Skin conditions in dogs can be difficult to diagnose and treat. This article will explore several common causes of skin problems in dogs, traditional veterinary treatments, and some natural remedies to help soothe skin and promote healing.
Common Skin Problems in Dogs
While skin conditions in dogs can come and go, they can also be signs of serious underlying problems that need medical attention. For example, autoimmune diseases, some tick-borne illnesses, external parasites such as mange, and bacterial skin infections.
Other causes of dry and itchy skin in dogs can include:
- Seasonal allergies to pollen or mold
- Contact allergies from chemicals in your home
- Allergies from flea or tick bites
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Hot spots
- Poor nutrition
- Bathing too frequently
- Harsh soaps and cleansers
It is important to first identify the cause with the help of your vet. If you don’t identify the cause, then you can’t prevent the problem in the first place. Without a proper diagnosis, you can’t properly treat the root cause of the condition, which can be life-threatening in some cases.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common skin problems for dogs:
A contact allergy occurs when your dog’s skin comes in contact with a substance that provokes an immune response. This is most common in dogs with immune disorders. An allergic reaction is the body’s way of perceiving the offending substance as a threat to the body and trying to attack it.
Dogs can be allergic to a wide range of things, including:
- Chemicals (fragrances or cleaning products)
- Flea and tick control ingredients such as pyrethrins
- Pollen from specific plants or grasses
- Flea and tick bites
- Mold and dander
- Materials found in fabrics (such as carpets and bedding)
Symptoms of contact allergies in dogs can include:
- Itchiness, redness, or swollen areas at the site of contact
- Excessive licking, itching, and biting
- Hair loss
- Bumps or scabs on the skin
- Runny eyes or nose
Like humans, dogs can also have allergic reactions to specific ingredients in food. Common food allergies in dogs include:
- Specific proteins such as chicken, beef, or lamb
- Grains or specific proteins found in those grains
- Specific ingredients commonly found in dog food such as eggs, beet pulp, or dairy
Typically, your veterinarian will recommend allergy tests to confirm either food or contact allergies. In addition, if a food allergy is suspected but the allergen cannot be identified, an elimination diet may be the only way to discover the allergen.
While not all of the symptoms of food allergies are skin-related, many pet owners are surprised to learn that indeed many skin-related issues are the result of a food allergy rather than a contact allergy.
Food allergy symptoms may include:
- Persistently dry and itchy skin
- Recurring ear infections
- Bacterial skin infection
- Lack of luster in coat and loss of hair
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Changes in appetite and energy
Hot Spots are a condition that all too many dog owners are familiar with. This condition, also known as moist dermatitis, usually starts as a small inflamed spot that is very irritated causing your dog to lick and scratch it with a vengeance.
The licking makes conditions ripe for bacteria to take hold. If left untreated, these small spots can rapidly grow and even cause a full-scale bacterial skin infection.
Hot spots tend to occur most often in dogs with medium and long hair and during warm and humid weather. Keeping the area clean and dry is key to prompt home treatment. A vet should be consulted if hotspots do not improve within 48 hours as they can create a systemic bacterial skin infection which can quickly get out of control in some dogs.
Bacterial and Fungal Skin Infections
Bacteria and fungus are a normal part of every environment and live on the skin of healthy dogs (and people) all the time. However, when the skin is compromised or health is poor, these bacteria and/or fungus can start to rapidly multiply and cause fungal infections in the skin and hair and even lead to more life-threatening complications such as liver and kidney failure.
Rapid veterinary diagnosis and treatment are critical to proper treatment. Symptoms of a bacterial or fungal skin infection may include:
- Yeasty or foul smell on your dog
- Patches of itchy or inflamed skin
- Hair loss in patches
- Sores that will not heal
- Pus nodules
- Yeast infection
- Persistent itching, licking, and biting
Another common cause of skin problems in dogs, and one which requires special veterinary treatment, is parasites. Although the most common skin parasites most dog owners know about include fleas and ticks, others are less common but can also have devastating effects on skin health.
