Skin problems and skin conditions in dogs
What should my dog’s skin look like?
Your dog’s skin is unique, just like their personality, but there are lots of general things that should be the same for all dogs with healthy skin.
- Your dog's skin should be pink or black, depending on the pigments common to their breed or their individual genetic history – both are entirely normal.
- It should be free of crusting, itching, scaling, black or white spots, and infected or hot and inflamed areas.
- Their coat should be lovely and thick (although exact thickness depends on their breed) and shiny with no broken hairs, bald patches, dandruff or pesky fleas.
- Your dog can shed their hair all year round, but it normally moults the most in summer and autumn.
- Their skin should be smooth, and their coat should be clean and in good condition.
What should I look out for?
- Look out for excessive scratching, scabs on your dog’s skin, and your dog pulling out fur, which can all indicate skin disease.
- A poor hair coat with any scurf or dullness may indicate an underlying illness.
- Skin covers not just the outside but also the inside of your dog’s ears, so any ear problems could be linked to dog skin problems.
- If you see brownish discharge or redness in your dog’s ears, or they keep shaking their head, you should pay a visit to your vet.
Dry skin on dogs and dog skin conditions
You know what to look out for, but what causes dog skin conditions?
Dry skin on dogs can be caused in part by their (and your) home environment. During winter for example, when heating is on more often and at a higher temperature, your dog’s skin condition may change and become itchy.
Unless your dog is continually scratching himself, dry skin on dogs is not a serious health issue and can be easily treated. Your dog might enjoy the special shampoos you can buy from your vet, for example, which help restore moisture. However, the underlying source of the problem is probably a dry environment: a humidifier in the home may help keep your dog more comfortable.
Dog hair loss (alopecia)
What is alopecia?
Hair loss (alopecia) is another dog skin condition that can have many causes. To save your dog and yourself from undue stress, take them to your vet for investigation if their hair is falling out. It is often the result of your dog scratching or licking an itchy are, which itself has another cause such as ringworm (not really a worm but a fungal infection), bacteria, or common skin parasites such as fleas, ticks, mites and lice.
What causes alopecia?
In some cases, your dog’s alopecia may be due to common skin allergies in dogs or hormonal problems. Some dogs may over-groom a painful area such as a sore joint to try and make it feel better. Over-grooming due to behavioural problems or anxiety is another cause, although it’s less likely to appear in your dog than in cats.
Some causes of dog hair loss are transmissible to humans: for example, you might catch some types of mite and ringworm. Luckily this is unusual, but a visit to the vet is sensible. General poor health, nutrition or an underlying disease can also make your dog’s coat lose shine and possibly result in hair loss.
Investigation into alopecia
Your vet will need to look for the cause of alopecia in your dog. As fleas are a common cause of dogs’ itchy skin and resulting hair loss, your vet may recommend a flea treatment (which you are hopefully up to date with already). Your vet may also take samples of hair or scrape a little sample of skin to test for ringworm and parasites, or take blood samples to look for underlying diseases such as hormonal problems – whatever is best for your dog.
Consultation with a veterinary dermatologist is recommended if the cause for the alopecia is unclear, as this kind of test can easily put an end to your worry.
Treatment of alopecia
The treatment for alopecia depends on its underlying cause, so it is important to pursue investigation to ensure a reliable diagnosis. Flea control is often recommended as it can prevent some skin problems in dogs, or your vet may prescribe something else if another cause is identified (e.g. antibiotics for skin infections).
Treatment of skin allergies in dogs can be challenging, which is why taking advice from a veterinary dermatologist is advised. Hormonal conditions may require long-term treatment with medication. If your dog has painful areas of their body, such as their joints, which are resulting in over-grooming, treatment may be prescribed by your vet to address the underlying problem.
Common skin parasites
Mites on dogs are common skin parasites, and other common parasites include fleas, ticks and lice. They can cause itchiness, inflammation, skin lesions and hair loss. Most can be treated successfully, but sometimes your dog may require long term treatment. Some may also affect humans. To find out more about what you can do to address the problem of parasites, take a look at our article on fleas, ticks and other parasites.
Skin allergies in dogs
What is a skin allergy?
You will see your dog scratching - often their belly, flanks, and ears - or rubbing their face and chewing their paws. Their skin will become inflamed (dermatitis), and lesions and dog skin infections may develop, including possible hair loss and darkened skin tone.
Allergies can occur at any stage during your dog’s lifetime. Some breeds are predisposed to developing allergies, including West Highland White Terriers, Wirehaired Fox Terriers, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Lhasa Apsos, Bulldogs, English Setters, Boxers, Dalmatians and Shar-Peis.
What causes skin allergies in dogs?
Your dog could develop skin allergies if they are repeatedly exposed to a material – the ‘allergen’ - that causes the reaction. This happens when the immune system produces antibodies, which causes inflammatory substances to be released, which in turn cause itchiness.
There are many substances that can act as allergens and cause a skin allergy, or ‘allergic dermatitis’. These include:
- Inhaled allergens including moulds, pollens and house dust.
- Flea allergies (if your dog is allergic to the saliva in fleabites).
- Contact dermatitis, which is caused by skin exposure to an irritating substance, such as soaps, household and garden sprays or chemicals, flea collars, feathers or wool.
- Food allergies – in this case, signs of allergic dermatitis are usually present all year.
Investigation into skin allergies
Your dog will need a trip to the vet to diagnose the cause. When you visit the vet, provide them with a complete history of your dog’s symptoms, including the time of year allergic signs appear.
Before determining the cause of your dog’s skin problem, your vet will want to consider many, if not all, of the above factors. In some instances the allergy may be due to a combination of factors, and reducing the impact of some or all of them might help. In severe cases, your vet may recommend skin or blood tests to help pinpoint the exact cause of your dog’s allergic reaction.
If the cause of your dog’s skin complaint is a food source, they may also show signs of a gastrointestinal upset. Usually it’s a case of trying to identify the particular ingredient - the allergen – and excluding it from your dog’s diet. To isolate an allergen, it is usual for your pet to be put onto an exclusion or elimination diet under the guidance of your vet.
Treatment of skin allergies
Your vet may recommend a variety of treatments to help manage your pet’s skin allergy and relieve your dog’s skin infection, all of which can make them feel a lot better. These include special pet shampoos, food supplements, medical treatment and therapeutic diets (such as PURINA® Veterinary Diets). These may be used alone or in different combinations.
Diet can play an important part in resolving many skin conditions in dogs. In particular, diets high in omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce itching and inflammation associated with allergic dermatitis.
Skin allergies in dogs can of course be uncomfortable and upsetting for your pet. They can take a long time to resolve and in some cases they need long-term management. However, most conditions can be resolved and managed, allowing your dog, and you, to lead a far more enjoyable life.
Your dog has different needs during summer and winter, especially when it comes to their skin – you might want to read more about year-round care for your canine companion to make sure they’re always comfortable.