Dog Dermatology - Everything You Need to Know About Skin Conditions in Dogs

What causes skin problems in dogs?

Where do you begin? It would be easier to answer what doesn't cause skin problems in dogs. We see allergies, parasites like fleas or ticks, and endocrine problems like thyroid disease and adrenal gland disease that cause problems. We also see burns that cause problems. There are just many things. Even cancers can cause problems with the skin.

Dr. Chip Cooney
Animal Hospital of Statesville

Are dermatology issues painful for my dog?

It depends. I like to tell people that dermatologic issues are uncomfortable. Things like hot spots can become painful, and I routinely put those dogs on pain medicine. But general skin conditions are just uncomfortable and affect the quality of life for a dog. Probably like a person, unless you have a wound or something, it's just irritating.

What are some signs and symptoms that would tell me that my dog may have a skin condition?

There are many problems, and, of course, everybody can see hair loss, inflammation or bleeding or things like that, but licking or chewing at the feet or the belly, chronic anal sack problems, infections that continually occur, ear infections that occur over and over again, if you see them scratch their ears a lot. There are many different things that we see. Most of the time, they come in for chewing and licking. That's the major thing we see with skin issues.

What tests might be performed to diagnose my dog's skin condition?

Invariably we're going to do what's called skin cytology, which is where we take a piece of tape and rub it across the surface of the skin. We'll process it and stain it, looking under the microscope. This helps us determine some basic infections and mites and those types of things. That's almost always going to be done as well as obviously a full physical exam on any pet who comes in. From there, we let the skin test and the signs lead us where we might go. So it could be some blood testing, hormonal screening, or even going to the point of biopsy or needle aspirate. It just depends on where that first test starts us.

Another thing we seem to do often, especially in younger dogs, is a skin scrape. That's looking for the mites. Mites live deeper under the skin as opposed to some of the other infections, which are on the surface of the skin. Sometimes you have to scrape the top layer of the skin off and make the skin ooze a little bit to get down to where the mites truly live to find those guys. That's one we seem to do pretty often.

What are some common skin conditions in dogs, and how are they treated?

We see food issues with dogs and food sensitivities. Those are treated many times with diet changes. The most common thing we probably see are allergies, whether it be food, pollen, or flea bite related. In those cases, you either do medications to help blunt the allergic response, or we try to find out what the pet's allergic to try to teach the pet's body not to be allergic to that with allergy shots. We see autoimmune disorders, and those have to be treated with immunosuppressive drugs and anti-inflammatories to control those types of things. We see dogs who have congenital heritable conditions, and depending on the situation, we will have to do specific treatments because there are a hundred of those.

So you have to determine what more you're going to deal with. We see hormonal problems. Low thyroid, hypothyroid, is not at all uncommon and frequently causes skin issues. We can see a disease called Cushing's, which is an adrenal gland disorder. It can cause skin issues as well. We see what we call keratinization disorders, which are problems where the skin doesn't slip off the way it should, and that's usually secondary to hormonal issues or, in some cases, the breed of the dog is predisposed to that. Those are usually treated with shampoos to control it. We see cancers like skin cancer definitely occur in dogs, just like it does in people. Parasites are a huge issue here in North Carolina. Primarily fleas, ticks, and also some other topical parasitic issues that we have to treat.

But those are usually fairly easily treated, which is kind of nice with some good products. There's something called zinc responsive dermatitis, which usually occurs in Huskies, German shorthairs, and Malamute, just a few breeds that are predisposed to this. It's as simple as giving them a supplement of zinc, which can make lead to a big issue for them. And there's even a bizarre syndrome called hepatocutaneous syndrome, which is where severe liver disease can lead to severe skin issues. That's a bad syndrome. I've only seen it a few times in my career because there's not much you can do about that. Those pets are having liver problems, which are causing the skin issue.

What is the difference between atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis?

