Itching, scratching, redness, hair loss. These are all signs your dog may not be feeling the most comfortable in his or her skin. Skin problems are one of the most common and most treated issues in dogs, with a wide range of causes and treatment plans. Check out the info below to see how skin issues can manifest in your dog, and how you can treat them both with traditional medication and remedies that can boost your dog’s health.
A skin “issue” is a very broad term and can include both the skin and the coat. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, skin issues can be divided further into dermatitis, or inflammation of the skin, and pruritus, or abnormal itching . Skin issues can affect only the coat, the top layer of the skin called the epidermis, deeper in the skin layers such as the dermis and subcutaneous layer, or all layers at once.
(Photo Provided by Merck Veterinary Manual )
Most skin issues have similar signs and symptoms, making them hard to distinguish at times. This includes dermatitis, or inflammation of the skin, and pruritis, or itching. Dermatitis often presents as a red rash, raised bump, swelling or even blister-like appearance on the skin. Pruritis will manifest as excessive itching at these spots, leading to an increase in dermatitis signs.
Hair loss and poor coat quality can also be a sign of a skin problem, and may be in response to inflammation and itching, or its own problem. For more information about coat health in general, check out our post here.
Causes of skin problems can be divided up into six groups: allergies, infections, parasites, illness, poor care, and side effects. PetMD also offers a great pictorial guide of these issues so you can follow along .
Allergies: Allergies are one of the most commonly seen causes of itching and redness in dogs and they are on the rise . They can be caused by environmental allergens, such as pollens, dust, and chemicals, as well as food allergens to ingredients such as wheat, corn, soy, and certain proteins. Environmental allergies often show up as full-body symptoms with itching, redness and hair loss covering the entire body. Your dog may also cough or sneeze, or even have a runny nose. Food based allergies may present with both itching and scratching as well as digestive problems such as vomiting or diarrhea.
Infections: Infections are the next cause of skin problems in dogs, and can be caused by bacteria, yeast or fungi. They can be a primary cause of your dog’s issues, or may be secondary to another cause as a result of excessive scratching and chewing at the irritation. Bacterial infections often create swellings and redness that ooze discolored discharge, while yeast infections may have an additional “corn chip” smell to them. Fungal infections, such as ringworm, may show up as strange growths or discolorations on the skin that slowly spread out and grow.
Parasites: External parasites are another factor for itching, scratching and irritated skin. Even if you think your dog is flea-free, these parasites may sneakily invade your dog’s skin and coat from the environment, house, and other areas. Fleas often show up as black specks that quickly hop away from view, leaving behind flea “dirt” on the skin and hairs. Ticks tend to stick to one spot on the body and grow in size as they gorge themselves on your dog’s blood. Lice and other smaller parasites may be harder to see, and may show up as small specks stuck to the base of your dog’s hair, or may only be visible under a microscope.
Illness: Illness is an often overlooked cause for itchy skin and poor coat quality, but it is an important cause to rule out. Metabolic illnesses such as thyroid problems or adrenal gland dysfunctions can cause your dog’s skin and coat quality to change. You may see the skin darken in strange places such as the pits of your dog’s legs or along their back, or you may see hair loss begin on the chest or along the flank. Your dog may also be itchy in these areas, or have patches of hair loss that don’t go away. In most cases, this cause of skin problems often has other signs and symptoms such as changes in eating and bowel habits, and can easily be ruled out with bloodwork from your vet.
Poor Care: Poor care is a broad term, and doesn’t mean you’re neglecting your dog! Poor care simply means your dog may not be getting the right nutrients he or she needs, or may have a need for a supplement to boost their health. Signs of poor care can include a dull or dry coat, dry and flaky skin, or hair that has thinned out. Your dog may not be itchy or bothered by this, but may still benefit from extra care and a checkup.
Side Effects: Some medications for treating illness or chronic conditions may cause side effects to your dog’s skin or coat. You may see a dulling of the coat or hair loss, or skin that is slower to heal. Redness and extreme itching may also appear if your dog is having an allergic reaction to a particular ingredient in a medication or supplement.
