DOG SKIN CONDITIONS: WHAT TO SPOT AND HOW TO HELP

Table of Contents
Introduction
1.    What causes skin conditions in dogs? 

  • Allergies and other environmental factors
  • Parasites
  • Fungi and bacteria 
  • Underlying health issues

2.    What are the symptoms of skin conditions in dogs?
3.     How to identify and treat skin conditions in dogs

  • Observation
  • Grooming
  • Regular flea, tick and worm treatments
  • Allergies and other environmental factors
  • Parasites
  • Fungi and bacteria 
  • Underlying health issues

4.    When to contact the vet for skin conditions in dogs
5.    How can nutrition help dog skin conditions? 
6.    Top 10 tips for keeping your dog’s skin in great condition.
7.    Dog skin conditions FAQs 

  • Should I use online companies to find out if my dog has an allergy?
  • How do I know if my dog has a true skin condition or if it has fleas?
  • What should I do if my dog is itching?
  • What can I do to stop my dog itching?

To sum it all up....

Introduction

From time to time, lots of dogs get itchy, flaky, or irritated skin. And while dog skin conditions aren’t unusual, they can cause our furry friends distress or discomfort. So as a pet parent, it’s good to know what to watch out for – and what you can do to help. 

That’s why, in this blog, we’re looking at the different types of skin conditions in dogs, what causes them, how to prevent them, how to treat them, and when it’s time to visit the vet. 
Let’s get started…

1. What causes skin conditions in dogs?

Dog skin conditions can sometimes be caused by environmental factors like allergies to grasses and pollens, as well as other health issues. Sometimes your dog’s itchy or inflamed skin can actually be caused by a combination of factors, with one adding to another. For example, your dog might tolerate a mild grass allergy or food intolerance, but combined, those factors might trigger an itchy, annoying reaction. 

While some dogs are just more genetically prone to allergies, dog skin conditions may point to underlying health issues, or even stress, which can also play a part in your dog’s immune response. That’s why it’s important to always address them as soon as you notice them. 

These are the most common sources of skin issues in dogs:

skin conditions in dogsAllergies and other environmental factors

Like hay fever is common in humans, allergies can be common in dogs. In fact, 10-15% of dogs suffer from atopy, or atopic dermatitis, which is itchiness in response to environmental allergens. This can range from mild to severe. Common allergens include dust mites, grass, pollen, and food, while other environmental factors like dry air and seasonal changes can also cause issues. While allergies don’t sound that bad, they may cause a lot of discomfort for your dog. And if the allergy is bad enough, it can damage your dog’s skin barrier and open the doors to bacterial or yeast infections.  

Parasites

The world is full of small beasties that enjoy exploring your dog’s skin which can cause them distress. Fleas and ticks are common triggers for extreme itching, as are mites. These tiny creatures are often extremely difficult to spot with the naked eye, so the best way to ward them off is with a regular treatment plan, as recommended by your vet. 

Fungi and bacteria

While some fungi, like ringworm, can directly cause skin issues in dogs, other conditions, like bacterial infections, yeast, and hot spots, often arise from your dog’s constant licking of itchy spots. These fungal dog skin conditions are often smelly, messy and can be contagious – so immediate action is always needed!

Underlying health issues

Sometimes other issues give dogs an increased chance of skin problems and it’s important to know if that’s the case. Puppies, for example, are more prone to impetigo, a condition we’ll explain further on. And stress can alter your dog’s immune response, making them more prone to skin problems. Autoimmune issues like lupus, can also make our furry friends more susceptible to dog skin conditions and these may call for a life-long treatment plan. So, if you’re seeing repeated flare-ups, talk to your vet to rule these out.

2. What are the symptoms skin conditions in dogs?

While they can appear all over the body, dog skin conditions most often appear in warm, moist areas, so remember to regularly check your pup’s ear canals, eyes, paws (including between their toes), groin, tummy, and thighs. Common symptoms of dog skin conditions are:  

  • Rubbing their head or rubbing their paws over their eyes
  • Dog licking paws a lot or excessive licking of other areas
  • Agitated behaviour: they can’t settle
  • Sores, lesions, bumps, and hotspots (acute dermatitis)
  • Dandruff, dry, flaky, or scaly skin
  • Bald patches and heavy fur loss
  • Smelly ears and/or skin     
  • Saliva stained, orangey or pink fur - especially noticeable on light-coloured dogs

3. How to identify and treat skin conditions in dogs

With any health issue, it's best to get your dog checked as soon as you notice anything different, so it doesn’t progress into something more difficult to treat. Your vet will probably recommend tablets, creams, spot on treatments, or medicated shampoos, but they might also need to take skin samples, put your dog on an elimination diet, or suggest injections or immunotherapy. 

