By John Gilpatrick
The cold, dry winter air is brutal. Just stepping outside stings your face and cracks your lips, and only the most liberal lotion appliers can escape the drying effects.
These aren’t human problems alone. Though most dogs have a layer of fur for extra protection, it can’t and won’t completely stop winter’s relentless effects on the skin.
Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do to prevent these dog skin problems and counteract their negative effects. Continue reading for six easy ways to treat your dog’s dry winter skin and other cold-weather canine skin problems.
Nicole A. Heinrich, DVM, DACVD, veterinarian at McKeever Dermatology Clinics, says excessively dry skin on your dog will manifest itself in ways you might expect, such as dandruff-like flaking and brittle hair. She also adds that it’s usually worst along the dog’s spine but that excessive scaling in the area could be a sign of a bacterial skin infection, which requires veterinary attention for treatment.
When it comes to the basic, milder flaking, Heinrich recommends treatment through topical moisturizers, which are plentiful, easy to find, and relatively inexpensive. “Weekly to every other week applications are sufficient, but this can vary among dogs,” she says. “Owners should ask their veterinarian what the best moisturizing schedule is for their pet.” Your veterinarian is also in the best position to recommend which topical moisturizer should work best based on your pet’s particular needs.
Krisi Erwin, DVM, co-owner of Wholistic Paws Veterinary Services in Hamilton, Virginia, agrees that topical moisturizers are easy and effective, but brushing your pet can achieve the same results with some positive side effects.
Brushing stimulates the skin’s oil-producing glands, which work throughout the winter but often not fast enough to keep up with the quick drying out that occurs because of low humidity. Brushing is basically a natural moisturizer, and Erwin says it’s doubly great because the action is extremely soothing for dogs and acts as a wonderful source of pet-parent bonding. Increasing the frequency of brushing while decreasing the frequency of bathing is a great way to keep pet’s clean and moisturized throughout the winter.
Small changes in a dog’s diet can do wonders for his skin, especially when it comes to keeping it conditioned.
Heinrich lists zinc, vitamin A, and eggs as items that, in consultation and coordination with your vet, can be added to a dog’s diet to optimize skin health. The best nutritional option, however, are essential fatty acid supplements.
Like the other options listed, you should speak with your vet about this before moving forward with a particular fatty acid supplement. But both Heinrich and Erwin suggest fish oils—particularly those that come from sardines or herring—for curing your dog of dry, flaky, and itchy skin.
Allergies can also make your dog’s skin dry, flaky, and itchy, and while this isn’t a problem exclusive to winter, canines who are sensitive to indoor allergens can experience a flare up between December and March because they’re spending so much time inside.
“Dogs can be allergic to dust mites, human dander, cat dander, feathers, cotton, wool, and mold to name a few,” Heinrich says.
Antihistamines and essential fatty acids are commonly recommended for mild allergies, or in conjunction with other treatments like immunosuppressant medications and monoclonal antibody therapy for more severe cases. Any type of allergy treatment should be discussed with a veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist before using, Heinrich says. Allergy tests can be performed by many veterinarians, as well, and if the problem can be isolated, avoidance might be the most appropriate form of treatment.
A dog’s nose is made up of skin cells and is similarly affected by the cold, dry air of winter. Sort of like a human’s lips, a dog’s nose tends to crack, which can be uncomfortable. To soothe this area, Erwin recommends applying vitamin E oil topically to the area. "Just break open a capsule and rub it on the dry areas of the nose," she says. "It should help alleviate any discomfort and is safe in case the dog licks it."
Coconut oil is a fine substitute, but if you find your dog licking the area a lot, be careful how much you apply because the fat content in coconut oil can lead to weight gain and pancreatitis.
Another area of the skin to care for in the winter is the bottom of a dog’s paws.
If you take your dog out for a walk, try your best to avoid areas that have been treated with ice melters or other chemicals because some are not pet friendly and will tear up the pads on your dog’s paws, Erwin says. If such areas are unavoidable, wash your dog’s paws off with just warm water immediately upon returning home and consider purchasing dog boots that will keep the chemicals off your dog’s feet.
For your own sidewalk and driveway, Erwin suggests trying dark colored bird seed. “It provides some traction to walk on that’s safe for pets,” she says. “Plus, the dark color absorbs heat to help encourage melting, and birds pecking at the seed helps to break up ice and snow to further promote melting.”