Taking Care of Pets' Skin

It’s important for groomers to understand how skin works in order to protect it while grooming.




Dermatology for dogs and cats has become a very specialized field. As groomers, we need to be able to recognize signs of a problem. There are many things that can cause skin issues, such as environmental factors, nutritional deficiencies, behavioral issues, hereditary problems, and immune-mediated diseases and disorders. Skin issues can also be caused by fungi, bacteria and parasites. It is our job to spot an abnormality and communicate what we see to the owner. However, it is important to keep in mind that while we can show the owner and explain why the issue is abnormal, the rest should be left to a veterinarian.


What can help us as groomers is to truly understand the basic function and structure of the skin. The skin is a barrier that protects animals from infections, parasites and other pollutants. If we compromise the skin by breaking it with a grooming tool, we open that barrier and allow bacteria and other foreign bodies to enter the pet’s body. Some dogs have a strong immune system and might not be affected by this exposure, but many pets don’t and could develop a real problem.


Besides being very gentle, groomers must understand the life cycle of skin cells and each cellular layer in order to have a positive impact. The epidermis is the top layer of skin, which itself is composed of five layers.


The basal layer is the bottom layer of the epidermis and is composed of various types of cells. In this layer, the job of the cells is to multiply, mature and work their way to the skin’s surface. As the cells develop, they are pushed outward.


The prickle layer is next and is comprised of many layers of cells. In a pet with normal skin, this layer includes live, but non-reproducing, cells. When you encounter a pet with irritated or injured skin, this means that the cells of the prickle layer have to help out and join the basal layer to produce the additional cells that are needed to heal the skin’s surface. This results in an overabundance of cells working their way to the skin’s surface.


The granular layer is made up of dying cells. Under normal circumstances, it takes approximately 22 days for a cell to work up from the basal layer to the granular layer. It takes another 21 days to reach the outermost layer and for the skin surface to show signs of shedding. In the skin’s normal lifecycle, it takes close to six weeks to completely regenerate. The great thing is we now have a sound explanation for recommending grooming appointments every six weeks for a dog with healthy skin.


However, it is possible for the life cycle of cells to be sped up with minimal stimulations. According to an old Muller and Kirk Small Animal Dermatology book, a #10 blade can stimulate the skin and increase the cellular production from 21 days to 14 days. It also mentions that when the skin is cut (e.g., a surgical wound), the skin in the wounded area can reproduce cells as quickly as within seven days.


This is important to keep in mind when working with dogs. Dogs that scratch will over-stimulate the area and may end up with extra flaky skin. If the skin is not removed gently, this can lead to an excessive amount of bacteria, which helps manage the extra skin cells. However, this results in an unbalanced flora in the affected areas, which could lead to infection.


The clear cell layer is only found on foot pads and callused areas of the skin. These cells are dead and build up in areas that are continuously being injured, such as elbows. You can assist the healing process in these areas by applying warm compresses and adding moisture. The only way to prevent this layer from becoming overabundant is to stop the injury from happening again—for example, by putting pads over the area or using soft bedding.


The outermost layer is the body’s first line of defense. In this layer, the cells are dead, flat and overlap like shingles on a roof. They also have a horn-like appendage that enables skin to shed easily. When removing this layer, you have to be aware of how easily the skin’s cells react to handling and be careful to not over stimulate or cause injury to the skin.


Now, let’s go beneath the basal layer and talk about the dermis, which supports and feeds the epidermis. From our perspective, it supports the epidermal appendages that are housed in the skin’s surface.


The dermis contains the sebaceous gland that connects to the upper part of a hair follicle. Every hair has its own sebaceous gland, which produces a foamy cell that is pushed upward through the connecting duct and deposited on the skin.


The apocrine gland is also found in the dermis. There is only one apocrine gland per compound opening. It secretes a white, odorless, milky fluid that, when mixed with the bacteria on the skin’s surface, turns into an unappealing odor.


The arrector pili muscle contraction causes the hair to stand up right and pushes the glandular fluid to the skin surface. I highly recommend eliminating dead hair to stimulate the muscle before and during bathing. This will allow you to remove buildup of the skin’s cells and glandular fluid, leaving the coat and skin clean.



Bathing Routine

It is easy to remove the normal buildup of skin cells when you bathe a dog. The combination of water and shampoo will break down oils, allowing water to soften and wash away the skin cells. There are a number of bathing systems to assist and speed up the process, as well.


When selecting a bathing system, you want to consider your water costs, flow rate and availability. You may select a system that uses your water pressure to draw the shampoo and mix it with water. There are also electric submersible pumps that recirculate water and shampoo when there is a shortage of water. There are also systems that simply apply the shampoo for you.


When the skin has scabs or heavy scales, soaking the dog or using wet compresses in localized spots can help gently soften the overabundance of dead cells. However, remember that soaking a dog longer than 10 minutes can start to dehydrate the skin. Also, keep in mind that any stimulus can speed up the cellular response.


Water is often overlooked as a therapeutic agent. The temperature of the water also plays a part in the cleaning process. Keep the water as close to a pet’s normal body temperature as possible. This will help maintain a normal flora and environment. If the animal has oily skin, you can use warmer water to help melt the excess oils. However, make sure you cool the skin afterward. On the flip side, cold water can be used to sooth hot, irritated skin.


Bathing temporarily alters the skin’s normal flora, but the skin can regenerate a healthy environment if you use pH-balanced water, shampoos and conditioners. The pH value of a dog can vary from breed to breed, and even dog to dog, but normal skin pH is around 7 to 7.4. Even though all products temporarily alter the normal skin barrier, most shampoos are slightly acidic. Acidic products work well in managing bacteria for both skin and hair. An alkaline pH over 7.0 can have multiple adverse effects, such as opening up the cuticles of the hair and causing irritation to human skin.


When the skin is thoroughly soaked, it becomes soft and pliable. This is not only important for the removal of dead skin cells, but it also softens the common opening so the dead coat can shed more easily.


Let’s not forget about the anal glands and the ear canals—both are nothing more than an extension if the skin. Anal sacs are pockets of skin where glands are more abundant and deposit into the pockets. The oily, smelly fluid is a product of both kinds of glands within the pocket.


In the external ear canals, sebaceous glands are more abundant and apocrine glands are deeper in the dermis, but both are part of creating normal earwax. Similar to the skin’s surface, stimulating or irritating the ear canals will cause abnormal reactions from both the skin cells and the hair. Therefore, always be gentle and use gentle products when cleaning both.


I like to flush the ear by filling the canal with ear cleaner to soften the skin and break down the wax. Then, I let the dog shake its head and gently wipe away the excess dirt. During the pet’s check-in, always be sure ask its owner if there has been any eardrum damage. If there is damage, you cannot flush the ears.


The bottom line is that any stimulus—whether chemical or mechanical—can speed up the cellular response and glandular fluid production within the skin. With that in mind, it is important that we understand the potential impact that normal grooming procedures can have on the skin and take great care when working with this vital part of an animal’s body. PB


Chris Pawlosky is a Certified Master Groomer, professional handler, breeder, grooming show judge and successful pet store and grooming shop owner (The Pet Connection) since 1985. For 20 years, she served as national training manager for Oster Professional Products, where she developed new initiative educational material to educate at schools and conventions all over the world. Pawlosky is currently working with Judy Hudson to produce the Grooming Professors—a service through which the two industry veterans share their many years of grooming, competing, dog show conditioning and handling with groomers across the country via Facebook and through an interactive website where visitors can access webcasts and videos about everything grooming related.


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