Of course, prevention is always best, so here are three principles to keep in mind when it comes to your dog’s skin: 

Observation

Dog skin conditions aren’t always easy to spot under thick fur. Always check your dog all over for bumps, ticks, and scrapes. Don’t forget to look at their paw pads, in their ears and between their toes.  

Grooming

Dogs love to roll on grass, dig in mud and generally be a bit messy. Always wipe their paws when they get home and make sure they get regular baths and brushing. 

Regular flea, tick and worm treatments 

Your dog will naturally come into contact with parasites, but you can help keep these away by applying common regular treatments. Your vet will be able to help you understand which they are more likely to come across based on your geographical area, where your dog spends time and guide you accordingly on any treatments.  

If you notice your dog’s showing signs of itchy, sore, or irritated skin, here’s a handy guide to help you break down what might be causing it, and what treatment they might need:

skin conditions in dogsAllergies and other environmental factors

Allergies can happen year-round and can be hard to pinpoint. In warm seasons, common allergens include pollen, grass, and insects, and can be made worse by dry air coming from air conditioners. In cold seasons, central heating, temperature changes and salted paths can also drive itchiness. Year-round, common allergies include food (particularly chicken, beef, wheat and even some veg). In the house, dust mites, cleaning products and house plants can also be big irritants. 

Whenever you notice a reaction, it's a good idea to write it down so you can keep track, pinpoint the triggers, and help your dog avoid them. You can show your notes to your vet, who might decide to put your dog on an elimination diet to find the cause, take a skin sample, or want to run blood tests. 

There’s a range of ways to ease allergies, including avoiding triggers, using antihistamines and steroids and washing your dog with medicated shampoo. Your vet might also want to prescribe new medication that changes your dog’s immune response. Always be led by their advice, and never give your dog medication that isn’t approved by your vet – some human antihistamines can be very dangerous for dogs. 

It's important to note that in many cases, allergic skin conditions aren’t cured but managed. Just like you can’t cure hay fever in humans, you might simply have to manage your dog’s allergies, and understanding them is the first step. In females, neutering can sometimes help reduce the severity of allergies. Your dog may be able to receive injections to desensitise their response to allergies: while some pet parents find these to be very successful, they’re a lifelong treatment.

Parasites

Parasites and the infections they cause really need to be eliminated quickly. Fleas, lice, and ticks are generally managed with preventative treatment (which often covers mites too) and your vet will be able to advise what’s best for your dog. But if they do experience a severe flare-up, you may need to use medicated shampoo or cream. 

Fleas, lice, and ticks are parasitic creatures that feed on your dog’s blood. Usually, your vet will be able to recommend a combined treatment to get rid of all three.

Ticks are small and spider-like, and can be found by running your fingers through your dog’s fur, close to the scalp. They’ll burrow into the skin and look like a greyish lump. Ticks can spread disease and if found, need to be removed at once: you can use a tick removal tool or tweezers, but make sure you follow the instructions carefully. If you have reservations about removing a tick, your local veterinary practice nurse can often do this free of charge for you. 

Fleas are tiny wingless insects. They are hard to spot, due to their size and tendency to hide in your dog’s fur. They can spread in your house and their bites can really aggravate other allergies. That’s why it’s important to regularly use flea treatment on your dog. If they do have fleas, only a small 5% of them will be on your dog’s body. The rest will be lurking around your home so simply use a veterinary recommended household spray to resolve these too. 

Lice often occur when puppies or dogs are kept in unsanitary or overcrowded conditions. You can detect them, like with humans, through the presence of nits on the fur. Left for long, lice can create anaemia in dogs, as well as fur loss and sores. Flea treatments usually cover lice.

