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Coat Loss

Today's Cockers are well-known for their long, flowing coats.  While many feel that Cocker coats are out of control and much too heavy for a true sporting dog, they are a fact of life that most Cocker owners must learn to deal with.  For many, this means keeping the dog shaved to a manageable length (or at least trimmed to a somewhat shorter length on the legs and side-coat).  However, there are also a lot of owners that love the look of a Cocker in full coat and who strive to preserve the fully-feathered look.   This article is for those dedicated owners that are looking for ways to preserve, protect and encourage their dog's coat  to grow out and who would like to maintain that "show dog" appearance. 

In this article, I will address ways to properly care for a full-coated Cocker and will offer advice on how to keep your dog's coat in top condition.   These suggestions should help you reduce excessive coat loss (including thinning, breakage and splitting) and should help you keep your dog's coat as healthy as possible.


Lack of coat and/or excessive coat loss are generally due to three causes:

  1. Medical conditions.
  2. Genetic/hereditary factors.
  3. Physical damage to the coat itself. 


The first rule of coat care is:

  • A healthy dog is the only dog that can have a healthy coat. 

No matter how hard you work on your dog's coat issues, you will make limited, if any, improvement in coat appearance if the over-all health of the dog is in question.    If your dog has internal or external parasites, is fed a poor quality food, is not properly exercised and physically conditioned or if the dog has other underlying health issues (thyroid or other hormone imbalances, skin or ear infections, allergies, etc.), then it's unlikely you will make a significant  difference in coat appearance until these issues are addressed and corrected. 

Some of the medical issues that can affect coat and which you need to be aware of include:

  • Skin Problems - Any problem with your dog's skin can drastically impact coat growth and may cause thinning of the coat as well as causing damage to the skin and coat   Irritation/inflammation from parasites, skin infections (yeast, bacterial or fungus), Seborrhea, Dandruff, Dermatitis, hot spots and allergic reactions can all cause the dog to scratch and chew at the skin and coat.  This can damage the skin (causing obstruction of the coat follicles which may result in coat thinning) and may damage and/or break the coat. 
  • Hormonal Changes - Changes in hormone levels can be due to disease (thyroid issues are a major culprit) or, in the case of females, may be directly linked to normal reproductive fluctuations.  Females will often lose coat (called "Blowing Coat") before, during or after their heat cycle.  They may also lose coat during and after pregnancy.
  • Illness/Physical Trauma - Many types of illness can trigger coat loss.  As mentioned above, thyroid disorders are one well-known cause of coat loss.  Coat loss can also be triggered by anemia, shock, chemotherapy, high fever, major surgery, serious injury and chronic illness.  Rapid weight loss can also cause coat loss.
  • Drugs - Some drugs can adversely affect your dog's coat.  You should always ask your Veterinarian about possible side effects of prescribed medications.   Drugs which can affect coat may include thyroid medications, anti-coagulants, antacids, tranquilizers, bismuth compounds, cortisone, sedatives, amphetamines, antibiotics and mercurial diuretics.   You should also remember that over the counter products and human medical products can not be assumed to be safe for your dog.  You should always check with your veterinarian before giving your dog ANY supplements, vitamins or medicinal products.
  • Diet - Nutritional deficiencies or imbalances can cause coat thinning and loss.  Iron deficiency, over-doses of certain vitamins, lack of essential fatty acids and improper protein intake can all cause coat problems.  Additionally, your dog could suffer coat loss if you change his diet.
  • Physical Fitness - A dog that is not physically fit is more prone to illness and injury, which can lead to coat loss. 

Only a healthy dog will have the best possible coat...thick and full, shiny, full of volume and body.  So if you want your dog to have a great-looking coat, you need to:

  • Address any health issues immediately. 
  • Feed and keep the dog on a high quality food.
  • Keep the dog in proper weight.   (Slightly fat is better than slightly skinny for coat growth.)
  • Provide appropriate exercise to ensure the dog is physically fit.
  • Prevent any and all parasite infections/infestations.


