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The truth about cats, dogs — and hairballs

Do dogs need deodorant? Why do dogs sniff butts? And what's the deal with hairballs? Veterinary specialist and author Justine Lee answers your odd pet questions.
/ Source: TODAY

Ever wonder why your pooch insists on sniffing butts? You can find the answer to this question and much more in veterinary specialist Justine Lee's "It’s a Dog’s Life…but It’s Your Carpet." Here's an excerpt:

Is your dog’s nose an accurate indicator of his overall health?
The truism goes that the eye can lie, but the nose knows. However, I think that when Anonymous wrote this gem, she was referring to the guilty party with the perfume-scented collar rather than the hairy housemate in the leather collar. In general, Fido’s nose is not an indicator of how sick or healthy he is. Check out your dog’s nose. You may notice it fluctuates between slightly dry to soft and moist, depending on the day, weather, and humidity. A dog’s nose usually feels wet due to the lateral nasal glands’ secretions that keep it moist.1 There is, however, no direct correlation with the health of your pet and their sniffer. If you notice that your dog’s nose is excessively thickened, cracked, or bleeding, then that might warrant a vet exam, as certain conditions, such as pemphigus or lupus, can present this way. But the dif- ference will be very obvious. Just remember this handy little rhyme: If it’s dry or wet, no vet; but if it looks sick, get hip! This should help you weed out your parental anxieties from the true emergencies.

Why do dogs like to sniff butts?
Why, hello there! Ever wonder why dogs like to sniff each other’s butts in the dog park? Dogs have two anal glands just on the inside of their rectum. They release a foul brownish discharge with a strong, unique scent. Both male and female dogs have these, and that’s why you may notice dogs “identifying” each other by a sniff of their scent glands. While this may seem crude to you, it’s the dog equivalent of a handshake and introduction. Thank dog that evolution got us out of that one.

How well do dogs smell?
Isn’t it great how Tracker can find that dead, decaying carcass in the woods from hundreds of feet away? Dogs have an amazing sense of smell, which they used to hunt and survive in the past, and to find and dig up things better left alone in the present. (“Hey Ma! Look what I found!”) For comparison, humans have approximately 5 million olfactory sensory cells that we use to smell with, while dogs can have up to 220 million. That’s the reason why police use bloodhounds and drug dogs to make their busts: their sense of smell is a million times stronger than a human’s!2 I once had a patient named “Kilo” who was a police dog; as his name suggested, his schnoz was able to sniff out illicit drugs behind drywall, in crawl spaces, and in all the hidden spots where druggies hide their stash. Unfortunately, he started passing out when he got excited, due to a heart arrhythmia, but since we put a pacemaker in him, Kilo is back to bustin’ the bad guys! Given the state of urban living today, I suppose we should be thankful our sniffer isn’t stronger.

Why don’t dogs get hairballs?
Unlike cats, dogs are not particularly fastidious when it comes to cleaning themselves—remember, they roll in dead, decaying animals, race into murky bodies of water like they’re on fire, and don’t mind eating each other’s poop. I’m not quite sure why dogs tolerate being dirty, stinky, and messy, but like many children and some human males, they just don’t seem to mind. Cats, on the other hand, groom excessively (and therefore don’t require baths). They have a naturally barbed tongue that grabs shedding hair, which they later purge all over your carpet. Because dogs don’t groom (or don’t care), they don’t develop hairballs. Instead, they develop weird smells and doggy dreadlocks as they are waiting for you to brush and bathe them!Why do dogs shed?My boyfriend thinks that I leave my hair everywhere to purposely “mark” my territory, but since he only dates brunettes, it wouldn’t really help me. Hair isn’t effective as a territorial flag, anyway—stray winds and foot traffic make it unlikely to stay put. Strategically abandoned clothing, on the other hand . . . well, let’s just say we all shed things for different reasons.Dogs shed to help them regulate their temperature as the seasons change. Since your little furball doesn’t have the option of donning a warm parka in the winter or getting buck naked in the summer, his coat has to be able to adapt to environmental changes. In extreme conditions, not only does hair protect him from cold, heat, and damaging UV light rays, but it also provides a protective barrier against any skin trauma while he’s running through the woods, playing with other dogs, or getting bitten by insects.During periods of short daylight, your dog’s brain tries to maintain a thicker coat for warmth. He’ll even grow in “secondary” hairs in the fall and winter to add more warmth. In the spring and summer months, you may find yourself Swiffering your house much more frequently, because your dog’s brain is now affected by the longer photoperiod (the amount of daylight he is exposed to), and he will begin to shed more aggressively. Often, he will only shed his shorter undercoat and develop a coarser, longer hair coat during the spring and summer; this helps act as a protective buffer and provides a cooler layer around the skin. For this reason, we don’t advocate shaving dogs that spend time outdoors, as they will (a) sunburn, (b) get attacked by insects, (c) get hotter (despite looking naked), and (d) get ridiculed by neighborhood dogs.

