Puppy skin is extra sensitive. This is especially true in areas that lack a protective covering of hair. Those almost naked Buddha-bellies are cute, but they are prime candidates for a condition known as puppy pyoderma.
“Pyoderma” is simply a technical way of saying “skin infection.” What distinguishes puppy pyoderma from other skin infections is the fact that it is diagnosed in a young animal and no predisposing cause can be diagnosed. In fact, the underlying condition that leads to puppy pyoderma is puppyhood itself.
Skin is awash in bacteria. One of the most abundant, normal bacterial inhabitants of canine skin is Staphylococcus intermedius. Under normal circumstances, S. intermedius lives in harmony with its host. The defense mechanisms of healthy skin keep bacterial numbers down to a level that is not associated with disease. However, a puppy’s skin is immature. Local immunity is not fully developed, and the skin hasn’t had a chance to “toughen up” yet. The sparsely haired areas of a puppy’s abdomen are easily irritated by things in the environment, which is often all that is needed to tip the balance in favor of the bacteria.
Red bumps or pimple-like lesions affecting primarily the “armpits,” groin, or other sparsely haired areas are the classic symptoms of puppy pyoderma. Over time these primary lesions may turn into scabs or patches of scaly skin. Affected puppies are usually a little itchy, but otherwise seem completely healthy. A veterinarian may suspect that his or her patient has puppy pyoderma, but because these symptoms can be associated with other common skin conditions, a few simple tests are usually in order, including:
- skin cytology to identify the type of microorganism involved
- skin scrapings to rule out mange mites
- a fungal culture for ringworm
Once the diagnosis of puppy pyoderma has been confirmed, the question of how best to treat it must be answered. Mild cases will sometimes resolve without intervention, particularly if the puppy is nearing adulthood. If a diligent owner is willing to keep a close eye on the condition, a prescription of “watchful waiting” is not unreasonable. If there is any doubt, however, I recommend a topical antiseptic wash like chlorhexidine, plus or minus a topical antibiotic ointment. More severely affected puppies should also receive oral or injectable antibiotics.
Puppy pyoderma is often compared to impetigo in human children. Both conditions are, in essence, superficial skin infections, but an important difference is that puppy pyoderma is not contagious either to other animals or to people.
Once a puppy has matured, he or she should no longer be at risk for puppy pyoderma. If skin infections continue to be a problem, a veterinarian will need to go on a thorough search for a causative underlying condition. Possibilities include allergies, external parasites, hormonal imbalances, or abnormalities in the anatomy or physiology of the skin.
Dr. Jennifer Coates