Itchy skin and thinning hair? Could be this disease

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sebaceous adenitis is an inflammatory skin condition that destroys the sebum-producing sebaceous glands; it is seen primarily in dogs
  • There are a wide range of symptoms with this condition, especially in long-coated dogs, and include intense itching at the hair line, a dull coat, hair loss and skin lesions
  • Diagnosing sebaceous adenitis includes ruling out several other skin conditions with similar symptoms
  • The condition is primarily cosmetic, and the goal of treatment is to slow its progression and improve the condition of the skin
  • While sebaceous adenitis is not curable, early intervention and a well-designed integrative protocol can help your pet live a completely normal life

Sebaceous adenitis is a relatively rare inflammatory skin condition that results in the destruction of sebaceous glands. These glands are found in hair follicles and produce sebum, an oily substance with antimicrobial properties that moisturizes and protects your pet’s skin. The glands secrete sebum into hair follicles, and the oil then travels out of the follicles onto the skin surface and hair.

Sebaceous adenitis is seen primarily in young and middle-aged dogs. Akitas, Poodles, Samoyeds, Chow Chows, Old English Sheepdogs, Vizslas, English Springer Spaniels, Dachshunds and Havanese may be genetically predisposed to the condition. Thankfully, it’s rarely seen in kitties.

When sebaceous glands are damaged, as happens with this disorder, they produce less sebum or none at all, which leads to scaly skin, clogged hair follicles, and eventually, progressive hair loss. When the condition is severe and chronic, the glands can be completely destroyed.

The cause of sebaceous adenitis has not yet been identified, but there are a lot of different theories out there. These include a keratinization defect, an inflammatory disease of the sebaceous glands, an abnormality involving lipid metabolism and a destructive autoimmune response against the sebaceous glands, which most veterinarians agree is occurring.

Symptoms of sebaceous adenitis

Sebaceous adenitis has two forms — one occurs in long-coated dogs, and the other in dogs with short coats. In long-coated breeds, the condition can cause a whole range of symptoms, including:

Intense itching, scratching and odor along the hairline

Casts that form around the hair shaft

Clumps of matted hair

Bacterial infections of the hair follicles

Dull, brittle or coarse coat

Silver-white scales on the skin

Alopecia (hair loss)

Clusters of skin lesions on the head

In short-coated breeds, the most common symptoms are hair loss, mild scaling of the skin on the head, ears and trunk and sometimes a secondary bacterial infection along the hairline.

Diagnosis and treatment of sebaceous adenitis

Since there are many skin diseases that have symptoms similar to sebaceous adenitis, they must be ruled out first. These include demodicosis (mange), dermatophytosis (a fungal skin infection), superficial pyoderma (a bacterial skin infection), primary seborrhea, follicular dysplasia and endocrine diseases such as hypothyroidism and Cushing's disease.

Your veterinarian will take a detailed history and perform a thorough physical exam. Skin cytology will be performed, along with skin scrapings, bacterial and fungal cultures, endocrine testing and possibly a skin biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. Sebaceous adenitis is primarily a cosmetic condition and usually doesn’t bother the affected pet unless there’s a secondary skin infection as well. The goal of treatment is to slow the progression of the disease and improve the condition of the skin.

Any pet with sebaceous adenitis should receive an oral omega-3 fatty acid supplementation every day. The recommended dose is 180 milligrams of combined eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) per 5 kilograms of body weight. I recommend an MSC-certified krill oil. In addition, vitamin A supplementation can be quite beneficial at 1,000 IU per kilogram of body weight, given orally once a day with a maximum dose of 20,000 IU per kilogram.

Schirmer tear tests should be performed on a regular basis since retinoids, including vitamin A, can alter the lipid content of the tear film, causing tears to evaporate faster, which can lead to dry eye. Dogs with mild cases should be bathed with a keratolytic shampoo, an emollient moisturizing rinse and a humectant every two to four days. This is very important — these dogs must be bathed very regularly.

Conventional treatments include propylene glycol sprays and mineral oil soaks. My nontoxic alternative to these treatments is a coconut oil skin treatment with added rosehip seed oil and argan oil, applied as a mask to the body and then shampooed out. There are a number of drugs that conventional veterinarians also use to treat sebaceous adenitis, including antibiotics (both tetracycline and doxycycline), steroids (prednisone), synthetic retinoids and cyclosporine.

Some of these drugs are necessary, but needless to say, I prefer to start with a natural, nontoxic approach, including a complete lifestyle overhaul that includes transitioning your dog to an anti-inflammatory, fresh food diet that is rich in skin-supporting antioxidants like vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E and polyphenols.

Because of the autoimmune etiology of this disease, affected dogs should never be vaccinated. I strongly encourage you to have your veterinarian do immunologically responsible titers instead. A titer test is a blood test that confirms protective immunity against disease. A positive titer means your pet doesn’t need to be revaccinated. This is extremely important because with an immune-mediated condition like sebaceous adenitis, repetitive vaccines exacerbate the problem.

Prescription plant sterols, niacinamide (vitamin B3), high doses of vitamin C, collagen supplements, MSM and silica supplementation have all proven beneficial for dogs with sebaceous adenitis. Pets with the disease who are being managed with drugs should have their organ function checked regularly.

Unfortunately, sebaceous adenitis isn’t curable and must be managed for the rest of your dog’s life. But the good news is with early intervention and a well-designed integrative protocol, dogs with this condition can live completely normal lives.