Those are a similar beast if the truth is known. Most atopic dermatitis is caused by contact dermatitis, but atopic dermatitis is a sensitivity over a period of time. So you don't do this and have atopic dermatitis. It's an allergy to grass like we're sitting in right now or the blooming trees. But it takes a while to build up. Contact dermatitis is like a chemical burn or an ant bite. Those are the things you've come into contact with, and it causes a problem now as opposed to over a period of time.

What are curable versus incurable skin problems in dogs?

Fortunately, most skin conditions are curable or manageable. How about that? Skin infections are usually curable, parasites are curable, and thyroid disease may not be curable, but it's manageable. Skin infections may be secondary to allergy, which is not curable, but it's manageable. So it's more managed versus cure than incurable.

It depends. As I said earlier, dermatology is such a vast and challenging topic. You've taken so many things that might be causing a problem, and you have to funnel it down and get to the basis. You often have to treat this and this and get those out of the way to get down to here, to try to figure out what truly is the main problem.

Sometimes it's as much a doctor's control as it is a client's control, what they can do for their pets and what they will do and consistent treatment. Well, it is. That's one of the many things we talk to clients about. Their expectation has to be realistic because you talk about the incurable versus what I'm calling manageable. While some things are totally curable, many skin conditions are going to require some type of long-term management, which may be simple as bathing your dog once or twice a month. It may be as simple as giving an antihistamine twice a day. It could be more involved. It depends on what the problem happens to be. With all that being said, if you think your dog has a skin issue, or you notice that your dog has a skin issue, give us a call for an appointment. We can't tell you what it is over the phone or from a picture. But the longer the skin issue continues, the worse it may become and the harder it is to treat. It's always easier to treat things early. That goes for a lot of different conditions.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 802-1280, you can email us, or you can reach out on social media. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Dog Dermatology - FAQs

Dr. Chip Cooney
Animal Hospital of Statesville

What is dog dermatitis?

Dermatitis is a very broad, general term, and it just means inflammation of the skin. It can be caused by innumerable different things. It's just a general term. Really, it doesn't mean anything. If your dog has dermatitis, it just tells me it has a skin problem and very little after that.

What is food allergy dermatitis, and how is it treated?

Food allergy dermatitis is a little more specific. A dog who has food allergy dermatitis has skin problems due to the diet they're eating. When I talk to people about food allergies, it's not that their dog has a problem with Purina, Hills, Science Diet, or Blue. It is the allergen. It's beef, chicken, corn, wheat, soy, or something in the food they're having a problem with.

Many people want to change foods because they think their dog has a food allergy. Well, I'll be honest, most of the over-the-counter foods are very similar, and it's hard to diagnose food allergies that way. So we do this with what we call novel protein diets, alligator and green pea diets, kangaroo and potato, and duck is frequently used. It's allergen sources the dogs never had before, so they really can't be allergic to it. We also use hydrolyzed proteins, which is chicken, and your dog may be allergic to chicken, but they've broken the chicken into such small pieces, hydrolyzed the proteins so that the dog's body no longer understands it's eating chicken. So it can't be allergic to it. So there are special ways to go about that as we work through food allergy dermatitis.

Food allergy testing is really difficult because you have to feed that novel protein and nothing else because there are food allergy tests out there that are crappy tests. They're a waste of people's money. I don't do them. When we do food allergy testing, we're actually doing food allergy trials, which means we put the dog on one of these specific foods and nothing but that food for six weeks, no cheating. No McDonald's French fry, nothing from the table, and no dog treats. Nothing but this food for six weeks. And if they get better, they are food allergic.

That's a tough test, though. Few can pass it, and it's not the dogs that determine that usually.

What is flea allergy dermatitis, and how is it treated?

Flea allergy dermatitis, fortunately, is becoming a lesser concern for us because flea products nowadays are so good. When a flea bites, they inject a small amount of saliva with an anticoagulant. The anticoagulant keeps the blood from clotting so that the flea can take its blood meal. Some of the saliva stays behind, and many dogs are allergic to the saliva. So a flea bite causes a dog to itch and can cause him to itch for days or weeks. That's what flea allergy dermatitis is. It's actually not an allergy to fleas, but the flea saliva, and those dogs need flea control, and usually, something to help with inflammation. Who would have thought a flea has enough saliva to cause a problem in a larger animal?