As we mentioned earlier, dust mites are a common allergen for humans and dogs alike. They thrive in households, so to stop them becoming a problem, we recommend hoovering and dusting regularly. Mites won’t survive a machine wash of 60ºC or above – so when you next wash your sheets, you might consider a separate load for your dog’s bed as well! 

Mange is also caused by mites, but a different kind. These microscopic spider-like creatures attack your dog’s skin by burrowing into it and laying eggs, causing intense itchiness and hair loss, particularly around the legs and face. Sarcoptic mange is a variety that’s highly contagious from dog to dog and can be found on urban foxes. Mange can often lead to sores and then infection. If left for long, it can even be fatal, but this is very rare in dogs. If your dog does get mange, your vet will usually recommend medication and shampoo. If this happens repeatedly, there might be an underlying health issue, so talk to your vet about the best options for your dog. 

Fungi and bacteria

Your dog's warm, moist skin areas are also inviting areas for different kinds of unwanted guests: fungus and other bacteria. 

One notable example is ringworm, which isn’t actually a worm but a highly contagious fungus. This fungal dog skin condition is one which humans can also catch. It’s named after, and detectable by, the red ring it leaves on skin. If you suspect your dog might have it, call your vet immediately. Ringworm is easily treatable with an antifungal cream but it’s important to get on top of it quickly.

Yeast infections are also quite common in dogs. They often pop up in already inflamed, moist skin, where they cause discolouration and a nasty smell. They're treated with washes, creams, and tablets and by keeping the skin dry. 

Hot spots, also known as acute moist dermatitis, are inflamed and infected patches of skin. Quite painful for your dog, these often are created by excessive licking and are usually easy to spot. They need to be cleaned and treated to avoid more serious problems such as widespread infection. In some cases, your vet might prescribe antibiotics.  

Underlying health issues

Skin conditions can be an important indicator of your dog’s overall health. Sometimes, recurring issues point to something needing to be resolved – like allergies or parasites – and other times, they’re a sign of underlying health issues. 

For this reason, it’s always important to speak to your vet about any dog skin conditions. They can make sure nothing is missed and advise the best treatment plan.

Some issues that can cause skin conditions in dogs are:

  • Impetigo. This condition is caused by a bacteria called staph (short for staphylococcus), which lives on the skin. In some cases, it can cause an infection, and human babies and puppies are both more prone to it. Impetigo can cause rashes and painful blisters and may need treating with antibiotics.
  • Folliculitis. One of the most common types of skin infection in dogs, this is an inflammation of hair follicles, which causes redness and hair loss, as well as spots. Folliculitis might happen when a dog has an underlying health issue like an immune disorder, so treatment also requires a look at the underlying cause. Usually, treatment includes a medicated shampoo.
  • Alopecia. This simply means hair loss, like bald patches on your dog. It can be caused by many factors, from allergies to hormonal imbalances. Usually, once this is treated, the hair loss resolves itself. 
  • Seborrhoea. Caused by an excess of sebum, the oily substance produced by the skin, this condition can cause dandruff and other irritation in your dog’s skin. Treatment depends on the underlying cause and can range from a different diet to medicated shampoo baths.
  • Lupus. This autoimmune disease happens when your dog’s immune system starts attacking the body and results in scabby and crusty skin, and sometimes lesions. Often starting around the nose, it can travel to other parts of the body. Treatment involves targeting the immune system and will be long-term, including medication, topical treatments, and lifestyle changes. If treated promptly the prognosis is generally good. 

4. When to contact the vet for skin conditions in dogs

It’s always important to deal with skin conditions in dogs as they can cause real discomfort and, left unchecked, could lead to serious infections. They can also be a sign of underlying health issues, so if you spot the signs, talk to your vet as quickly as possible. The good news is, skin conditions are very often easily treatable. Your vet will usually recommend a treatment plan, check for any underlying problems, and put your mind at ease. 

5. How can nutrition help dog skin conditions?

Dogs, like humans, need a balanced diet for their key body systems to thrive rather than survive. A diet with plenty of low-allergy protein, amino acids, B vitamins, Omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids, and minerals like zinc can help with your dog’s sensitive skin. 