How do I make Fido shed less?
My non-vet friends always fearfully ask, “Is something wrong with your cat?” before they reach over to pet one of them. The thing is, I often shave my short-haired cats down to a “peach fuzz” level. I do it because I can’t stand the extra hair shedding in the house, and no, it’s not infectious (unless I don’t like you). Maybe it’s not a typical, normal, healthy way to decrease shedding in the house, but hey . . . I’m a vet, and the clippers are just too accessible.And to be honest, aside from constant clipping and grooming, there’s not much you can do besides shaving to stop shedding at the source. While there are liquids, ointments, liniments, sprays, and other supplements advertised, don’t believe the hype— otherwise we’d all be using it, and several iconically bald actors would be short a career. In general, dogs shed more in the spring and summer, so it’s important to brush Fido daily (or at least weekly) in these months, particularly if he’s got medium to long hair. The more hair you brush or rake out (with those circular scrapping brushes), the less it will cling to your furniture, floor, and feet like a bad sympathy prom date. There are a few breeds that don’t shed, such as the poodle or bichon frise, but even these dogs need to be groomed frequently.

Why do dogs shed more at the vet?
Even the courageous Underdog gets nervous at the veterinary clinic, and you may notice that he starts shedding massive amounts of hair when he walks in. This is the fight-or-flight instinct kicking in. Not only does the heart rate increase from stress, but so does the respiratory system—he starts panting or breathing harder in an attempt to get more oxygen into his lungs. Your dog recognizes where he’s at, and his body is preparing for escape mode (“Help me! I sense a mean vet coming in!”). At the same time, all the blood vessels and hair follicles are dilating to allow blood to flow to the escape muscles, and for this reason hair may start to shed like mad. Don’t worry too much (or your own hair may start to come out); signs should resolve shortly after you bring him home. And hopefully next time, your dog will remember that there are no mean vets in existence—or so we like to think!

Why do dogs “peel out” and scrape their back legs after urinating or defecating?Dogs have scent glands in their paw pads, and often scrape their back legs to mark their territory after they urinate or defecate. My dog, JP, a pit bull that I rescued from the ghetto streets of Philly, loves to scrape his back legs after he poops, it’s his manly (albeit neutered) way of telling other dogs that “JP was here, and he keeps it real.” While “peeling out” is a predominant trait among “intact” males (read: the testicled ones), neutered males and even females have been known to do this as well. They’re basically trying to tell the next dog that they were here and that this was “their spot.” Remember lunchtime in the high school cafeteria? Sort of like that, but with the added bonus of public defecation.Incidentally, male deer will also do this (it’s called “scraping”), and hunters use the scrape mark as identification that a buck is in the area. When I take JP out in the woods during the fall (in fluorescent orange garb, of course), I don’t exactly mind that he fakes out the hunters by scraping the ground. I just wish that PETA were paying him!