For example, the skin condition sarcoptic mange (also known as “mange,” or demodectic mange) is caused by demodectic mites that burrow into your dog’s skin and multiply, causing specific patterns of hair loss around the face, muzzle, and forepaws.
Your veterinarian will likely want to take some samples of the skin to examine under a microscope to get an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment of parasitic infections.
Traditional Treatment Options for Skin Disorders in Dogs
Again, it is important to note that prompt diagnosis and veterinary treatment are important for skin disorders since the causes can vary widely, even though the symptoms can be similar.
The three most common “go-to” medications prescribed for skin issues in dogs ranging from mild to severe include NSAIDs, Corticosteroids, and Antihistamines. Let’s take a look at each along with their potential side effects.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed to dogs include carprofen (Novox or Rimadyl), deracoxib (Deramaxx), firocoxib (Previcox), meloxicam (Metacam), and others.
This class of drugs does a good job of reducing the inflammation associated with many skin disorders while also helping with pain. However, even the FDA has approved this class of drugs for veterinary use and says that “serious side effects associated with the use of NSAIDs can occur with or without warning and, in some cases, result in death.”
Every pet owner has to work with their vet to make sure that the benefits of any medication outweigh the risks. However, many would argue that if a safe and natural alternative will work to alleviate the same symptoms, then it is certainly worth a try.
The body produces its own steroids as part of normal immune function. However, when given orally or topically, prescription corticosteroids work to reduce inflammation through hormonal pathways that play an important role in immune function. Although they can be very helpful in reducing inflammation from allergic responses in particular, in large doses, these anti-inflammatory drugs actually suppress immune function.
One of the most noted unwanted side effects from this class of drugs is behavioral changes which have been scientifically documented.
When the body detects a foreign substance on the skin (or in the nasal passages or airways), it produces a hormone called histamine which causes tissues to swell and become irritated. The purpose of this biological function is to draw white blood cells to the area so they can engage the perceived invader (an allergen, in many cases).
In addition to being immunosuppressive, antihistamines have their own set of worrying side effects, covered in the table below.
Natural Remedies for Skin Conditions in Dogs
One of the reasons that more and more people are looking for natural alternatives to prescription medications is to avoid the unwanted side effects of particular prescription meds, some of which can be severe, even life-threatening.
However, we need to emphasize that, although there are some great natural alternatives for soothing irritated skin and helping to alleviate discomfort, it is still important to get a proper diagnosis of the root cause by a veterinarian.
Be sure to discuss the various options and side effects with your vet. If you are interested in learning more about natural alternatives to prescription medications, it may be wise to consult with a holistic veterinarian in your area.
Switch to a Gentle and Natural Shampoo
Many of the harsh chemicals and fragrances used in dog shampoos can actually irritate the skin and dry out the natural oils that are there to protect the health of both the skin and coat.
Look into a gentler, or medicated shampoo with natural ingredients such as:
- Oatmeal: Helps to naturally moisturize the skin and coat.
- Calendula: An essential oil made from a flower known as the pot marigold, this natural remedy is antibacterial and also provides some relief from the itchiness caused by inflammation.
- Apple Cider Vinegar: Dilute raw and unfiltered apple cider vinegar by 50/50 with water then let it soak into the skin and coat for 10 minutes before rinsing off. This can make the skin too acidic for the yeast associated with a bacterial infection to thrive.
Foods and Supplements that Support Skin Health in Dogs
Great nutrition can also help your dog maintain healthy skin. In fact, some skin conditions are caused by malnutrition or a poor diet. If your dog is suffering from chronic or recurring skin problems, a change in diet may help.
One of the most-recommended supplements to promote skin health in canines is the family of Omega Fatty Acids. Long-shown by research to support healthy skin and coat, Omega fatty acids can be added to your dog’s diet via supplements, specialized dog food, or natural foods such as certain types of fish, flaxseed, and edamame (soybean).
Another product that has recently received a lot of attention in both dermatological research and among veterinarians and pet owners alike is CBD oil. This extract made from the hemp plant can be administered both orally and topically to help soothe itchy skin, promote healing, and boost overall skin health.