What is contact allergy dermatitis, and how is it treated?

Contact is obviously just touching something. I touch Kyle, and if I'm allergic to Kyle, I'll get an inflammatory response right here. This is like a chemical burn, or I tell people, even something like an ant bite could be considered contact dermatitis. It occurs acutely as opposed to what we call atopy or pollen allergies that occur over time.

Is dermatitis stressful for my dog?

Depending on the severity, dermatitis can be anywhere from uncomfortable to very painful. A hotspot that many people have heard of is acute moist dermatitis. It's a very inflamed area that oozes and becomes infected, and yes, those are very painful for dogs. I frequently treat those with anti-inflammatories and pain medicines, and sometimes sedatives because those dogs are so uncomfortable. So yes, dermatitis can be very stressful and very painful. They come up very quickly, and the itch is just so bad that the dog makes the problem worse. Something starts it, and they scratch it, and it makes it worse, and it's just a downward spiral cycle.

If you suspect your dog has skin issues, whether it's an infection, irritation, or anything questionable that you find on his or her skin, please call us for an appointment. You can avoid needless suffering for your dog, and it can be a rather long intensive treatment process sometimes, but proper diagnosis can often cure or alleviate some skin issues pretty quickly. The longer the skin condition continues, the worse and the more involved it can become, and the harder it is to treat.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 802-1280, you can email us, or you can reach out on social media. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Dog Dermatology - FAQs 2

Dr. Chip Cooney
Animal Hospital of Statesville

Are there things I can do at home to help my dog avoid a skin issue, or how can I care for my dog's skin at home?

One of the best things is just good grooming. We see lots of skin issues that can be prevented by just keeping your pet combed out, keeping the mats down, keeping the coat clean, and bathing with something like an aloe and oatmeal shampoo, which tends to be very safe, cleaning your dog's ears, not letting drainage occur or build up around the eyes. Some general maintenance can keep a lot of these issues from ever occurring.

Personal hygiene and the products you use make a difference, but we'll get onto that.

Are there any natural over-the-counter products or supplements that I can use for my dog's skin, like coconut oil and CBD?

First off, I'm not a huge fan of topicals in dogs. We use them periodically. Dogs are great lickers, and when they lick, they remove the topical, and it may or may not be healthy for them, and that is usually the case. The other thing is when you apply a topical to a bothersome area, it just draws their attention to it even more. It's like if you have poison Ivy and you scratch it, it itches worse because you drew attention to it. So I'm not a big fan of topical. However, I'm a huge fan of the omega three and omega six fatty acids, which can help to supplement the skin's protective barrier and helps to take away inflammation. They need to be formulated for pets, and there are some good products out there. The Bayer free form is my favorite, and I feel like it's the most effective. But use one specifically made for dogs. CBD is becoming a question more and more for us. Unfortunately, here in North Carolina, we really can't comment on CBD. We're not even allowed to legally. Let's just say that nothing I have read has shown me that it can help with skin issues, but the jury's still out. There's a lot of research still to be done. People think coconut oil and CBD cure everything, so just try it. We don't really recommend that.

Why is my dog so itchy and chewing on their skin?

Chewing and itching are the number one cause of us seeing pets for skin issues. So that's kind of where we look at skin issues from the itchy side and the non-itchy side. It helps us to rule some things out and rule some things in. Unfortunately, the itchy side is the much larger side, and there are many causes, from parasites and infections and allergies to mites. Many things cause the pet to itch, and where they itch helps give us some hints. Whether we find bugs running around, if we find fleas, that's probably the cause of your pet's itch. If we have a big mat that's infected, that's probably the cause of your pet's hitch. So, many things go into trying to determine exactly why he's itching.

Which dog skin conditions are transmissible to other pets and humans?

