errant blades. Pets get matted, and people go at them with scissors. Their intentions are good — they want to get rid of the mat or tangle — but it doesn’t always end well. Cutting mats off at the base can be really dangerous, because the scissors can slice through the skin instead and cause serious injuries.

To help avoid all these issues, commit to a brushing routine or enlist the help of a professional groomer.

Overlooking the Ears

Grooming doesn’t stop with your pet’s fur; his ears and nails need to be properly attended to as well.

Ears are especially important — and not just on the outside. You need to pay careful attention to the insides of your pet’s ears. It’s counterproductive to clean ears too frequently — that can affect the ear’s own internal cleaning system — but it is important to give them a good sniff and a visual once-over every week to make sure they don’t smell bad or look dirty or reddened by infection. Looking your pet’s ears over regularly also has the added advantage of helping you to see when something isn’t right, which can help get an ear infection or other issue diagnosed and treated more quickly.

Avoiding the Paws

Grooming doesn’t stop at your pet’s feet though — take a good look at his nails. A dog’s nails should be kept short and even. If you can hear your dog’s nails clicking on the floor, they’re too long. Canine toenails that resemble eagle talons make it difficult for your dog to walk and increase the chance that he will get one caught in something and break it off. Ow!

Frequently, nails get too long, because people are afraid to trim them. Their pets don’t like having their paws touched, and maybe they’ve had a bad experience with “quicking” the dog — accidentally cutting into the quick, which is the blood vessel and nerve that supply the nail. The dog’s scream and all the blood is enough to put anyone off trimming nails, but you can learn how to do it properly. Talk with your vet or your groomer for guidance.

People also forget to trim the hair between the pads of the feet. If that hair isn’t kept trimmed, it can collect tar, stickers, small stones or foxtails, causing pain when the dog walks. In winter, ice can build up in the fur between the toes. That hair can also become matted if it isn’t kept trimmed, and it can make hardwood floors too slippery for dogs to walk on.

Another problem I see is that people don’t teach their pets at an early age to love being groomed, from a soothing brushing to a necessary nail trim. Before they are even a year old, what most dogs and cats have learned is that if they put up a fuss, their owners will back off. Even if your pet is older, with a little patience (and some treats), you can help him learn to accept or even look forward to grooming. The goal is to do everything you can to make grooming a positive experience for your pet — and yourself.

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