Skin problems in dogs

Skin problems are very common in dogs, especially in the warmer months. In fact, probably as many as 1 in 5 consultations at our clinics are in some way related to skin or coat problems in our pet dogs and cats.

Skin conditions range from just being “itchy” to having a major life changing impact on the patient. You may hear these conditions being called “eczema” or “dermatitis”. These names are not a diagnosis, they just mean that the skin is inflamed and abnormal. We often use the word “Atopic” in addition to indicate that this is an allergy related skin disease. There are many causes of skin disease. It can be a very frustrating problem for patient, owner and vet alike. Quite often skin conditions in dogs have to be managed with long term shampoos, diet and medications, as they cannot be cured.

What might indicate your dog has a skin problem

  • Scratching: Dogs don't have hands like us to scratch with so they use their paws to scratch themselves. If this is excessive it can do a lot of damage, causing redness and broken skin.
  • Rubbing themselves on you or the carpet. Again, without hands to use, dogs often rub their faces, bottoms or other bits they can’t get to, to alleviate the irritation.
  • Licking and chewing: Dogs often lick itchy areas such as feet. They sometimes lick or chew at their flanks or tummies, often making the area sore.
  • Hair loss: You may notice patches of hair loss. This is called alopecia, but it can happen for many different reasons. Sometimes the hair falls out by itself; sometimes it is lost by being rubbed, scratched or chewed out.
  • Spots, rashes and other lesions: Dogs can get numerous types of these, ranging from very mild redness to severely infected skin, with open sores.
  • Production of dandruff or scale: You may notice that the fur and coat changes from looking healthy to having scale or dandruff in it. It may also be a bit smelly!
  • Change in skin colour: Pigment changes can occur – often normally pink skin changing to grey.
  • Any ear problem: Itchy, red or smelly ears with or without discharge. Ear problems cause dogs to shake their heads.

If you notice any of the above you should take your dog to the vet, as your pet may be in discomfort. Even a mild itch can lead to further trouble if ignored.

What causes skin problems in our dogs?

The most common causes are listed first:

  • Parasites - Fleas and mites
  • Allergy (environmental or food related)
  • Bacterial infections such as Staphylococcus
  • Yeast and fungal infections, such as Malassezia or Ringworm
  • Hormonal problems such as hypothyroidism
  • Immune mediated conditions, such as Pemphigus.

What can be done?

The problem our vets face when diagnosing skin disease in dogs, is that quite often dogs may have multiple causes of skin problem. For instance, if a dog has had mange mites living in their skin for a while, this may cause a rash, and intense irritation leading to scratching and self-trauma. This in turn means the skin may get secondarily infected with bacteria and yeasts. Untreated, the skin becomes even itchier and the dog just gets worse. The hair gets rubbed off and alopecia results.

This “itch scratch cycle” has to be broken, in order for the skin to heal, but the underlying cause must be found if possible. Medications such as anti-itch drugs, steroids, antibiotics (either tablets or ointments), and shampoos are often prescribed to alleviate the symptoms, but often some investigations such as skin scrapes and blood tests may need to be done to determine the underlying cause.