Fortunately, very few. There are some, and we call them zoonotic diseases, meaning it's passed from pet to human or human to pet, and everybody's heard of ringworm, which is a fungus that can be transmitted. Not a parasite, not a worm, a fungus. There is a mite called scabies that is transmissible from dogs to pets. It causes extreme itching. Hookworms can be transmitted from pets to people and can cause some skin issues on people. They talk about skin infections and some of these MRSA and that type of thing, but the studies haven't shown that to be nearly as big an issue. Mostly we worry about immunocompromised people. For people who are on chemotherapy or medications for cancer, we do worry a little bit about that, but those are the main things we worry about.

Can anxiety or stress cause skin conditions in my dog?

Sure, they go in hand in hand. One of the frustrating syndromes we deal with is called lick granulomas, where dogs focus on an area. It's like an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and they will just lick, lick, lick until it causes infection and thickening. Those are very difficult to treat. They can't be surgically removed because you have to remove such a big area of tissue. That is an anxiety issue, and sometimes it's a boredom issue. So we kind of have to get to the bottom of that as we work through this, but anxiety is not a huge cause of skin issues in pets. It's more of a behavioral problem.

Could a grooming product be the cause of skin conditions in my dog?

Once again, it's unlikely, but it could. We're a big fan of aloe and oatmeal shampoos, those tend to be very easy on the skin, and we don't see much issue with those. Some of the harsher shampoos and products could cause skin issues. We can see some cats react to some of the topical products severely. So can that happen? Sure. Is it common? No, not really. A lot of people use Johnson's baby shampoo on a puppy, and that's actually very harsh. It strips the skin oils from a puppy, which is why we recommend aloe and oatmeal, which will actually help moisturize the coat, especially if you shampoo frequently.

Another thing we see a lot is people using dish detergent because it works for ducks that have been stuck in an oil spill, but it removes the oil on the skin. It's not made for dogs.

Pets have a layer of moisture on the surface of the skin or an oily layer which is important in maintaining the health of the skin. Dawn is really good at what it does, but it doesn't do good things to the coat.

Are there any skin conditions in dogs that resolve on their own that you don't really need to do anything about?

Just like in us, we get a minor cut or abrasion, we may clean it up a little bit, and it heals fine on itself. A minor little skin infection in a dog will be taken care of by its immune system. But anything even moderate, probably not, and it can be treated and dealt with way quicker than the pet can heal it on its own.

When do I need to see my veterinarian for my dog's skin condition?

Hair loss would be something I'd want to see the pet for, as well as inflammation, discomfort, bleeding, and pustules. If it's affecting the pet's quality of life, you definitely need to get in and let us take a look at things. It's not normal for a dog to continuously scratch its ear. It's one thing to scratch an ear one time, and then he goes about his day for the next couple of hours. But anything they're focused on like that, sure, we need to take a look at it.

What if my dog's skin problems go untreated?

Untreated skin problems become worse skin problems. Unfortunately, skin problems don't go away, just like a dental disease. It doesn't go away on its own. We can't wish it away. We need to deal with it at some point. If we don't, the infection that invariably will occur can enter the bloodstream and affect the heart, the liver, or the kidneys. So it can lead to much worse problems. Not to mention, the longer we wait, the more difficult it is to treat. I can take care of most skin infections in two to three weeks with bathing and antibiotics. I have some skin infections that take six to eight weeks or more to get under control because we'd let them get out of control.

We want to think they never go on that long, but they do. You keep thinking it'll go away on its own.

Can all veterinarians diagnose skin conditions in my dog, or do I need to send my dog to a specialist?

That's a reasonable question. All the veterinarians in our practice are perfectly capable of working through skin cases. We will rarely send a pet to a specialist. That only happens a few times a year. In the vast majority of cases, we can work through it and help you understand what is going on. In most cases, we can help you prevent it from coming back.

Many skin conditions don't just go away on their own, and acting quickly to control or cure skin issues can spare your dog discomfort and keep skin issues from worsening.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 802-1280, you can email us, or you can reach out on social media. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.