Basic Grooming for Small Dogs

The amount of upkeep necessary to keep your small dog looking fabulous depends upon its coat type. To do the job right, you need the right equipment. For most coated breeds, a wire slicker brush works best. They are available in a gentle straight-bristled style and the professional groomer's favorite, the curve-bristled variety. Their wire bristles are embedded in a rubber backing and are available in different sizes to suit the size of your hand and your dog.

Using a slicker correctly takes a little practice. You want to brush deeply enough so that you penetrate the coat all the way to the skin, but you don't want to scratch your dog in the process. You will also need a double-sided stainless steel comb, essential for checking the coat after brushing to ensure that you have eliminated all the tangles. If you do encounter such snarls, go at them slowly and patiently. Use the end of your comb in a knifelike motion, separating the tangles a little at a time. Yanking the dog's hair feels about the same as having someone pull your own hair — it hurts.

Mat splitters are groomers' tools with removable razor blades that slice through mats so they can be brushed out, which are also available to the public. However, improperly using these devices can be extremely dangerous to you and your dog, so have a groomer demonstrate their proper use. (Pull with a gentle sawing motion in the direction the hair grows and never use near ears, skin folds, leg tendons, or genitals.)

Using a slicker brush with too heavy a hand can produce what is known as slicker burn, a painful skin irritation that may require veterinary attention. Because of their sensitive skin, white-coated dogs like the Maltese, Westie, and bichon frise are especially prone to this type of injury.

For flowing coats and the dense double coats of Northern breeds, an undercoat rake and a pin brush will help complete your chores. A fine-toothed flea comb, preferably stainless steel, is useful for more than trapping pesky parasites within its teeth. It also works well at removing a fuzzy undercoat from short-coated breeds like the pug. For smooth coats, the rubber curry brush or grooming mitt is great for removing dead hair and giving the coat a healthy sheen.

Your grooming kit should also include cotton balls, ear wash, a small set of nail clippers and styptic powder (an anticoagulant to instantly stop bleeding if you accidentally nick a nail), and a doggie toothbrush and toothpaste.

On white and light-colored dogs with facial hair, tear-stain remover may also be needed. Such products come in liquid and paste form. Excessive tearing in small dogs can lead to a yeast infection, one form of which is called red yeast, causing an unsightly reddish brown stain under the eyes. Excessive tearing can also lead to a bacterial infection. A visit to the vet to check for blocked tear ducts may be called for to get to the root of this problem.

The best way to brush a dog is to start at one spot and work your way around the body. This way, you won't skip any area. To properly brush the legs of a long-coated dog, start at the paw and work your way up the leg, lifting the coat up and brushing the hair down to make sure you get all the way through. After brushing, check your work with the comb, following the same pattern. When grooming the face, be careful not to injure or irritate the eyes. Clean the facial wrinkles on breeds like pugs, Boston terriers, and Pekingese with cotton balls moistened with warm water or special eye wipes, available at pet supply stores.

On smooth-coated dogs, use the rubber curry in the direction the hair grows. Following up with a spray of coat dressing, another useful product to have in your kit, will impart a shine to the coat as well. On long-coated breeds, lightly misting the coat with this product as you brush will cut down on static as well. Basic grooming on all dogs also involves cleaning the ears, cutting the toenails, and brushing the teeth. Dog colognes are also available in a great variety of fragrances.

Ears

Using a cotton ball or soft tissue, swab out the ear to remove wax and dirt with a cleanser made specifically for this purpose. A little honey-colored wax is normal, but a yellow substance could indicate an infection, while a darker discharge may indicate ear mites. Have your vet check ears that look inflamed or that have an unpleasant odor. Your dog may let you know its ears are bothering it by digging at them, shaking its head, or wincing in pain when you handle them.

Regularly cleaning your dog's ears gives you a chance to detect any minor problems before they develop into serious ear infections.

Hair sprouts inside the ear canal on many breeds, especially bichons, poodles, and schnauzers. This can lead to infection and loss of air circulation. Groomers either shave this hair with clippers or pluck it, using their fingers, tweezers, or hemostats, after first applying a drying powder to make it easier to grasp. This product is available where pet products are sold. If you do this at home, pull only a few hairs at a time so you won't injure your dog. Once you are done plucking, use ear wash to wipe excess powder from the ear canal.

Nails

Because overgrown nails can ruin a dog's appearance, deform its feet, and make walking difficult, they must be trimmed frequently. Left untrimmed, toenails can curl around and perforate the footpad, a situation that requires the vet's attention. For most dogs, a once-a-month pedicure will fit the bill. Nail trimmers come in various sizes and types; for your little dog, small is best. The easiest to use are the pliers type, which operate like pruning shears with two inwardly curving blades. A guillotine style is also available, featuring a replaceable blade. Have styptic powder on hand in case you should nick the quick, the vein inside the nail that looks pink on white nails. The quick is invisible in black nails, so pare off only a little off at a time.

The nail is solid as it emerges from the paw, but at the tip it looks hollow, like a shell. This hollow portion is the part you want to trim. Clip a little bit at a time. If the cut edge starts to look moist, you've gone far enough. If you should nick the quick, a dab of the powder will stop bleeding immediately. If you don't have this product available, rub the nicked nail with a soft bar of soap or dab it with flour or cornstarch to control the bleeding.

The easiest way to trim nails is to stand your dog on a table. Grooming tables are available for about $100, and they are well worth having. If your little dog is very squirmy enlist the aid of a friend to do this job. Begin with a rear paw, your back to the dog as you lift its feet only as high as necessary so you won't overextend the legs. It's like shoeing a horse; you trim each nail with the paw turned up toward you. Moving to the front paws, bend over the dog and lift its paw so that you are looking down on it, then follow the same procedure. Don't forget to trim the dewclaws as well, those little thumblike nails on the inside of the front legs and occasionally on the back legs.

Nails should be cut once a month, but every time you groom your dog, examine the underside of its paws. Dirt, road salt, pebbles, sticks, burrs, and debris can get stuck between the pads, causing irritation. In the winter, ice and snow between the pads should be melted with either warm water or your own handheld hair dryer, on the warm setting only. If the pads appear to be red and sore, a little Bag Balm or other soothing ointment will help them heal.

Always praise your dog for its cooperation when you trim its nails. Some breeds object to this procedure more strenuously than others — notably the Scottie, pug, min-pin, dachshund, and Lhasa apso. If your little friend proves too hard to handle despite your best efforts, the groomer or the vet can perform its pedicure.

Teeth

Dogs don't suffer from cavities as we do, but they still require dental care. They lose teeth from gingivitis and periodontal disease brought on by tartar buildup on their teeth. More than 85 percent of dogs over the age of six develop periodontal disease, a gum infection that leads to the loss of underlying bone and teeth. Gum infections don't stop in the mouth. Bacteria can also spread to other organs as well, resulting in heart, kidney, and liver damage.

Periodontal disease is caused by plaque, a mixture of bacteria, food debris, and cell mucus that forms a light-colored film on the teeth and gums. As plaque gets under the gumline, bacteria eat away at the bone that holds the teeth in place. The problem is more common in small dogs because this underlying bone is thinner and their teeth are closer together.

Gum disease and tooth loss are not inevitable. If you brush your dog's teeth regularly from puppyhood on, you can prevent periodontal disease. Having nice clean teeth will make your dog's breath smell sweeter too, making it nicer to be near them.

For adult dogs, it's best to start with a professional cleaning before you begin oral care at home. The vet will do a thorough cleaning and scraping with the dog under anesthesia.

If your small dog is a puppy, buy a dog toothbrush and start brushing! Toothbrushes for dogs are soft-bristled and long-handled, enabling you to reach deep into the dog's mouth. Use the special toothpaste made for dogs. Ours is too sudsy and can make them sick. (Unlike us, they don't spit it out — they swallow it).

The best thing you can do for your dog's oral health is to brush its teeth every day. Start getting your pup used to it early, letting it lick or chew the brush. After you do this a few times, the pup won't be leery of the brushing process. Initially, brush just a few teeth, gradually building up to a full treatment as the dog gets accustomed to it. Spend about thirty seconds per group of three or four teeth, and be sure to massage the gumline as well. While you are brushing the teeth, look them over to make sure none are loose or broken. If you notice such fractures, or if your dog paws at its mouth or winces in pain when you touch it, you need to see the vet.

Safe chew toys will also help keep your dog's teeth clean and free of tartar. Hard rubber toys, nylon bones, rope bones, and small raw bones soft enough to be chewed without breaking the teeth work well, as do special dental bones infused with chlorophyll to sweeten breath. Hard biscuits and dry food also help keep teeth clean. In addition, you can purchase sprays that help eliminate bacteria and heal gum tissue.

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