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How to Know if Your Pet's Skin Issue Is Serious or Even Fatal

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog and cat skin diseases

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs and cats can develop all sorts of problems with their skin — everything from allergic conditions to strange diseases with tongue-twister names
  • Many pet parents don’t realize, however, that there are certain skin diseases that while rare, can be fatal
  • These conditions fall into the categories of metabolic, immune-mediated, neutrophilic, and neoplastic skin diseases
  • In the unlikely event your animal companion develops one of these diseases, consider consulting with an integrative/holistic veterinarian who can recommend healing protocols beyond conventional standards of treatment

If you share your life with a dog or cat, you probably realize from experience that a lot can go wrong with your animal companion's skin. In fact, the number of canine and feline skin disorders veterinarians encounter is mind-boggling.

For example, there's the all-too-common allergic skin condition called atopic dermatitis. There are also hot spots, lick granulomas and infectious skin diseases caused by parasites, bacteria, fungi and viruses. There's even a skin condition that can be triggered by the bite of just one flea called flea allergy dermatitis.

There are also several strange and unusual skin diseases with unpronounceable names that can plague four-legged family members, such as pemphigus foliaceus, calcinosis cutis and hepatocutaneous syndrome.

But what many otherwise knowledgeable pet parents don't realize is there are a number of skin diseases dogs and cats can acquire that can actually be fatal, or alternatively, can result in euthanasia, most often because the animal is miserable, and the owner doesn't have the wherewithal to effectively manage the disease.1

Fortunately, these conditions – which fall into the categories of metabolic, immune-mediated, neutrophilic, and neoplastic small animal skin diseases — are rare, but if you're a pet parent, it's good to have some knowledge of them, along with standard (conventional) treatment approaches.

The following information was provided to veterinary publication dvm360 by Stephen D. White, DVM, DACVD (Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology), professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California-Davis.

Metabolic Skin Disease

Feline pansteatitis — This disorder is characterized by inflamed adipose (fatty) tissue and is caused by either excessive unsaturated fatty acid consumption or insufficient vitamin E intake. Kitties with pansteatitis have painful masses under the skin, painful abdomens, loss of appetite, depression and fever. Treatment involves a fish-free diet, vitamin E supplementation, and prednisolone (a corticosteroid drug). Up to 25% of feline pansteatitis patients die or are euthanized during treatment.

Immune-Mediated Skin Disease

Erythema multiforme (EM) — With this disease, lymphocytes attack keratinocytes and trigger cell death. Potential causes include infection, parvovirus, and drugs, and conventional treatment options including stopping the most recently taken drug, administering corticosteroids if the underlying cause can't be identified, or administering a single dose of IV human immunoglobulin.

Canine cutaneous histiocytomas — These "button tumors" occur as solitary lesions, often on the face of young dogs, and spontaneously regress. When the lesions come and go, the condition is known as cutaneous histiocytosis. Conventional treatment options include corticosteroids, tetracycline, and sometimes aggressive immunosuppressive therapy.

Systemic histiocytosis — This is a progressive disease prevalent in Bernese Mountain dogs and affects mucous membranes and various organs including the liver and lungs. Conventional treatment often involves continuous administration of immunosuppressive drugs.

Neutrophilic Skin Disease

Necrotizing fasciitis — This is a rapidly progressive disease caused by a bacterial infection. Shar Peis and Great Danes may be predisposed. Dogs with this condition appear to have skin that is "falling apart," along with draining tracts, fever, and severe pain when touched. Conventional treatment involves specific antibiotic therapy, surgical debridement, and pain management.

Staphylococcal toxic shock — This disorder can be difficult to differentiate from necrotizing fasciitis. Pugs may be more susceptible than other breeds. It's a rapidly progressive infection in which affected dogs are severely ill and experience leg edema (swelling from fluid buildup). Antibiotic therapy is the standard treatment.

Sweet's syndrome (sterile neutrophilic dermatosis) — This is a rapidly progressive condition characterized by reddening of the skin, fever, lameness and fluid in the joints.

Sterile pustular erythroderma — This rare condition occurs in miniature Schnauzers, is often fatal, and may be caused by bathing. Symptoms include severe skin lesions, fever, malaise and depression. High-dose corticosteroids are the recommended conventional treatment.

Neoplastic Skin Disease

Feline paraneoplastic alopecia — This skin disorder involves hair loss in older cats. It typically comes on suddenly, progresses rapidly, and causes symmetrical hair loss on the underside of the body and the limbs. Kitties with this form of alopecia groom excessively, and the pads of their feet can have crusts, fissures and sloughing of skin. Feline paraneoplastic alopecia is associated with pancreatic cancer, and by the time hair loss is noticeable, the cancer has typically metastasized.

Feline lung-digit syndrome (FLDS) — This rare condition occurs when there is metastatic pulmonary carcinoma lesions on the feet. These skin lesions usually affect the lower extremities, particularly the front feet. The disorder is specifically associated with metastasized lung cancer.2

Superficial necrolytic dermatitis (SND) — This condition primarily affects older dogs and is also referred to as hepatocutaneous syndrome (HS) and diabetic dermatosis. Shelties and Australian Shepherds seem to be most susceptible.

SND is thought to be caused by extremely low amino acid blood levels, and many dogs with these deficiencies also have liver problems. Treatment involves amino acid supplementation through a central vein for 2 to 3 days and may need to be repeated every 3 to 6 weeks. Because these infusions must be done at a veterinary hospital, treatment costs can be high.

Nodular dermatofibrosis syndrome — This disease is seen most often in middle-aged German Shepherds and has been associated with cancerous kidney cysts. The skin nodules typically appear on the feet. Conventional treatment for this disease is monitoring.

Cutaneous lymphoma This form of cancer typically affects older dogs and can mimic other diseases. Treatment is difficult and chemotherapy is often ineffective, hence my suggestion to incorporate integrative protocols.

You'll note most of the conventional treatments involve a slew of drugs that may or may not be somewhat effective at improving these very serious conditions. If your pet is one of the unfortunate creatures diagnosed with one of these rare skin conditions, it makes it all the more important to align yourself with a functional medicine or integrative veterinarian.

These practitioners typically have many additional tools, including nutritional strategies and metabolic interventions at their disposal to help improve your pet's comfort level and quality of life.