Your dog's skin can be pink or black depending on the pigments common to that breed or the individual genetic history. It should be free of crusting; itching, scaling, black/white spots and infected or hot and inflamed areas. The coat should be thick (depending on breed) and shiny with no broken hairs, bald patches, dandruff or fleas. Hair can be shed all year round, but it normally sheds the most in summer and autumn (moulting) - so you'll need to regularly groom the coat and invest in a good vacuum cleaner!
Skin and coat condition are a good general indicators of health. Skin should be smooth, and pink or black and the coat should be clean and in good condition. Scratching excessively, scabs on the skin and/or pulling out fur can indicate skin disease. A poor hair coat with any scurf or dullness may indicate an underlying illness. Given that the skin also covers not just the outside but also the inside of the ears, any ear problems could be linked to a wider skin problem. If you note brownish discharge or redness in the ears, or head shaking, you should pay a visit to your vet.
Dry skin can be dependent on the home environment. For example during winter when heating is turned on more frequently and at a higher temperature in the house, your dog’s skin may become itchy. Unless your dog is continually scratching himself, dry skin should not be a serious health issue. A special shampoo from your vet which can help to restore moisture may be of benefit. However, the underlying source of the problem is probably an environment which is too dry so a humidifier in the home may help keep your dog more comfortable.
Hair loss (alopecia)
Hair loss (alopecia) in dogs can have many causes and nearly always warrants investigation by your vet.
It is often the result of the dog scratching or licking an itchy area due to an underlying cause. This can be due to skin infections such as ringworm (not a worm but a fungal infection), bacteria or common skin parasites such as fleas, ticks, mites and lice. In some cases it may be due to a skin allergy or hormonal problems. Some dogs may over-groom a painful area, for example a sore joint. Over-grooming due to behavioural problems or anxiety is another cause although less common in dogs than in cats. Some causes of hair loss are transmissible to humans for example some mites and ringworm and although this is unusual, a visit to the vet is sensible. General poor health, nutrition or underlying disease can also make the coat lose shine and possibly result in hair loss.
Investigation into alopecia
Your vet will need to look for the cause of the alopecia. As fleas are a common cause of itch and resulting hair loss, he/she may recommend a flea treatment (which is advisable to keep up to date anyway). 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. Occasionally an allergy skin test is performed or a small skin sample may be taken using anaesthetic. Consultation with a veterinary dermatologist is recommended if the cause for the alopecia is unclear.
Treatment of alopecia
The treatment for alopecia obviously depends on the underlying cause and so it is important to pursue investigations to ensure correct diagnosis. Flea control is always recommended for all dogs and your vet may recommend other treatments if another cause is identified (e.g. antibiotics for skin infections). Treatment of allergic skin disease can be challenging and taking advice from a veterinary dermatologist is advised. Hormonal conditions may require long-term treatment with medications. If painful areas of the body such as joints are resulting in over-grooming, then treatment may be prescribed by your vet to address the underlying problem.
Common skin parasites
Common skin parasites include fleas, ticks, mites and lice. They can cause itchiness, inflammation, skin lesions and hair loss. Most can be treated successfully and some may require long term treatment. Some may also affect humans. To find out more about what you can do to help address some of the problems these parasites cause click here.
An allergic reaction can occur when a dog has been repeatedly exposed to a material – the allergen - that causes the reaction. This process involves the immune system producing antibodies which set in motion a series of events in the body that cause inflammatory substances to be released, which in turn cause itchiness. You will see your dog scratching - often the belly, flanks, and ears - or rubbing his face and chewing his paws. The skin will become inflamed (dermatitis), and lesions and 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.
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 (the dog is allergic to the saliva in the fleabite).
- Contact dermatitis caused by skin exposure to an irritating substance, such as soaps, household and garden sprays or chemicals, flea collars, feathers or wool.
- Food allergies - signs of allergic dermatitis are usually present all year-round
Diagnosis of skin allergies
A visit to your vet will often be needed to diagnose the cause of a skin allergy. When you visit, provide your vet with a complete history of your pet’s symptoms including the time of year allergic signs might appear. Before determining the cause of your dog’s problem, your vet will want to consider many if not all of the above factors. In some instances the skin allergy may be due to a combination of some of these factors and reducing the impact of some or all of them will be taken into consideration in deciding on the best course of action for each individual pet. In severe cases, your vet may recommend skin testing or blood tests to help pinpoint the exact cause of the allergic reaction.
If the cause of the skin complaint is a food source your dog may also show signs of a gastrointestinal upset. Usually it’s a case of trying to identify the particular ingredient(s) - the allergen(s) – and then exclude 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 with the guidance of your vet.
Treatment of skin allergies
Your vet may recommend a variety of treatments to help manage the skin allergy and relieve your dog’s symptoms. 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 particular, diets high in omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce itching and inflammation associated with allergic dermatitis.
Skin allergies can be very uncomfortable and upsetting for your dog, can take a long time to resolve and can also in some cases need long-term management. Most conditions can however be resolved and managed to give a satisfactory outcome that allows your dog, and you, to lead a far more enjoyable life.
Cold weather care for your dog’s skin
If you've been out in the cold with your dog, take care to remove any packed snow or ice from between the toes of the paw pads and wipe the paws thoroughly, otherwise moisture can be trapped and cause sores. Salt and other de-icers spread on footpaths and roads may also irritate the pads and cause bleeding. If you suspect that your dog has frostbite, do not rub any frozen tissue as that will cause additional tissue damage. Seek advice from your vet.
Warm weather care for your dog’s skin
Exposed areas, such as the nose and ears, can be susceptible to sunburn, and dogs that have recently had their coats trimmed short are particularly vulnerable to sun burn as well as heat stress. For thinly-haired dogs or those with white-tipped ears, consider using a sunscreen lotion or spray to prevent sunburn (which can lead to skin cancer).