By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Winter is here in most parts of the U.S., and just as cold temperatures and indoor heating tend to make your own hair and skin feel dry and flaky, the same thing can happen to furry family members. But keeping your dog's or cat's coat in healthy condition year-round, including this time of year, is probably easier than you think. More often than not, a pet's flaky skin and dry coat are due to one or more factors, including:
- Dietary deficiencies
- An underlying medical condition
- Lack of regular grooming
- Infrequent baths (or in rare cases, too frequent baths)
If your dog's or kitty's coat is in bad shape due to one or more of these causes, winter's cold temperatures and low humidity will exacerbate the problem. Your goal should be to consistently maintain your pet's skin and coat in optimum condition year-round to help avoid seasonal problems.
Insuring Your Pet's Diet Is Rich in Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Lack of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is a common cause of excessively flaky skin in pets. Dogs and cats need an abundance of omega-3s to be healthy from the inside out. Processed pet food is manufactured at very high temperatures, and since omega-3 fatty acids are sensitive to heat and light, they are inert by the time they are packaged.
Even if you feed your pet homemade raw meals, if you're not following a balanced recipe that calls for extra essential fatty acids (omega-3s from seafood), your dog's or cat's diet is probably unbalanced for fatty acids. In my experience, dietary deficiency of omega-3s is the number one cause of excessively flaky skin in pets.
Whether you feed a commercial or homemade diet, you may need to supplement with essential fatty acids. My favorite omega 3 is krill oil, but I also see good improvement in flaky coats when coconut oil (which does not contain measurable omega 3s or 6s) is supplemented.
Not only are omega-3s important for your dog or cat, so is the dietary ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s. Most pet foods, whether commercial or homemade, are rich in omega-6 fatty acids.
Because the average pet diet is heavy in omega-6s, supplementing with additional omega-6s in the form of corn, olive, safflower or even flax oil (which contains some vegetable sources of omega 3s, but also omega-6s) can create an imbalance serious enough to cause skin problems.
It's also important to note that dogs and cats can't convert omega-3 vegetable sources into DHA. Flax oil has some omega-3 value for humans, but that doesn't hold true for your pet. So it's really important that you supply fish-body oils or krill oil to your dog or cat. Algal DHA is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Other micronutrient deficiencies can also cause flaky skin, including zinc, vitamin E, iodine and tyrosine deficiencies (which can lead to poor thyroid hormone production). I've seen improvement in skin and coat condition when adequate collagen and vitamin C are supplied in the diet. All these nutrients are naturally found in ancestral diets, but are lacking in highly processed commercial pet food.
Climates with low humidity may also predispose pets to dry skin, but if animals are receiving enough omega 3s, even dry climates won't cause flaking. I live in the Arizona desert and my animals have amazing coats year round because they eat a varied omega-3-rich diet.
Ruling Out an Underlying Cause for Poor Skin and Coat Condition
Another reason for a dry coat and skin in pets is an underlying medical problem. Certain metabolic conditions can inhibit the turnover rate of skin cells. Thyroid conditions are a common cause of flaky skin, including hypothyroidism in dogs and hyperthyroidism in kitties.
Any health issue in a cat that causes her not to feel well can translate to a lack of regular or thorough grooming. Lots of ill kitties have excessive flaking and a sticky coat. Skin infections are another very common medical cause of flaking. Bacterial infections, fungal infections like ringworm, and parasitic infections on the skin can cause increased flaking in your pet.
Regular Brushing Gets Rid of Dead Skin and Hair
If your pet's coat isn't groomed regularly, which usually means brushing for dogs and self-grooming for cats, dead flaky skin will accumulate. This is a special problem for dogs with double coats, because the thick long undercoat can collect and hide lots of dead skin.
Most kitties do a pretty good job removing dead skin and excess hair, but long-haired cats and overweight and elderly kitties often can't do a thorough job. If your cat seems to have a lot of flaking in a particular spot, watch to see if she's able to groom in that area. If she isn't, you'll need to brush her regularly to help remove dead skin and loose hair.
Deciding How Often to Bathe Your Pet
Too many or too few baths can cause excessively flaky skin in your pet. A good common sense guideline to follow is to bathe your dog or cat as often as he needs it. Some dogs rarely need a bath, while others with oily or flaky skin and hair should be bathed at least weekly. The condition of your pet's skin and coat should dictate how often he gets a bath.
Some cats, long-haired kitties in particular, also occasionally need baths. A greasy or sticky-feeling coat is a sign your cat needs a bath. When an overweight kitty can't properly groom the back half of her body, baths are often necessary for sanitary purposes and to keep the skin healthy and free of infection. Elderly cats tend not to self-groom as often as they once did, so they may also benefit from baths.
If you live in a dry climate, your pet may need fewer baths than dogs or cats living in areas with higher humidity. As a general rule, the more humid the climate, the more skin irritation we see in pets, and the more often they need to be bathed.
Select a gentle, organic shampoo specifically designed for dogs or cats, and avoid oatmeal shampoos. Oatmeal may be a soothing ingredient, but grain-based shampoos are not a good idea for most dogs and cats. In fact, the only pets that truly benefit from oatmeal shampoos are those with poison oak or poison ivy reactions.
You might also want to follow up with an all-natural, species-specific conditioner to moisturize and condition your pet's skin and coat, or a homemade healing rinse.
Another Option to Improve Dry, Flaky Skin: Coconut Oil Skin Treatments
Topical coconut oil treatments can be very helpful in improving the integrity of flaking skin. They also support the lipid barrier, which makes your pet's skin healthier and more resistant to pathogens like yeast and opportunistic bacteria.
This treatment can be used with both short and long-haired dogs, but it will obviously be more challenging with a long-haired pet. It's important to do coconut oil treatments on clean skin, so bathe your pet first and dry her thoroughly. I recommend using 100 percent organic, cold-pressed, orangutan-friendly human-grade coconut oil.
Apply the coconut oil to your pet's body like a mask. It will not only help keep her skin soft, but will also improve the natural defenses of the skin. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, which supports the immune system whether taken orally or used topically. If your four-legged family member has skin and/or coat issues, it's important to work with an integrative veterinarian to identify the root cause so you can resolve the issue and bring your pet's skin and fur back to a healthy condition.