The 5 Most Common Dog Skin Problems and How to Treat Them

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog skin problems

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs, like humans, can develop many different types of skin conditions
  • Five of the most common skin disorders in dogs include atopic dermatitis, hot spots, hair loss, flaky skin and a dull/dry coat, and mange
  • If your dog is dealing with a skin problem, it’s important to identify what it is and what’s causing it so that it can be treated successfully

Just like us, our canine companions are prone to a variety of skin conditions, and it’s really no surprise, since believe it or not, the skin is one of the largest and most extensive organ systems of the body. Another thing we have in common is that skin disorders can run the gamut from harmless to strange and unusual to deadly serious.

Five of the most common skin disorders in dogs include atopic dermatitis, hot spots, hair loss, flaky skin and a dull/dry coat, and mange.

Itchy Skin (Atopic Dermatitis)

If your dog suffers from itchy skin, either seasonally or year-round, he’s not alone. Atopic dermatitis (the technical name for itchy skin possibly rooted in a genetic disposition) is a growing problem in today’s pets, especially dogs.

A dog with very itchy skin can develop lesions, especially if he scratches a lot. Atopic dermatitis is most often caused by a hypersensitivity to either food or environmental allergens, including pollens, molds, dust mites and insect antigens. In my experience and that of other integrative veterinarians, chemical hypersensitivities can also play a role in the condition.

It’s important to try to discover the underlying cause of your pet’s atopic dermatitis, whether it’s dietary or environmental. Many integrative veterinarians see tremendous improvement in symptoms by eliminating pro-inflammatory and GMO sources of grains, unnecessary preservatives, synthetic vitamins and toxic processing techniques, in addition to adding omega-3 essential fats to the diet.

In the meantime, for symptom relief, I always opt for safe, natural remedies rather than immunosuppressant drugs. You can find my recommendations for treating atopic dermatitis here, and also here.

Hot Spots

A hot spot on your dog is a raw, painful area of skin that is usually an angry red color and the hair has often been licked, rubbed or bitten off. The area over and around the hot spot is typically crusty and stinky. The medical term for hot spots is pyotraumatic dermatitis or superficial pyoderma. But hot spot is a much better descriptive term for your pet's inflamed, infected skin.

Just about anything that causes your dog to scratch, lick or bite at an area of skin until it is irritated and inflamed sets the stage for a hot spot. These sores are also created when an overgrowth of natural bacteria develops on the skin. When an infection arises from a dog's own bacteria, there’s almost always a root cause. Hot spots often occur in dogs with unbalanced immune systems.

Once the skin is red and raw, it’s primed for infection, which creates a vicious cycle of itching, scratching and further injury to the skin. Hot spots tend to be very painful and sensitive to the touch. Any dog can develop the condition, but it's most commonly seen in dogs with thick coats, dirty and/or moist skin, and dogs with allergies and systemic inflammation, including flea allergies.

Successfully treating hot spots requires healing the wound by shaving the hair around it, disinfecting it, applying a topical solution and protecting it from further injury by your dog. It’s also critical to try to identify and resolve the root cause to prevent a recurrence.

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Hair Loss

Some dogs are hairless by design, like the Chinese Crested, the Xolo (Mexican Hairless) and the American Hairless Terrier. There are also breeds with an inherited tendency toward patchy or pattern baldness, typically on the lower neck, chest, back, thigh, between the eyes and ears, or on the outer ear. These breeds include the Chihuahua, Dachshund, Doberman Pinscher, Italian Greyhound and Whippet.

And then there are dogs whose coats start thinning or falling out as the result of an underlying condition such as itchy skin, pressure sores, a drug or vaccine reaction, hypothyroidism, Alopecia X (an endocrine disorder), Cushing's disease and atypical adrenal disease (hyperadrenocorticism), or Addison's disease (hypoadrenocorticism).

Bottom line, if your dog’s coat begins to thin or fall out, or it doesn’t regrow after being clipped, it's important to make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Flaky Skin and Dull, Dry Coat

Typically, a dog’s flaky skin and dry coat are due to one or more factors, including insufficient grooming, infrequent bathing or (rarely) overbathing, a dietary deficiency or an underlying medical disorder. If your pet's coat isn't regularly groomed, dead flaky skin tends to accumulate. This is especially a problem for dogs with double coats, because the thick long undercoat can collect and hide lots of dead skin.

Too many or too few baths can cause excessively flaky skin. A good rule of thumb is that your dog should be bathed "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 his skin and coat should dictate how often he gets a bath.

Select a gentle, organic shampoo specifically designed for pets. You might also want to follow up with an all-natural, species-specific conditioner to moisturize and condition your dog's skin and coat.

Lack of sufficient omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is also a common cause of excessively flaky skin. Dogs need an abundance of omega-3s to be healthy from the inside out. Whether you feed a commercial or homemade diet, you may need to supplement with essential fatty acids. My favorite is krill oil, but I also see good improvement in flaky coats when coconut oil is supplemented.

Another reason for excessive flaking in dogs is an underlying medical problem, such as metabolic conditions that inhibit the skin's turnover rate. Thyroid conditions are a common cause of flaky skin, including hypothyroidism in dogs. Skin infections are another very common medical cause of flaking. Bacterial infections, fungal infections like ringworm and parasitic infections on the skin can all cause increased flaking of the skin.

If your canine companion is dealing with flaky skin and/or a dull, dry coat, work with your veterinarian to identify the root cause so you can resolve the issue and get your pet's skin and coat back to a healthy condition.

Mange

Dogs can get itchy-scratchy for any number of reasons, but one of the most common is mange. If your furry pal is insanely itchy and his skin is inflamed, he might have one of two types of mange: demodectic or sarcoptic.

Demodectic mange is also called red mange, follicular mange and puppy mange, because it's most often seen in young dogs. It's caused by the mite species Demodex canis, which lives inside the hair follicles, and is usually the result of an underdeveloped or suppressed immune system. Thankfully, this form of mange is not considered wildly contagious.

The Sarcoptes scabiei mite causes sarcoptic mange, also known as canine scabies. Female mites tunnel into a dog's skin, laying eggs as they go. This causes a significant inflammatory response. Unlike the demodectic mite, sarcoptic mites can live several days off a host's body and up to three weeks in a moist, cool environment. In the average home, they have a two- to six-day life span off a host.

Sarcoptic mange is highly contagious and can infest not only dogs, but also other animals, including cats and people with completely normal immune systems. Unfortunately, conventional treatment of both sarcoptic and demodectic mange often involves dipping your dog's entire body in a powerful chemical pesticide that kills off the mites.

These dips can cause harmful side effects such as restlessness, tremors, vomiting and diarrhea, loss of appetite and a decrease in body temperature. Other medications may be given as well, orally or by injection, via topical application or shampoo. All these treatments involve chemicals that can cause side effects.

My recommendation is to consult an integrative or holistic veterinarian to explore all your options for eliminating the mites and relieving symptoms. There are less caustic options depending on your dog’s situation.

+ Sources and References