While genetics play a role in the actual physical structure of your dog's individual hairs, the biggest genetic issue with your dog's coat (or lack there-of!), is the amount of coat your dog inherited from his ancestors.   American Cocker Spaniels have changed drastically in the last 100 years, and one of the biggest changes breeders have made is in the amount of coat these dogs carry.  The amount of coat your Cocker will have can vary greatly.  If your dog is out of show stock, it may have the genetic factors necessary to carry a full, thick, "show dog" coat.  If, on the other hand, your Cocker is out of "field" or "pet" type bloodlines (lines that have not specifically been bred for heavy coat and/or which have not been cross-bred with show bloodlines that carry the heavy coat factor), then your dog may  carry what is generally referred to as a "field coat". 

A field coat is much different than a show coat.  While a dog with a full show coat will have long, full feathering all the way around the legs, through the chest, belly and down each side, a dog with field coat will generally only have a slight bit of feathering from the backs of the legs, around the toes and slight amounts down the sides and on the chest and belly.   If your dog is out of dogs with "field" type coats, then he will never grow a full show coat because he does not carry that characteristic in his genetic make-up.   If you want a dog with a full show coat, it's imperative that you purchase a dog that carries the genetic factor to make this possible.  (Notice I said "possible".  Because all Cockers come from dogs with field type coats if you go back far enough in the pedigree, it's still possible for a dog from show lines to NOT have a full show coat!)  

As I stated above, genetics does impact your dog's hair structure in some ways.   While this is usually a relatively small part of the problem you may be having with your dog's coat, it must be considered if you are trying to resolve a coat issue.  Genetic factors can include:

  • Thickness - thicker coat shafts are generally stronger and less likely to break.
  • Color:
    • Straight black and straight red are usually the strongest hair types.
    • White coats tend to have thinner shafts and are more delicate and likely to break or split.
  • Curl/Texture - Curls create weak points in the hair shaft.  The more curl, the higher the likelihood of splitting and breakage.


This is the factor that is responsible for the most significant amount of coat loss in dogs.   Fortunately, much of this coat loss CAN be prevented. 

The largest factor contributing to excessive coat loss is physical or chemical damage to the coat.   Much of this wear and tear on the coat is due to:

  • Bleaching agents and/or alcohol in grooming products.
  • The use of human hair care products and/or household cleaners (dishwashing or laundry detergent) as a substitute for grooming products.
  • Blow dryers and other heating apparatuses used to dry or straighten the coat.
  • Improper styling techniques and equipment.

A significant percentage of coat loss is also caused by breakage.  There are a number of factors that contribute to this type of coat loss and these can include:

  • Improper/inferior brushes and combs.
  • Excessive/improper brushing or combing. 
  • Allowing the coat to become tangled/matted.
  • Foreign particles/substances (yard debris, burrs, thorns, tree sap, gum, etc.) becoming stuck in the coat.
  • Weakened coat condition from improper styling products and equipment.
  • Poor coat condition due to nutritional deficiencies.

The use of harsh or improper products to bathe and groom your dog can permanently damage and weaken the hair shaft.  This makes the coat vulnerable to breakage and splitting.  

Using the wrong kind of brush or comb can also cause significant coat damage.   Stiff slicker brushes (lovingly referred to as Coat Killers!) can stretch, damage and break the coat.   Mat splitters and rakes are also notorious for cutting, breaking and pulling out hair.  Cheap equipment may have rough edges or parts of the equipment may bend or twist, which could cause the coat to "catch" and be pulled.  An example of damage caused by cheap equipment is the "dandruff" that is often seen after brushing a dog.  Most people assume this is dander.  In actual fact, this is usually skin that has been scraped off by improper equipment and brushing techniques!

Cocker coats should never be brushed or combed if the dog is dirty, especially the groin or "pee" areas.  Urine or other substances on the coat will make the coat sticky and can cause excessive coat loss.   Additionally, if your Cocker has yard trash or debris caught in the coat, you will need to pick the object loose with your fingers and not try to brush it out of the coat.  Brushing is likely to wrap hair around the object and this can pull and/or break the coat.

