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Telltale sign you’ve ignored your dog’s coat for too long

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog dandruff

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs can develop dandruff, which is a common condition in which flakes of dead skin become noticeable in the coat
  • It’s important as a first step to rule out an underlying medical condition such as hypothyroidism, or a skin infection
  • A second common cause of flaky skin is a lack of omega-3 essential fatty acids in the diet and/or an imbalance of omega-3s and omega-6s
  • To help keep your dog’s skin and coat in optimal condition, brush him regularly and give baths as needed

If your dog happens to be walking around with "those embarrassing flakes" aka doggy dandruff — a common condition in which flakes of dead skin become visible in the coat — it's good that you're paying attention.

While some dogs have seasonal dandruff that occurs with changes in the weather (similar to breeds that "blow" their coats once or twice a year), more often than not, there's an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Most cases of doggy dandruff are the result of:

  • An underlying medical problem that affects the condition of the skin and coat
  • A nutritional deficiency
  • A grooming or bathing issue

Checking for an underlying medical disorder

I recommend making an appointment with your veterinarian as a first step. Dogs can develop metabolic conditions that inhibit the turnover rate of skin cells. Thyroid problems are a common cause, especially canine hypothyroidism.

Skin infections are another very common medical cause of flaking. Bacterial infections, fungal infections like ringworm and parasitic infections on the skin can all result in increased flaking in your pet. Believe it or not, there's actually a parasitic mite called "walking dandruff!"

If your furry family member is dealing with dry, flaky skin, it's important to have your veterinarian check for an underlying medical condition. Diagnosis and appropriate treatment may also resolve the dandruff problem.

Nutritional deficiencies can cause or exacerbate doggy dandruff

If there's no disease process contributing to your dog's flaky skin, you should investigate the possibility of a nutritional deficiency, since a dietary lack of omega-3 essential fatty acids is the most common cause of dry, flaky skin in pets.

Dogs need plenty of omega-3s in their diets to be optimally healthy. The manufacturing process involved in producing most commercial pet food destroys the nutritional benefit of these essential fatty acids. Even if you're feeding a homemade diet, if you're not following a nutritionally balanced recipe that calls for extra EFAs/omega-3 fatty acids, or unless you're feeding fish on a daily basis (not recommended), your pet's diet is probably unbalanced for fatty acids.

Homemade diets often also lack zinc and vitamin E, which support healthy skin formation and turnover rates. Some breeds also require more of these trace nutrients lacking in many diets.

Whether you feed a commercial or homemade diet, you may need to supplement with essential fatty acids. My favorite is krill oil. Not only are omega-3s important for your dog, so is the dietary ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s. Most pet diets, whether purchased or homemade, are high in omega-6 fatty acids.

Supplementing with additional omega-6s in the form of corn, sunflower, 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.

Another healthy oil that can help improve your dog's dandruff is coconut oil (given both internally and topically). Supplementing coconut oil in the diet provides extra healthy fats (but negligible amounts of EFAs, so it should be combined with omega-3 supplementation), which can be beneficial for many organ systems.

While coconut oil is generally safe for dogs, some may be allergic to it, and while dogs with pancreatitis should avoid most types of fat (which require the pancreas to secrete additional lipase, the enzyme needed to break down fat), coconut oil is passively absorbed through the GI tract and does not require lipase for digestion, so it's safe for "sensitive" animals.

Keep in mind that coconut oil is high in calories, so if your dog is already overweight, gains weight easily or metabolizes fat ineffectively, it should be used when calories from other foods have been reduced. It's a good idea to start by offering small amounts and gradually increase the amount once your pet's system is accustomed to it. Doing so may help prevent greasy stools, upset stomach or diarrhea, which are side effects of giving too much all at once.

Topical coconut oil treatments can also be very helpful in improving the integrity of dry, flaky skin. And they support the lipid barrier, which makes the 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 dog first and dry her thoroughly.

I recommend using 100% organic, cold-pressed, human-grade coconut oil. Apply the coconut oil to your dog's body like a mask. The coconut oil will not only help keep your dog's skin soft but will also improve the natural defenses of the skin. Coconut oil also contains lauric acid, which supports the immune system whether taken orally or used topically. Zinc and vitamin E deficiencies are other common nutritional deficiencies that contribute to excessively flakey skin.

Grooming or bathing issues

Lack of grooming or inadequate grooming can result in a buildup of dead skin under your pet's coat, especially in long-haired and double-coated dog breeds. If loose and dead hair isn't removed on a regular basis, excessive flaking will accumulate as the dead skin mixes with the undercoat. That's why regular brushing helps keep your dog's coat and skin in good condition.

Too many, or more commonly, too few baths can also be a reason for dry, flaky skin. It once was that people were warned not to bathe their pets at all, or very rarely, but that was back when shampoos were made with harsh, caustic ingredients. Too much shampooing with those first-generation products was hard on both human scalps and pets' skin, creating irritation and excessive flaking in both. These days, however, there are plenty of safe, gentle shampoos available for pets.

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 your pet's skin and coat should dictate how often he gets a bath. If you live in a dry climate, your pet may need fewer baths than dogs 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.

Unnecessarily bathing dogs every week or even month may be overdoing it, depending on breed, diet and environment, which can cause skin and coat dryness. Never bathing your pet, on the other hand, allows buildup of dead skin and hair. Select a gentle organic shampoo specifically designed for dogs. You might also want to follow up with an all-natural, species-specific conditioner to moisturize and condition your pet's skin and coat.

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