Is Fido’s front limb an arm or a leg?
Anatomically, we generally consider the forelimb an arm and a hindlimb the back leg. This is because the anatomy of most species is similar, with the exception that man became upright. Your dog’s front leg or arm consists of the humerus, radius, and ulna—like your arm—while his hind leg consists primarily of the femur, tibia, and fibula. So while you are bipedal, you still have a similar structure; you just look more like a monkey.Do dogs get goose bumps?
Goose bumps, otherwise known as piloerection, are a fancy way of saying that the hair is standing erect in the follicle. Hello! While it’s not commonly called “dog bumps,” goose bumps are harder to see in Fido due to all that fur. Nevertheless, Fido can still get them.Humans often get goose bumps from cold exposure or fear. Since Fido has a nice, thick warm coat of fur to keep him warm, he rarely develops goose bumps from cold exposure. Rather, dog goose bumps may be due to feeling nervous, fearful, or demonstrating aggression toward another animal or person. Fido is basically trying to make himself appear larger and fluffier (i.e., “Look at how big I am, stay away!”) to intimidate the stranger.The development of goose bumps is actually a complicated neurotransmitter reflex, and has been associated with an affective defense behavior.3 Goose bumps are just one of the many signs seen with this defensive behavior. Dogs may also show a lowered stance, a slow “hunting” gait toward the “attacking animal,” an upright (but not wagging) tail, and goose bumps over the shoulders and tail rump area. If you notice “dog bumps” in the form of raised hair over Fido’s neck or rump, approach with caution!

Do I need deodorant for my dog?Another reason to love dogs! While your hairy boyfriend may have pit stains on his T-shirt, your dog never will—he doesn’t sweat through his armpits. One of his only ways of sweating is through the pads of his feet. That said, I work with a lot of fit, athletic dogs (such as greyhounds or sled dogs) and have yet to see a dog’s feet sweat while exercising. Your dog’s paw sweat glands are a minor way of heat release, as the main way he thermoregulates and controls his body temperature is by panting.And so, to answer your question, no, your dog does not need deodorant! Instead, make sure he has plenty of cool water, shade, and time to pant and blow off all that hot air. This is particularly important to remember when he’s running back and forth with a tennis ball in his mouth while you have him out for a walk. You may think it’s cute for him to carry his own toy back home, when really it’s safer for you to carry it back (along with his poop bag!). Lugging his own tennis ball in his mouth may occlude his ability to pant well and can make him overheat.

Why do dogs have dewclaws?Why does your dog have that cute but annoying little claw on the side of his leg, the one that will occasionally get caught on things and start bleeding? That first “finger” or digit is frequently absent in some dogs; if it’s present, you’re the proud owner of a dog with a dewclaw. This extra finger can vary from a tiny vestigial skin flap to a fully developed finger. Evolutionarily, dogs didn’t have to hold pens or use utensils, so their need for a thumb was reduced to a minimum and they were left with this cute, albeit useless, appendage. Some dogs can live with them without ever having any problems, but hunting dogs, working dogs, or those who hike and run a lot may have a higher chance of having their extra finger or toe traumatized.These little dewclaws are often removed by the breeder within the first few days of birth, but if your dog happens to still have his, you can easily have the dewclaws removed when he’s neutered under anesthesia. Otherwise, you might end up having to pay for it later on a more emergent (and more expensive) visit when he rips his dewclaw off while running in the dog park.If Fido can’t pick or blow his nose, will his nostrils get clogged?Thankfully, Fido doesn’t have to blow or pick his nose. Nor do you have to do it for him. For breeds with a smushed face, this would be physically hard to do.You may hear Fido periodically sneeze to try to get something out of his nose. Ever hear Fido reverse sneeze? That’s the loud, snorting noise that sounds like Fido is choking and dying; in reality, he’s probably just trying to clean out his nose passageways. That reverse sneeze basically changes the pressure in the nasal cavity and causes Fido to suck in all that mucous-y goodness and swallow it. If Fido is constantly sneezing, something may be stuck in his nose, so bring him to a vet to get it checked out. Otherwise, he should manage just fine without any Kleenex.Do dogs snore or get sleep apnea?When you pick that first puppy, do remember that certain breeds snore more than others. Snoring is the noise caused by the vibration of tissue in the back of the throat. A word to the wise: if you’re a light sleeper, a bulldog, mastiff, Lhasa apso, pug, shih tzu, Pekingese, or shar-pei may not be the breed for you! We’re talking massive vibrations, people.