The first step to treating your dog’s skin problems is figuring out their cause. Depending on what’s causing your dog’s problems, the treatment may vary. If you can’t figure out what is causing your dog’s skin issues, taking him or her to the vet for a complete checkup is best. Merck Veterinary Manual offers a great “checklist” of questions and things to bring up with your vet to quickly solve your dog’s skin issue .
You may also want to invest in an old T-shirt or Elizabethan (cone) collar. These can help stop your dog from licking and chewing at the affected area, preventing further bacteria from causing a secondary infection and worsening of symptoms. T-shirts are great if the affected area rests on the body, while Elizabethan collars can prevent problems on the legs, ears, tail, and feet.
Changing Diet: If your dog’s symptoms are caused by a food allergy, changing your dog’s diet is the easiest way to solve it! Look for allergen-friendly foods that are grain-free or avoid filler products such as wheat, corn, and soy which can cause an allergic response. Some dogs can also be allergic to certain protein sources, and may need a prescription diet or one with a “novel”, or not previously eaten, protein source. While dogs can be allergic to any ingredient, the above are the most commonly seen causes.
Be sure to switch your dog’s diet over gradually to avoid digestive upset during the change. A period of 7-9 days is best for changing the food over with the first 3 days including 25% new food, the next 3 days a mix of 50/50 and the final 2-3 days 75% new food. After this period, you can have your dog fully on the new diet.
Medication: Medications are the next step for treating your dog’s skin problems and may be used long or short-term depending on the cause . Long-term medications such as allergy medications or those used for metabolic diseases are often given daily to prevent an allergic response or regulate your dog’s metabolic needs. Short-term medications such as antibiotics, antifungals, and more can be used to treat infections of bacteria, yeast, and fungus. Your vet may also recommend medicated wipes or shampoo in addition to oral medications to soothe the skin and help dry it out.
Parasite Prevention: Parasite prevention is important even if external parasites aren’t currently bothering your dog! Fleas can transmit tapeworms to your dog, while mosquitos and ticks can transmit other worms such as heartworm and diseases such as Lyme to your dog. Keeping your dog on a monthly preventive medication can help prevent parasites before they can harm your dog, keeping him free from itching, scratching, AND chronic illness. Be sure to also keep your dog’s environment clean; washing bedding, vacuuming baseboards, and clearing brush where parasites may want to lurk.
Natural Supplements: If there is no known cause to your dog’s dull coat or itchy skin, or if you just want to boost the diet and medications your dog is already on, then a supplement may help. Supplements with a variety of ingredients such as fish oils or Vitamin E may help your dog’s coat in a number of ways. They provide needed nutrients to help increase luster and prevent skin dryness, and may also play a role in reducing inflammation and pain. Check out our article here for more info.
Your dog doesn’t have to suffer from itchy, irritated skin! Knowing the causes behind your dog’s scratching and ways to treat them can save your dog from misery and prevent long-term damage to the skin and coat. Knowing your dog is the healthiest they can be not only offers peace of mind but helps your dog look great too!
All photos provided by Creative Commons/Pixabay for commercial use.
 “Dermatitis and Dermatologic Problems in Dogs.” Merck Veterinary Manual. Web. 03 Oct. 2016. http://www.merckvetmanual.com/pethealth/dog_disorders_and_diseases/skin_disorders_of_dogs/dermatitis_and_dermatologic_problems_in_dogs.html
 Flowers, Amy DVM. “Pictures of Skin Problems in Dogs: From Dandruff to Ringworm and More.” WebMD, 21 Oct. 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2016. http://pets.webmd.com/dogs/ss/slideshow-skin-problems-in-dogs
 “Pet Medications for Common Skin Problems.” 1800PetMeds Pet Education. Web. 03 Oct. 2016. http://www.1800petmeds.com/education/pet-medications-common-skin-problems-9.htm
 Silver, Robert DVM. “Vet Advice: Relief for Your Dog’s Itchy Skin.” The Bark. Web. 03 Oct. 2016. http://thebark.com/content/vet-advice-relief-your-dogs-itchy-skin?