Itchy Dog? How to Identify and Resolve Skin Problems in Dogs
By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
Dry, dull coat. Incessant scratching and chewing. Sound familiar? Dog skin problems are often the most common presenting complaints at the veterinarian, accounting for almost a quarter of the office visits a clinician sees in a typical day. So what are some of the most common dog skin problems, and what can owners do to keep a dog’s skin healthy?
1. Itchy Skin
Dogs with itchy skin, officially referred to as pruritus, are a very common sight in the clinic. In fact, dog itching is the primary complaint associated with up to 40% of all vet visits for a skin problem. Persistent scratching can consume a dog’s life, keeping both the pet and the owner up all night. Those who have suffered alongside their itchy dog are well versed in the sounds of a dog going to town on his own leg in the middle of the night. In addition to feeling miserable, itchy dogs can develop secondary skin lesions, infections, and hair loss from the trauma of teeth and nails on their skin.
So what causes a dog to itch? Allergies are a very common cause of itchy skin, and can be further divided into three major categories: fleas, environment, and food. While flea bites cause a transient irritation to both pets and people, dogs with a true flea allergy are hypersensitive. One bite can be enough to trigger a systemic bout of chewing and scratching. Fleas can be a challenge to manage, requiring treatment of all household pets as well as the environment, but the good news is once the fleas are under control, so is the itching.
Environmental allergy, or atopy, is another big category of dog allergies. The allergens can be inhaled, like pollen or mite dander; or absorbed directly through the skin, as sometimes happens with grass. Atopy is a challenge to manage, and dogs may require allergy shots or regular medication to keep them comfortable during the allergy season.
Food allergies resulting in skin disease are, to the surprise of many owners, much less common than the first two allergies. Food allergies are usually triggered by a hypersensitivity reaction to a protein that the body misidentifies as a threat. The only way to diagnose a food allergy is through a strict elimination diet. Your veterinarian’s guidance is essential in sorting through a pet’s history for clues leading to a diagnosis of a food allergy. Once the specific allergen is identified, the pet can be transitioned to a dog food that does not contain the trigger.
3. Sores and Hot Spots
Other common causes of pruritus (itchy skin) are external parasites such as mites and fleas (in non-allergic dogs), and primary bacterial infections. Hot spots, or moist dermatitis, are often seen in the dog and can spread very quickly. If you spot any red, sticky sores on your dog, get him evaluated before it worsens.
4. Hair Loss
Few things are sadder than the sight of a balding dog. Although it’s tempting to jump to conclusions about the cause, it can be very challenging to accurately diagnose hair loss in dogs without a veterinary exam and diagnostics such as a skin scraping to examine the skin cells under a microscope.
Hair loss in dogs is caused by a variety of problems, from parasites such as Demodex mites to thyroid disease to Cushing's disease, an adrenal disorder. Careful physical examination and history can give essential clues to help a veterinarian decide if the dog hair loss is occurring secondary to a systemic disorder.
5. Dull Coats and the Role of Fatty Acids
In addition to medical management specifically for your pet’s diagnosed problem, most pets respond well to nutritional management. Dogs with dry skin or a dull coat, for example, often improve with diets or supplements containing optimized levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids, often sourced from fish oil, play an important role in reducing inflammation.
Omega-6 fatty acids play a key role in maintaining the integrity of your dog's skin as a barrier, reducing water loss and bolstering the strength of the skin cells. Linoleic is an essential omega-6 fatty acid, meaning the dog must obtain this from food sources as they cannot synthesize it on their own.
Successful management of skin disease in the dog is a collaborative effort between you and your veterinarian. With correct diagnosis and comprehensive management, many dogs with skin problems can eventually find their inner Fabio.