Further physical damage to the coat can be inflicted by blow dryers.  Dryers with heating elements (which many people use to quickly dry their dogs) can burn the coat shaft.   Even if your dog has the healthiest coat imaginable, using a dryer with a heating element  can seriously damage the coat and cause it to split apart and begin to break off. 

It is also very important that you never brush your dog's coat when it's completely wet or dry.   The coat is most vulnerable at these times and can suffer considerable damage if you work on it in either of these conditions.  

Static electricity can be another source of coat damage.  The friction generated by brushing or combing when static electricity is present can cause damage to the coat.


While some coat loss cannot be resolved with proper technique, equipment and supplies, excessive coat loss can be minimized with correct coat care.     You can help preserve your dog's existing coat by using the correct grooming equipment, techniques and products. 

The first step in your fight to prevent coat loss is to learn when to and how to brush your dog.  A completely wet coat is at its maximum tensile strength and elasticity, but if you try to brush or comb the coat in this condition, you can stretch the coat to its breaking point.  On the other hand, a completely dry coat is at its minimum tensile strength and elasticity.   Brushing and combing the coat when completely wet or dry should be avoided.

The best time to brush your dog is while you are drying him.  You will want to brush and comb your dog only after you have GENTLY towel dried him and started blow drying him.   The best brush to use while you are drying the dog is a pin brush.  (I recommend Chris Christensen or #1 All Systems brushes and combs.)  Of course, you won't be using a dryer with a heating element during this process.  You'll be using a force dryer or other dryer without a heating element or a dryer without the heat turned on. 

The only other time you should attempt to brush your dog is if he is dry and you are using a conditioning spray as you brush through the coat.  If you need to brush your dog while dry, work in small sections, spraying the coat with a product such as #1 All Systems Fabulous Grooming Spray or Chris Christensen's Ice On Ice as you work your way through the coat.

In addition to the above steps, you will also use appropriate force and technique to brush the dog.  If you can HEAR the brush going through the coat, you are applying too much pressure.  You should separate the coat and work in small sections from the skin outward.  If you find a tangle, pull it apart with your fingers before using the brush or comb.  Always work the comb or brush completely through the coat and past the ends of the hair shaft before coming back to the skin. 

Vigorous scrubbing when you bathe your dog is also a no-no.  This can not only damage a less-than-healthy coat but you can also damage the skin.   A healthy coat requires natural oils that are found in the skin and the majority of these oils must be left behind when you bathe the dog.  When bathing, you should gently kneed with your fingertips.  Don't scrub the dog with the flat of your hand in a back and forth motion as this can tangle and pull the coat.


  • Shampoo and Conditioner:
    • #1 All Systems products are my first choice for shampoo and grooming products.
    • Chris Christensen products are my first choice for grooming equipment.
    • Plush Puppy products are well-liked by many Cocker enthusiasts.  (Directions and recommendations for using these products on Cockers can be found at .) 

Show Dogs:

Show dog coats are generally more "at risk" than the average pet dog's coat.  Many show dogs are shown every weekend, 2-5 days straight, and these dogs are brushed, blown out and otherwise groomed daily.  All of this muss and fuss puts tremendous wear and tear on a show dog's coat.  In addition to this, chemical sprays and grooming products are often used to hold and enhance a show dog's coat.  These products further stress the hair.  The coat can quickly be depleted of natural protective oils and moisture if the coat is not properly cleaned and nourished between shows.  To prevent coat loss and to preserve coat condition, it's critical that the correct products and equipment are ALWAYS used on a show dog and that any chemicals are removed promptly from the coat. 

Once you let extensive breakage begin, the results can range from alarming to devastating, and the longer the problem is allowed to continue, the tougher it is to correct.  A simple rule of thumb: the more your do to you canine's coat... the more likely you are to lose it to breakage and splitting.

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If you have any questions or would like more information about Cocker Spaniels,
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Copyright Sandcastle Kennels 2004

Last revised: January 08, 2006