A Hairy Tale

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

What better says Golden Retriever than its thick, full, golden haircoat? What would a Persian cat be without long, flowing locks of hair? Would you even recognize a Dalmatian without that distinctive black and white hair coat colour? Yes, indeed, there's no doubt many breeds of dogs and cats are defined by the distinctive hair that covers their body.

Not much wonder then, is it, that pet owners are often very distressed if that hair starts to go missing. The condition is called alopecia and it can affect any breed of cat or dog. Even though male pattern baldness commonly affects human members in a family, if baldness is noticed in a pet, it's a reason to visit the veterinarian. It may be a primary problem, the result of trouble affecting the skin or hair follicles only. However, it may be secondary, caused by disease or disorders in other parts of the body.

One of the first questions the owner of a balding pet will be asked is whether it's itchy. Impress your veterinarian by answering that you have or have not noticed any pruritus (the medical term for itchiness) when they ask. It is an important clue in sorting out why hair is missing. If a dog is pruritic there's usually no danger of an owner not knowing. It will be scratching it's skin mostly using a rear paw but front feet may be used around the head, face or neck. They often rub against anything available seeking relief from irritated skin. It may be another matter with cats. An itchy cat offers more proof that cats are not just small dogs. Cats may scratch their face, ears or neck but in other parts of their body they are more likely to respond by excessively grooming or licking the area. They also can be very secretive as to when they do this. They may do it at times when even the most observant owner will not see them. 

It will also be important to look carefully at every part of the pet's body to determine exactly where the hair may be thinning or gone. The pattern of the baldness on the pet's body can also be helpful in finding the cause of the hair loss. If the pattern of hair loss is equally distributed on either side of an imaginary line drawn along the centre of the pet's body from the tip of its nose to the tip of the tail, it's said to be bilaterally symmetrical. This distribution of alopecia is often associated with hormone imbalances. At the same time, it may be significant whether the bald spots occur primarily at the front end of the body, the head and ears or the legs, the underside or the main trunk of the body. It's important to note whether the hairs are actually gone from a bald area or simply shortened and broken off, just where they erupt from the skin.

It will likely be necessary to do some testing of the affected pet, in addition to the physical exam, to diagnose an exact cause of alopecia. Routine blood and urine tests can be very important in evaluating the pet's general health and well-being. An itchy pet will need to have skin scrapings microscopically examined to check if parasites too tiny to see with the naked eye are causing the problem. Thyroid or adrenal gland tests will need to be considered if hormone imbalances are suspected. Allergy tests, bacterial and fungal cultures of the skin and skin biopsies may be necessary.

Unfortunately, hair transplants are unlikely to be offered as treatment for bald pets but a host of other options exist. Medications, shampoos and parasite control can help for certain pruritic disorders. Allergy management will assist if that is the cause. Replacement therapies offer some of the most successful alopecia treatments for pets whose problem is caused by hormonal deficiencies. In some cases, you will just be advised to purchase a good sweater or coat to protect a hairless pet against the cold. Next time some specific causes of alopecia in our pets will be discussed. Barry Burtis is a local veterinarian. Past Pet Tales columns can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca