From Nose to Tail: The Importance of a Healthy Skin & Coat

By Kimberly Konopka, ’07, BS, AS, CVT, ESM

Originally published in the September 23, 2022, edition of the Valley Advantage

Did you know that the largest organ in cats and dogs is their skin and hair coat? It makes up close to 10 to 15% of their total body weight.

It is important for pet owners to help keep this organ in top shape because it is vital in performing many basic functions in keeping their pets healthy. These functions include:

Defense and Immunity — The skin and coat provide protection, acting as a shield to the internal organs from outside stressors such as chemicals, UV light or other environmental threats. The nerves within the skin also aid in sensing temperature variation, pain or pressure. Compromised skin health may lead to harmful bacteria causing diseases and infections.

Thermoregulation — Dogs and cats do not have sweat glands, so a healthy hair coat helps to maintain proper body temperatures and acts as an insulation layer. The movement of the hair follicles brings the hairs closer together to insulate against the cold, or the opposite allows air to move freely between the looser hairs to allow for a cooling effect.

Storage — The skin acts as a warehouse for storing several vital proteins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, and collagen fibers. Many of these are necessary for cellular production and maintenance of those cells, along with various other functions.

So, how can you, a pet owner, contribute to skin and coat health?

The pet’s diet is the first influence on skin and coat health. As the saying goes, “you are what you eat,” and this also holds true for animals. Good quality pet food lays the foundation for proper pet health. These diets contain omega-3s, good sources of quality proteins, vitamins, and minerals, and provide the appropriate number of calories to meet the pet’s energy needs. To be sure you’re feeding your pet the right food, ask your veterinarian. Some pets do require additional supplements or have special dietary needs.

Proper grooming and bathing are also essential factors in maintaining healthy skin and coat. Some pets can’t or don’t groom themselves well and may need a little assistance keeping themselves less disheveled. Grooming your pet on a regular basis helps remove any dirt, debris, and dead skin cells.

As a pet owner, this is also an opportunity to closely examine your pet’s skin for abnormalities or parasites. The frequency of bathing will be dependent on the pet’s needs. Different hair coat types, such as heavy undercoats compared to the hairless varieties of dogs and cats, will have very different bathing schedules and shampoo requirements. Of course, the pet’s lifestyle will also influence bathing or grooming needs. Pets should only be bathed utilizing a shampoo formulated for the specific species. Pets are not small humans, and the pH of their skin varies significantly from ours. Human shampoos, including baby formula shampoo, should not be used on your pet as it is too harsh for their skin. If you are concerned about your pet’s hair coat, discuss the concern with your veterinarian, as there may be an underlying nutritional deficit or medical condition.

Ever wonder why your pet is so itchy?

There are many causes of itchy skin in pets, both external and internal. Unfortunately, it may be a very frustrating and time-consuming process to determine what is causing the condition.

External causes of acute or chronic itching include, but are not limited to, dry winter air or lack of humidity, environmental allergens such as grass or pollen from trees, or even an allergy to fleas or other biting insects.

Internal causes may include a food sensitivity/allergy or a systemic disease process.

Any of these concerns can cause skin problems such as hair loss, a greasy coat, excessive dandruff, rashes, odorous/dirty ears, or even open sores. Chronic itchy skin requires veterinary attention and generally serious detective work on the owner’s part. Keeping a journal of occurrences and possible triggers may help the veterinarian determine the cause. The veterinarian may arrive at a diagnosis and treatment quickly, but sometimes it may be very challenging and even require special care from a veterinary dermatologist. Occasionally, a food trial is necessary to eliminate a possible food allergy or sensitivity. Food trials require much effort and patience on the part of the pet owner, take a minimum of 90 days to complete and need a veterinary prescribed diet to be the only food source during this time.

Your pet’s skin and hair coat are a good indicator of their overall health. If the coat or skin becomes something other than smooth, shiny, and dandruff free, you may want to contact your veterinary care professional.

Kimberly Konopka, ’07, BS, AS, CVT, ESMT, is the program director of the Veterinary Nursing program at Johnson College. She has been in the field of veterinary medicine for 15 years.

From Nose to Tail: The Benefits of Pet Ownership


Originally published in the August 26, 2022, edition of the Valley Advantage –

If you take the time to read this monthly column, you must be an animal lover. Well, you are not alone! A National Pet Owners Survey performed by the American Pet Products Association for 2021-2022 estimated that approximately 70% of US households own at least one pet. The breakdown showed that about 69 million families own dogs, 45 million own cats, 3.5 million households have a horse and 10 million have pet birds.

Those of us who worked in the “trenches” of small animal general practices throughout the early course of the COVID-19 pandemic saw an absolute eruption of puppies and kittens being introduced to households.

Like the term Baby Boomer generation, we now have a generation of dogs and cats that will be known, at least by the veterinary community, as COVID puppies and kittens. Many cases we cared for were first-time pet owners who finally found themselves with enough time and desire to raise a pet while stuck at home. People found themselves greatly drawn to the comfort, engagement, and companionship pets provide.

Regardless of our exact circumstances, most of us were uneasy and anxious about the unknown during the first two years of the pandemic. What better stress relief was there than a warm, furry baby cuddling on your lap or jogging by your side?

Our first question is, “What is the human-animal bond?”

The American Veterinary Medical Association defines the human-animal bond as a “mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors essential to the health and wellbeing of both.”

A national survey conducted in 2021 by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute showed us that the COVID pandemic has led to a significant increase in the daily hours that owners spend with their pets. Sixty-four percent of these respondents stated that they are now more likely to devote more time to their pets after the pandemic.

