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Tails of Seattle: A pets blog

Your local source for news and tips about dogs, cats and other critters, featuring fun videos, reader photos, Q&As and more.

May 18, 2011 at 6:00 AM

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Veterinary Q&A: Should you dress your pet?

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

Dr. Sheryl McDevitt, a small-animal vet in Cashmere, Chelan County, answers this week's questions.
Thumbnail image for mcdevitt.JPGQuestion: Most dogs and cats come with their own fur coats, but that hasn't stopped owners from spiffing them up. Some of it is for function -- the boots on the Iditarod teams in Alaska spring to mind. Some of it is all about fashion. Under what conditions does a pet need a coat and/or other protective gear?

Answer: Dogs and cats do come with their own fur coats, and, except for a few specialty breeds that are really hairless, these coats are usually sufficient.

There are short-haired and long-haired dogs in all sizes. The heavy coat of a giant Newfoundland contrasts with the short coat of a Great Dane. Both are very large dogs. While the Newfie is happy in any sort of cold and windy weather, the Dane prefers to be indoors, protected from the same harsh conditions. The Pekingese and the Chihuahua follow suit at the other end of the size spectrum.

A layer of body fat adds insulation, and this is probably as helpful as much of the clothing that humans provide.

Functional "work clothing" varies with the breed and the job they perform.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for iditarod.JPG

Ray Redington Jr. booties up his team as he prepares to leave the Nikolai, Alaska, checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 8.
Photo by Bob Hallinen / The Anchorage Daily News

A dog's pads are able to withstand extreme temperatures and heavy use, but their toe webs are much more tender. While sled dogs' paws tolerate ice-cold surfaces all day long, boots protect the webbing on their feet from the abrasive effects of varying snow conditions these athletes face in competition.

Dogs whose work as hunters takes them into cold water -- and sometimes even colder air temperatures -- may be seen sporting vests and other gear that afford a degree of heat retention, buoyancy and visibility or protection in the brush.

Remember that an ID tag with your phone number on it ranks high on the list of canine paraphernalia with functional value.

Question: What types of clothing do you see most often?

Answer: In my practice, the most commonly worn garments are sweaters and coats. These are almost always on canine patients. They range from knitted pullovers to waterproof coats and down-filled jackets. Styles vary from waist-length to something approaching a full-fledged belted horse blanket.

We often need to peel our patients out of their wraps to do an exam, apply topical medications or administer injections.

Question: What about raincoats?

Answer: Raincoats appeal to some owners, yet many dogs seem oblivious to the rain, and almost all of the various canine haircoats are able to shed water quite well. The familiar full-body shake -- like the one in the middle of the bath -- is good for removing excess water and quickly restores the coat to a drier, more thermally protective state.

Question: How does muscle mass, or lack of it, contribute to a need for additional outerwear?

Answer: It is not so much muscle mass but body fat that helps maintain a normal body temperature in our pets. Many people confuse a fat dog for one that is very "muscular."

Sadly, about 63 percent of our pet dogs and cats are now considered overweight or obese. For many overweight animals, overheating may be a more pressing concern.
Some overweight dogs also have very heavy coats, and in a warm season or in a hot climate the combination can take a toll. In the short term, a hair cut may make these dogs more comfortable.

Over the long haul they really need their humans to help them shed some excess weight. Pet-food producers are keen on this now, and there are some terrific weight-loss programs available. If you need help, check with your veterinarian.

Question: What about cooling accessories? What is appropriate for pets' needs at the other end of the spectrum?

Answer: There is usually more than one factor involved when a dog's body overheats -- like hot, humid weather, serious physical exertion, a thick, heavy haircoat, a genetically insufficient cooling system, and sometimes obesity. The best thing to do is to change one or more of those elements and you effectively cool the dog.

For example, get them into the shade, or a children's wading pool, decrease or stop their physical activity, keep heavy haircoats short during the summer months and maintain a healthy body weight.

Question: What about short-nosed dogs, such as bulldogs, Boston terriers and pugs?

Answer: All dogs cool themselves by panting. The movement of air over their moist tongue, mouth and upper airways acts like a swamp cooler to reduce their body temperature. These short-nosed (brachycephalic) breeds are genetically shortchanged on the length of their face, and therefore, the size of their cooling system. It's not just their short noses, but the shortening of the entire cooling surface used for panting that is important.

These breeds often have more issues with overheating than withstanding the cold.
In addition, their brachycephalic genes are linked to a group of problems, collectively called "obstructive airway syndrome." This is a variable combination of deformed nostrils (stenotic nares), too much soft tissue crowded in the back of the throat (elongated soft palate) and a smaller-than-average windpipe (hypoplastic trachea). Taken together, these problems reduce their efficiency of cooling, too.

On a hot, humid day when some brachycephalic dogs are actively exerting themselves, these small and inefficient cooling systems can become overloaded and occasionally fail.

Question: What is a dog's normal body temperature?

Answer: Both dogs and cats have a normal body temperature range from 100 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Question: With these perspectives on "dressing" our pets, what part of this really matters? Is it unkind to put a bonnet on kitty and put him on parade in a doll stroller? Is it problematic if that Chihuahua wears a sweater as she rides in the handlebar basket of a mobility scooter?

Answer: Actually, none of it matters and all of it matters. Some may think that dressing up a pet is silly or demeaning. But look hard and you will see more than just the clothing. Clothing is an act of humans caring for their pets. It reflects our need to fill our lives with close relationships and a testament to how much we value our companion animals.

Dr. Sheryl McDevitt

McDevitt graduated from WSU's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1977. She and her husband, Dr. Mick McDevitt, have been practicing at their small-animal clinic in Cashmere for 33 years. They live in Leavenworth and have two dogs and one cat, who is on long-term loan to a friend.

•   •   •

Read our past Q&As:

Veterinary Q&A: Lumps and bumps
Veterinary Q&A: Puppy and geriatric exams
Veterinary QA: What dogs can safely chew
Veterinary QA: Why does it cost so much to clean a dog's teeth?
Veterinary QA follow-up: More on cleaning a dog's teeth

Veterinary QA: When to spay or neuter

•   •   •

Do you have a question about pet health? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local vet in an upcoming post.

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