Shedding in Pets: What's Normal, and When Is It Time to Talk to Your Veterinarian?
Bald spots, itching nonstop, and changes in fur—we asked the experts to weigh in on it all.
You love your fur baby more than anything, so the first hint of an abnormal change might have you worried. This is especially true when it comes to shedding. Sure, it's a very normal—albeit, messy and hard-to-clean—occurrence that pretty much comes with the pet package, but it can become alarming when it happens at a more rapid pace and in large amounts. In essence, shedding is a good thing and nearly all animals (humans included) shed—its purpose is to replace old hairs with new ones. "Just like in people overtime, hairs will get damaged, they'll break, so there's kind of a turnover cycle, if you will, in animals where hairs will fall out and new hairs will grow to continue to protect them," explains Gary Richter, M.S., D.V.M., holistic veterinarian at Montclair Veterinary Hospital. "The hair coat serves a purpose as insulation from heat and cold, it protects the animals from trauma like bites and scratches and that sort of thing."
But there are some animals out there that shed more or less than others. How do you know when to be concerned? Here's a look at what's normal when it comes to your pet's shedding, what's not, and when you should take your pet to the veterinarian for a wellness check.
Normal: Your pet grows a thicker coat in winter that it sheds during warmer months.
A lot of animals will do this seasonally, according to Dr. Richter. "There are certain breeds of dogs, such as Huskies and Malamutes, that will do something called 'blowing' their coat, which means that there's a really dramatic shed to make way for new hairs and frequently that's a seasonal affair," he says.
Abnormal: Your pet is scratching nonstop.
If Fido can't seem to get relief from scratching—or is losing hair as a result of it—parasites such as mites or fungal infections like ringworm may be to blame. "Dogs with mites will often be very itchy, have red skin, which may become thickened or scabbed, and will usually experience hair loss restricted to the face and feet, but in severe cases can spread to the whole body," says Dr. Evin Lyons, D.V.M., Veterinary Geneticist at EmbarkVet. "This is quite different from normal shedding, and dogs experiencing this kind of hair loss should be examined by a veterinarian."
Normal: Your pet spends the day mostly indoors.
According to Dr. Lyons, animals exposed to significant amounts of artificial light (in other words, all of our indoor pets) may shed all year round. "Consistent light simulates daylight, which interrupts the normal photoperiod that an animal living outside would otherwise experience," she says. "For this reason, you may see more shedding all year round in certain dogs."
Abnormal: Your shedding pet is drinking and urinating more often.
There are several endocrine abnormalities that include shedding and tend to be coupled with other clinical signs such as increased drinking and urination, requiring veterinary attention, explains Dr. Lyons. One such condition is Cushing's Disease. "Excessive amounts of cortisol in the bloodstream suppress the hair growth rate, leading to hair loss," she explains. "Other endocrine or hormonal diseases can affect the rate of hair growth, and often lead to distinct patterns of alopecia that are different from normal shedding."
Normal: Your pet is under a lot of stress.
Stress is a huge factor that affects animals in many ways, particularly when it comes to hair loss. "With severe stress, many hairs enter the resting phase at once, causing them to be shed together rather than at different times," Dr. Lyons explains. Again, this is a good time to check in with the veterinarian, but also a good time to start thinking about if there is something in the house that's been stressing your pet out. Has someone new been introduced to the home? Are there loud noises coming from outside? Those things can really be an issue as well.
Abnormal: Your pet has bald patches or thin areas of fur.
This can often be the result of allergies or some sort of a medical issue such as a thyroid problem, notes Dr. Richter. "Sometimes, other symptoms such as changes in appetite and water consumption, activity level, and overall demeanor come along with shedding when there's a medical issue going on," he says. "If you notice any of these symptoms or feel like your pet is shedding abnormally or even just differently, you should probably check in with your veterinarian."
Normal: It's merely in your pet's genes.
Like in humans, there are also many genetic factors that explain why an animal sheds a certain amount or in a certain way. In fact, Embark's co-founder and chief science officer, Dr. Adam Boyko, is one of the scientists who discovered many of the genes associated with these traits. "There are actually three specific genes that are directly associated with the different appearances of hair coats in dogs: RSPO2 is associated with wiry coats (like poodles), FGF5 corresponds to a short or long hair coat, and KRT71 correlates with a curly haircoat," explains Dr. Lyons. "Interestingly, dogs with wiry coats are low shedding, which is associated with a variant in the RSPO2 gene."
Abnormal: Your pet's over grooming.
Sometimes cats, in particular, groom themselves when they're under a lot of stress, since it is a sort of self-soothing behavior, which leads to bald spots. "If you notice this in addition to thinning fur, or no fur on certain areas, however, that can be an indication of either a medical issue or maybe some sort of anxiety or stress on the cat's part," says Dr. Richter.
Normal: Your pet hardly sheds at all.
Many long-haired dogs, such as poodles, appear to not shed, but that's not true. Yes, they shed less, but they still lose hair—it's just not as rapidly and with a slower turnover than a short-haired dog. "This is why these types of dogs need to go to the groomer, because the hair just keeps growing and it gets longer as opposed to it grows to a predetermined length and then falls out," says Dr. Richter. "If you didn't take them to the groomer, it's not like they would have the same hairs in their body their entire life, it's just a slower turnover than it is for other dogs." Because of this, he explains that poodles are less likely to trigger allergies in people because they shed less.