While a majority of pet owners reported that their health improved due to owning a pet, 87% of respondents acknowledged that their mental health improved the most. Many of these pet owners have even reported discussing the benefits of their human-animal bond with their doctors and/or therapists. This survey also found that human practitioners are increasingly recommending pet ownership to their patients!

“What are some of the proven health benefits of owning a pet?” is our second question.

Research studies and surveys reveal a plethora of physical and emotional health benefits that pets provide to us.

According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, these include, but are not limited to:

• Reduction of stress.

• Reduction in feelings of depression and/or anxiety.

• Grief support.

• Improvement in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder severity.

• Support of healthier aging (including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia situations).

• Improvements in autism spectrum disorder.

• Improved cardiovascular health parameters due to increased exercise.

• Improvement in childhood allergy, eczema, and asthma parameters.

The proposed scientific basis behind the magic of the Human-Animal Bond has much to do with its effect on our physiologic responses, such as influencing our hormone levels of oxytocin, cortisol, and epinephrine. Studies have also correlated prenatal and adolescent exposure to pets with a more robust adult immune system. We have also found dogs to have incredible senses that can detect pre-seizure situations and low blood sugar, among other ailments.

Our last question is, “are there ever any negative impacts of owning a pet?”

Surely not 100% of pet ownership is positive at all times. Responsible pet ownership comes with emotional, financial, and sometimes even physical impacts. Pets can develop diseases, suffer from mental health disorders such as aggression and/or anxiety, and also zoonotic diseases, which are a subset of diseases we could contract from pets. Some examples include rabies, ringworm, roundworms, and leptospirosis.

The CDC is an excellent resource for learning more about zoonotic diseases. You can protect yourself and your pet from many of these conditions by being educated and proactive with their wellness care.

So, no matter what type of pet or pets you have, love and care for them as much as they love and care for you. You both will be better for it.

Dr. Meg Varner-Soden, DVM, is the veterinarian at the Johnson College Animal Care Center as well as an instructor for the Johnson College Veterinary Nursing Program. She has been practicing veterinary medicine for 12 years.

Nose to Tail: Keeping pets safe in winter weather

By Dr. Meg Varner-Soden, Johnson College’s Veterinary Nursing Instructor

Originally published in the January 28, 2022 edition of the Valley Advantage.

We’re starting 2022 with a new pets column to help keep your pets healthy and safe. This month, Johnson College’s Dr. Meg Varner-Soden, DVM, talks about some winter hazards that can harm your pets and what we need to do when they’re exposed to them. Let’s get started.

Ice melts

These products are typically made of salt, like potassium chloride or calcium chloride. Their purpose is to lower the freezing point of water to reduce ice formation on sidewalks and provide more traction.

Our dogs and outdoor cats are at risk of developing irritation of the paw pads, or the webbing of the skin between them, when coming into prolonged contact with these salts. They are also at risk of ingesting them — for example, licking their feet upon coming indoors, eating snow in the yard where ice melt was sprinkled, or mischievously getting into a bag of it when not securely stored.

Ingestion of small volumes can trigger gastrointestinal distress such as vomiting and diarrhea. If your pet were to eat a more substantial amount, problems like mouth ulceration or changes in the body’s electrolytes might occur. Severe derangements of the body’s sodium levels may lead to tremors or seizures.

To help minimize paw issues:

• Wipe their paws immediately upon coming back into the house.

• Teach your dog to tolerate booties on their feet for use during walks.

• Apply paw wax or balm before outings.

You can look specifically for “pet-friendly” ice melt products that are typically safer, or consider using kitty litter or sand. Please note that these products may be safer but all still carry some risk of tummy issues if ingested. Also, remember that you can control what is used on your premises but not necessarily everywhere else you and Fido will roam.


This active toxic ingredient is a sweet-tasting alcohol derivative called ethylene glycol. The most common source of this is radiator coolant, but other liquids that may contain it include motor oil, brake fluid, de-icing windshield wiper fluid, wood stains, paints and solvents.

It can also hide in-home solar units, portable basketball post bases and even snow globes. Some people add antifreeze solutions in seasonally used toilet bowls (such as in cabins) to prevent them from freezing over the winter and forget about it until the warmer months. This can be especially dangerous to dogs and cats who drink from toilets!

Pet owners need to be extremely vigilant in how their antifreeze products are used and stored. Only a few tablespoons, or less if the animal is small, may be a fatal dose. When ingested, ethylene glycol quickly leads to life-threatening acute kidney failure that may be fatal by 72 hours post-exposure.

Clinical signs that an animal may show during toxicosis include depression, disorientation and drunken behavior. Also look for excessive drooling, vomiting, increased drinking and urination, and possibly seizures and coma. A correct and prompt diagnosis is essential, and antidote treatment must be started within three hours for cats and eight hours for dogs, so get to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Those with families should realize that this can also be a toxin to curious young children.


Most of our beloved companions are acclimated to the indoors with us. Chances are, if you are cold and need to bundle up, so do they. Your pet can become hypothermic if too much time is spent outdoors, unprotected during frigid weather.

Dogs and cats have a higher average body temperature than humans do. Neglectful exposure to the elements is such a concern that a Pennsylvania law known as Libre’s Law was signed by Governor Tom Wolf in 2017, outlawing the tethering of pets out of doors for more than 30 minutes during freezing weather, meaning under 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Prolonged low body temperature wreaks havoc in the body in many ways, ranging from harming the heart and blood vessels to debilitating the immune system and the brain. Frostbite is a possibility. Clinical signs of hypothermia include shivering, lethargy, disorientation and incoordination, rigid muscles and decreased heart and respiratory rates.

These issues can progress to a state of shock, brain impairment, coma and death. The best treatment for this condition is prevention. Careful external rewarming is needed to counteract this situation, and prompt veterinary attention may be necessary in the more severe cases.