To help you give your dog the nutrients they need, at Natures Menu we’ve created a whole range of complete and balanced meals, with easy-to-understand packaging so you know what you’re serving up, every time. If you’d like to explore, you can find them all here.

tips for skin conditions in dogs6. Top 10 tips for keeping your dog’s skin in great condition

  1. Check your dog’s skin regularly. Skin conditions aren’t always obvious or easy to spot, so make it a regular practice to check your dog all over, including under their arms and between their toes. 
  2. Know triggers and how to avoid them. Try keeping a diary of where your dog has been, and any skin reactions in the following 24 hours. This is useful for pollen and seasonal allergies, which are only prevalent at certain times of year, and helpful for your vet.
  3. Go for routine vet check-ups. It’s a good idea to take your dog in once a year for a check-up, even if you haven’t noticed any major issues. 
  4. Give your dog regular baths. Dogs don’t mind being a bit dirty or smelly, but it’s not ideal for their skin. For this reason, it’s good to make sure they get a regular wash, so you can remove any irritants and keep bacteria from setting up shop on their skin. 
  5. Groom regularly and remove dead or knotty hair. Brushing is healthy for your dog, removing any moulting and helping prevent any knots or problems from starting. 
  6. Use flea and tick treatments. Get your vet’s advice on a regular programme. 
  7. Dry them properly after they get wet. Remember, bacteria thrive in moist conditions. If your dog's been out in the rain, towel them down so they aren’t sopping wet and make sure they have a dry space to relax and warm up.
  8. Rinse and dry paws after coming inside. Paws can often get itchy for dogs, especially after they’ve been running around in the mud and grass! If you notice your dog licking paws, they might be itchy. The best way to avoid allergic reactions (whether it’s to pollen or industrial chemicals on pavements) is to make it a habit to wipe your dog’s paws down with a moist cloth when you come into the house. 
  9. Feed them a healthy diet. As we mentioned earlier, make sure your dog is getting plenty of nutrients and healthy fatty acids, and track and remove any dietary triggers they may have to avoid ‘stacking’ issues that might lead to a skin reaction. 
  10. Consider neutering. Neutering can decrease the severity of allergic reactions, particularly in females, and may be advised by your vet if your dog’s having recurring issues. As a positive side effect, it also reduces the risk of life-threatening conditions like pyometra and cancer. 

7. Dog skin conditions FAQs

Should I use online companies to find out if my dog has an allergy?

We always recommend talking to your vet as, like many other online businesses, there are some good ones and some that aren’t as reputable. Some have even been known to give a different result for the same sample sent a few weeks apart, which doesn’t suggest a very accurate diagnosis! 

How do I know if my dog has a true skin condition or if it has fleas?

You don’t necessarily have to see fleas to understand if your dog’s suffering from them. In fact, only 5% of the total flea population will live on your pet. The rest will be in the environment (which will need treating). Book an appointment with your local vet practice to have a flea check. In many cases, the practice nurse will be able to do this free of charge and recommend treatment if your dog needs it.

What should I do if my dog is itching?

First, have them checked by your vet to make sure you fully understand what the problem is. To stop them itching, they might need a buster collar, especially if they’re damaging their skin through obsessive licking or biting. Sometimes, a jumper or surgical coat can be used, and socks can also be useful for covering feet or tail tips. 

What can I do to stop my dog itching?

Try not to react when your dog scratches or bites as this can become a learnt behaviour to gain attention. Instead, to distract them, try offering them an alternative thing to do, like playing or a stuffed Kong or bone to chew. 

To sum it all up…

While it’s never nice to see your dog distressed or uncomfortable, skin conditions in dogs are quite common and often easy to treat. Early detection and treatment are always important, because leaving dog skin conditions untreated can create an escalation, including infection. 

A healthy lifestyle is always the best foundation for your dog, because it helps their immune system cope with threats like allergies, bacteria, and infections. Good nutrition, regular grooming and regular anti-parasite treatments can help prevent many skin issues from forming. Some pet parents find that raw food helps their dog’s skin. We cover the benefits of raw in this blog

Some conditions, like allergies, will have to be managed seasonally, while others can be caused by underlying health conditions. In both cases, your vet will be able to find the problem and recommend the right treatment for your dog.