Brushing and bathing your pet regularly isn't just about appearances -- it's also great for his health. If the term "pet grooming" brings to mind a dog-show poodle with ankle pompons dyed bubble-gum pink, hold that thought. Basic grooming is an essential part of caring for any pet, experts say.
There's one grooming tool that pet owners should whip out on a daily or weekly basis: the brush. There are dozens of reasons to stroke your pet.
It prevents matting. Those clumps of hair aren't just ugly -- they can also be painful. "Just like a too-tight ponytail, matting pulls the skin," says Bernadine Cruz, DVM, associate veterinarian at Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Hills, California. Matted fur is also an invitation for certain infections.
It may cut down on hair balls. "Sometimes hair balls need to be removed surgically," says Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Brushing out loose hair keeps it out of your kitty's stomach.
It stimulates circulation. The massaging action of the bristles brings blood to the surface of your pet's skin, which helps to keep her coat healthy, says Deirdre Chiaramonte, DVM, staff internist at the Animal Medical Center in New York City.
It strengthens their core. "Brushing triggers a reflex in animals -- a twitching along the spine -- that engages a dog or cat's core muscles," says Dr. Chiaramonte. (If only ab work were that easy for us!)
It breeds familiarity. "Routinely grooming your pet will help you recognize what's normal and what's not," says Dr. Cruz. Call your vet if you notice a new bump, flaky or cracked skin, black streaks on the nails, or red staining under the eyes or around the paws, ears, or anus.
It makes your animal happy. Not only are you giving your pet your complete attention, but the physical act of brushing releases feel-good endorphins, says Dr. Chiaramonte
Your dog should get a bath at least every three months, the ASPCA says. If he sleeps in your bed or if you have dander, pollen, or dust allergies, you can do it weekly. "As long as you're using a shampoo that's specifically for pets, frequent shampooing is fine," says Dr. Cruz. Human shampoos are too acidic and can cause a pet's skin to dry out, crack, shed more, and even become more hospitable to fungus.
Cats generally hate being dipped in water, and most of the time there's no need to bathe a feline. Still, occasionally cats do have to get wet. If yours has gotten particularly dirty, go ahead and bathe her but be sure to use an unscented cat shampoo. "Cats have a scent they consider uniquely theirs and don't like to smell like anything else," says Dr. Colleran. You can also try a dry shampoo made for cats, which eliminates the need for dreaded water. Dr. Cruz recommends a wet wipe to gently rub down the fur daily, which can help reduce dander and other potential allergens like pollen or dust (you can do the same with your dog).
Some breeds like poodles, schnauzers, or shih tzus have fast-growing fur and may need a trim every one to three months. With other breeds, whether to keep their fur short or shaggy is up to you. But all dogs should get the following care, experts say:
A mani-pedi. "Once an animal's nails start making contact with the floor, it's time to snip," advises Dr. Chiaramonte. Nails that are too long can affect the way dogs or cats walk and can make it hard for them to grip the floor. The nails can also become ingrown and infected. The trick is to cut just above the quick -- the blood vessels and nerves that supply the nail -- but not into it, which will cause pain and bleeding.
Facial fur trim. The shaggy hairstyle Justin Bieber sported until recently may still be popular with tweens but it's not for pets. Any hair that gets in your pet's eyes and might obscure vision should be trimmed back, says Dr. Cruz.
A Brazilian. Not a full one, of course, but most animals will benefit from what's called a "sanitary trim": a shaving or close trim around the anus, vulva, or penis, using small electric pet clippers. Keeping the hair short around these areas will help prevent feces or urine getting trapped in the fur and, for females, can help keep the vulva free from a rash.
You can do all the clipping, cutting, and trimming yourself, but if you have an anxious pet, a fragile older one, or just a case of serious matting, professional grooming may be your best bet. "In these situations, what might take you two days can be done in 25 minutes by a groomer," says Ali McLennan, pet groomer for the Animal Planet show Underdog to Wonderdog.
During the dog days of summer you'd think the answer would be "absolutely." But a shorter coat doesn't always equal a cooler pet. For one thing, animals don't sweat through their skin as we do -- they sweat through their tongue and their paw pads. "An animal's coat is its sunscreen," says Dr. Cruz. So if your pet spends a lot of time in the sunlight, a super-short coat (anything less than an inch) will offer less protection against cancer-causing UV rays. And for some breeds, like collies, golden retrievers, and Pomeranians, the hot-looking undercoat actually serves as a cooling device. That said, some breeds do find relief from a shorter summer style. Ask your vet what is appropriate for your dog or cat. For dogs you can opt to shave just the belly -- that way, when your dog lies down on a cool surface, the coolness travels more quickly through his skin, says Dr. Cruz.
In a word, yep! Skin cancer is one of the most common types of malignancy found in dogs and cats. Try to keep your pets out of the sun when rays are the strongest (between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.). Believe it or not, you can buy waterproof sunscreen formulated for pets (scentless for cats). Be sure to pay extra attention to exposed areas like the nose and ears, says veterinary cancer specialist Gregory K. Ogilvie, DVM, director of the CVS Angel Care Cancer Center in San Diego, California.