Dog Skin Problems can be Complex!

Dog skin problems can be broadly divided into the same categories as seen under pet skin problems. We have already addressed the more common causes of dog skin problems on other pages on this site. These are allergies and external parasites and seeing they are so unique and troublesome, there is a whole page devoted to fleas! So what does that leave us with?

Unfortunately, a whole lot of potentially problematic skin problems which can be divided into several broad categories.The list of conditions that fall under these broad categories is mindblowingly long so we will deal with just a few to give you an idea.

1) Congenital or Hereditary skin problems

Let me start by defining the difference between "congenital" and "hereditary". Congenital means present at birth but need not necessarily be hereditary. Hereditary means inherited and is a characteristic contained in the genes of the individual. These genes were provided by the individual's sire and dam (father and mother in human terms). Hereditary traits that are problematic may not necessarily be present in a clinical form at birth - the clinical signs may be present at birth or may only develop later in life.

While congenital conditions, usually due to a problem occuring during the growth of the foetus in the womb, can occur in any dog, hereditary skin problems tend to be more breed specific due to their relation to the genetic make up of the breed.

An example of a hereditary skin problem would be a condition known as colour mutant alopecia that occurs in Dobermans, Whippets and a few other breeds. Pups are born with a normal haircoat but over time (months to a few years) the hair becomes brittle, dry and thin and the skin becomes rough and scaly.

There is no cure for this condition but it can be managed. Obviously, dogs suffering from this condition, or any other inherited condition should not be used for breeding as the chances are high they will pass the problem onto their offspring.

2) Hormonally induced skin problems

Many hormone imbalances can lead to dog skin problems and particularly hair loss. Many of these conditions are characterised by non itchy, bilaterally symetrical hair loss and skin changes. In most cases the skin and hair changes will not be the only clinical signs indicating a hormonal imbalance.

NB: In all cases it is vitally important to CONFIRM the diagnosis before embarking on any treatment regime - messing around experimentally with hormones is a definite no-no!

Some examples of hormone imbalances that cause skin problems include:

a) Hypothyroidism (thyroid deficiency) - probably the most common cause of hormonally induced skin problems in dogs. Clinically the hair is dry and brittle and falls out easily while the skin becomes thickened, dry and darkly pigmented. Other clinical signs include lethargy, weight gain, reduced heart rate etc.The condition can be managed by thyroid hormone replacement therapy

b) Hyperoestrogenism (overproduction of oestrogen) - can occur in both males and females and usually the result of ovarian or testicular ovaries. Typically skin changes start around the genital area. The hair becomes dry and brittle and falls out easily (sound familiar?). The skin can become flaky and pigmented. Other clinical signs are due to the increased production of oestrogen - enlarged mammary glands and nipples etc. The condition can be treated by spaying/neutering the affected individual.

Some other hormone imbalances that may cause dog skin problems include hyperadrenocorticism, hypooestrogenism and growth hormone deficiency

3) Dietary Imbalance

Dietary imbalances may occur as a result of the dog being fed an unbalanced diet or they may arise due to an inability to absorb a specific nutrient from the intestinal tract.

Should it just be a case of being fed an unbalanced diet, then correcting the diet should result in an improvement in the skin condition.

Examples here include zinc and copper deficient diets.

4) Infectious causes

Every cut, scratch and scrape is a potential opening for unwanted bacteria to gain a foothold in the skin.

Thus Pyoderma can be a secondary occurence to many skin diseases, especially those where the skin is traumatised.(scratching!!)

There are many types of skin infections, some more serious than others. We will mention some of the more common ones here.

a) Folliculitis - an infection of the hair follicles varying from mild to very severe. Often occurs as a complication to other skin problems. Initially seen as a pustule associated with a hair shaft. It can develop into draining sinus tracts in severe cases. Treatment is usually prolonged.

b) Skin fold pyodermas - this occurs where skin surfaces rub together, causing inflammation which is then an ideal place for an infection to take hold. Various breeds are more prone to this in certain areas e.g. Spaniels get a lip fold pyoderma. The ideal treatment is surgical correction of the skin fold but this is not always feasible in which case medical management will be required.

c) Hot spots - these are patches of skin that show hair loss, inflammation and are often foul smelling. They can literally appear overnight and are extremely painfull to the animal. The animal usually will have to be sedated for treatment to take place.

5) Skin Tumours/Growths

There are many types of tumours that one can find in the skin but they will mostly look more or less the same to the naked eye. Apart from the location on the body which might give one a clue as to the type of tumour, diagnosis for the most part will depend on a histopathologist.

A useful tip if you find a lump in your dog's skin is to note down the location, size (measure it!) and appearance and repeat these observations regularly. If it starts to grow quickly or ulcerates through the skin then get to a vet quickly.

6) Immune-mediated skin problems

These skin conditions occur when the body's own immune system mounts a response against some part of the skin structure. Very often the skin is not the only organ affected. Examples include Pemphigus Foliaceus and Discoid Lupus Erythematosus - suitably big words for very complicated diseases.

We have only scratched the surface as far as dog skin problems go. It is an immense field with hundreds of documented conditions. As a dog owner your duty is to ensure that you get the basics of diet and external parasite control right and to be aware of the broad range of potential dog skin problems that might arise at any stage of your pet's life.