Usually, the anatomy of Schnauzy’s nose and throat are what cause him to snore, so there’s little that can be done, but sometimes certain factors like obesity, allergies, aging, and certain medications do play a part. It’s important to distinguish snoring from difficulty breathing, a tracheal problem (tracheal collapse), or even from reverse sneezing. When in doubt, videotape the episode to show your veterinarian. Otherwise, if Schnauzy has been snoring all his life, you might want to invest in earplugs and accept the fact that your dog will provide the musical accompaniment to your dreams—all of them.If I mix Fluffy’s kibble with food coloring, will it make her poop easier to find in the yard?Sigh. This is the type of question I can’t believe I went to vet school for (thirteen years!). Nevertheless, we will forge ahead.Rumor has it that Iams/Eukanuba actually considered this a few years back. This well-known dog food company is known for their pink logo and color, and it was suggested by a client that they make their dog food pink so it’d be, um, easier to find upon depletion. Thankfully, they haven’t heeded that advice yet. I’ll continue the story by saying that one day, hours after a particularly hearty beet salad, what I saw in the bathroom made me wonder if I might be dying. I called my mother to say good-bye, then called my sister to remind her that she still owed me $400. After a few minutes of fear, and then finally enlightenment, I sat back down and thought, “Hmmm. Next year, I’ll plant radishes instead of beets.” For those of you who still don’t get it, go out and eat a large beet salad and see what I mean. . . . If we could feed them to dogs, I think we’d have the problem solved. The moral of this story is, yes, it’s certainly possible to dye Fluffy’s poop, just be forewarned—your neighbors may find you to be very, very strange.

Why does my dog’s pee turn my lawn brown?Animals and humans have a high nitrogen content in their urine, but dogs are the ones who pee outside and get caught red-handed. While nitrogen is one of the key ingredients in fertilizer, the concentration and amount in dog urine is so high that it actually burns and kills the grass. You can minimize the damage to your lawn using these tricks of the trade. First, have your dog do what my dog, JP, does: lift his leg and pee through the chain-link fence onto the neighbor’s lawn. My neighbor has such horrible brown spots and really should take the time to care for his lawn (luckily, he doesn’t have any pets, so the likelihood he’ll buy this book and discover this is minimal). Secondly, consider constructing a graveled area in the back of your yard. I have a graveled area with hostas and ferns, and when I give JP the command to “go to the back,” he knows what I mean. I’ve trained him so that it’s the first place he goes to urinate, without any grass burning in the process. Third, consider watering the area down after your dog urinates. Dilution is the solution to pollution, so you can minimize the damage and severity of grass burns by just pouring water on it. Finally, there are holistic medications out there that work by changing the pH of Fido’s pee, but as a veterinarian, this can be playing with fire (or nitrogen). Certain crystals or stones may form in an altered urine pH, so changing Fido’s pH just to save your lawn is not safe unless it’s medically advised.

If I get my dog’s gastrointestinal worms, will it help me lose weight?Gastrointestinal parasites can result in severe blood loss through the intestinal tract, weight loss, chronic diarrhea, or anal itching. Not an ideal way for you to lose weight (unless you are one of those self-flagellating types). There’s also the issue that most gastrointestinal parasites are specific to a particular host species. In other words, if it’s a cat or dog intestinal worm, this worm would typically stay in the intestinal tract of that species. However, if the parasite gets into a nontraditional species (i.e., to you), the worm doesn’t “know” where to go; instead of just migrating through the intestines, the worm ends up migrating throughout the body, including the eyes and skin. This can result in cutaneous larva migrans (a fancy way of saying that larvae are migrating through your skin, body, and eyes), and can even result in blindness in children. For this reason, it is very important to make sure that your dog is routinely dewormed, and that children and adults wash their hands after exposure to animal feces. This is another reason why it’s so important and part of your responsibility as a pet owner to pick up your dog’s poop wherever you are! (See lecture on poop-scooping, page 86). Cutaneous larva migrans is a devastating but rare disease. On a side note, this disease is why you should lie on a towel on the beach in Mexico, as worms can survive in the sand and crawl into your skin. Sandworms are serious business, and this is the primary safety reason why dogs are not welcome on beaches. If the worms move from the dog to the sand, to you, it’s unlikely that Kevin Bacon or Beetlejuice will come to your rescue. So don’t forget that towel!

Excerpted from "It’s a Dog’s Life...but It’s Your Carpet" by Dr. Justine Lee Copyright © 2008 by Dr. Justine Lee. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. For more information, visit Dr. Justine Lee's Web Site,