How to Identify and Treat Dog Skin Problems

" This guide provides information on how to identify and then treat dog skin problems. Here you'll find many approaches that can help you determine the cause of the canine skin condition, including disorders that are common in certain breeds, problems seen in young vs. older dogs,  and what different types of dog skin lumps, bump or lesions indicate. In investigating a canine skin problem, an owner or veterinarian also needs to determine if the dog skin disease is primary, meaning it directly resulted in the problem, or secondary, which means that it is the result of something else.  For example,  dog skin itch can result in scratching, which leaves the skin vulnerable to infection.  The infection is a secondary result of the itch. Your vet will diagnosis the canine skin problem by taking a thorough history, by reviewing dog skin disorders common in your dog breed, and through  lab tests.  If dog food allergy or inhaled allergens are suspected (called atopy), the vet will recommend elimination if possible of the allergen from the dogs environment.  Allergy is found to be the cause between 10% to 20% of the time, with a bacterial infection the second most common cause. Skin conditions in dogs are similar those found in people, with many of the same treatment approaches available to treat and cure the condition.  These include prescription medications and natural remedies that strengthen the dog's immune system. Medicated shampoos and dips can be of help in removing allergens form the dogs coat and tarting bacterial and fungal infection. Ultimately, to cure a canine skin disease, the underlying cause needs to be addressed and eliminated.  Use the information below to identify and treat the canine skin problem that is affecting your dog. "

Diagnosing Dog Skin Problems

A veterinarian has three basic clues regarding any dog skin condition.  These include the age, breed and sex of the dog, the dog's medical history and skin appearance. To confirm the diagnosis, a series of laboratory tests (fungal scraping, skin biopsy or sample) can help to identify the exact cause.

Veterinarians will ask the following types of questions to help determine the cause of dog skin problems:

General Guidelines for Dog Skin Problems

Diagnosing a canine skin condition can be challenging if you fail to record when and where a rash begins. The reason is that once a dog starts licking or scratching a problem area, it changes in appearance. For example chronic allergic dermatitis and sarcoptic mange are often easily differentiated in their early stages, but once they develop, they can look identical.  Other clues include behaviors, with inhalant allergies causing a dog to scratch the face, while flea bit hypersensitivity causes a dog to scratch, bite and lick their back, groin, tail and thigh. Sometimes, if the condition spreads to humans, such as canine ringworm, a diagnosis can be made for the dog.

A veterinarian will begin to evaluate dog skin problems by using the information outlined in the following tables:

Dog Skin Conditions based on One or More Areas of the Body

Where a lesion develops on the body is an important clue as to possible cause. Primary lesions develop spontaneously and as a direct result of the disease.  A secondary lesion results after the dog has licked or scratched an area, changing the original appearance, making diagnosis more difficult.

Diseases and Conditions By Area of Dog's Body

Location of Dog Skin Condition Possible Cause of Dog Skin Problems
Localized (in one or few areas of the body) Infectious organism such as a mite
Dog Bacterial Skin Infection
Dog Fungal Skin Infection
Dog skin tumor or cancer (called a neoplasm)
Generalized (affects the entire dog) Hypersensitivity to an allergen (dog allergies)
Endocrine Disorders (diabetes)
Immune mediated disorders (allergy)
Metabolic Skin diseases (for example diabetes mellitus)

Dog Skin Problems based on Shape or Symmetry

The appearance of a skin condition can also provide important clues as to cause. For example, a bacterial skin infection (2nd most common type of skin problem in dogs), can appear as red bumps or pimples, bull's eye target lesions, scabs, flakiness and redness. Pyoderma (pus filled skin) often results in patchy dog hair loss or thinning hair.

Canine Skin Conditions Based on Shape or Symmetry

Shape or Symmetry of Dog Skin Condition Possible Cause of Dog Skin Problems
Appears on two sides of the body in the same say (bi-lateral) Canine hypothyroidism
Canine hyperadrenocorticism
Dog Skin Allergy Lesions that are of unequal size or shape (asymmetric) Dog Skin Parasites
- Mange/Scabies
- Demodicosis
Dog Skin Fungal Infection (ringworm, dermatophytosis)

Dog Skin Problems based on Health of Dog Coat or Hair

Hair loss and thinning can indicate a range of dog skin problems. For example, symmetrical hair loss on the body, accompanied by bumps, blackheads, flaking or other mild skin irritation can indicate Cushing's Disease or hypothyroidism. Some dog hair loss is breed specific such as such as thinning hair on the ears or dog baldness associated with Dachshunds and some short haired breeds. Patchy hair loss is a sign of an immune-mediated canine skin disease. Alopecia areata refers to dogs that lose hair of only one color.

Dog hair loss requires a trip to the veterinarian when a dog is suffering from itch, smells bed, or if there are signs of irritated skin or infected skin.  Also if your dogs appears ill along with hair loss, which could indicate a condition such as a bacterial skin infection mane or other parasitic dog skin disease.

Dog Skin Conditions Based on Hair and Coat Condition

Dog Hair or Coat Condition Possible Cause of Dog Skin Problems
Dull coat hair Metabolic disease (diabetes)
Hormonal disease (cushings)
Nutrition problem
Dog Skin Disease
Dog Coat color change Hormonal disease
Canine follicular dysplasia (misfunctioning hair follicles due to structural abnormality, also associated with hair loss - another name for hair loss is alopecia).
Poor dog hair quality Hormonal disease
Canine follicular dysplasia

Location on Dog Body and Possible Dog Skin Problems

Certain types of canine skin conditions tend to affect a particular area of the body.  Here are some common dog skin problems based on the commonly affected area.

Canine Skin Problems and Body Location

Dog Skin Disease Location on Body Affected Tests Required Treatment Prognosis
Dog Flea Allergy (flea bite hypersensitivity) Lower Back
Middle rear
Skin Testing
Blood Test
Flea Control (see below for dog flea allergy treatment) Excellent
Dog Skin Infection Generalized or any location showing red skin areas, scaling, hair loss (alopecia), skin papules, pustules, crusts Skin testing, biopsy Dog shampoo therapy (see below for dog skin infection treatment) Good
Dog Demodicosis (caused by mites, also called demodex) Localized on the face in the form of hair loss and/or skin scaling

Generalized in more than 5 areas of the body  in the form of hair loss, papules, pustules and crusts.  Paws can be affected.
Skin scrapings, biopsy Prescription medications (amitraz) or dip (see below for dog demodicosis or demodex treatment) Fair
Dog Scabies Ears, elbows, belly, leg joint Skin scrapings, trial treatment (called sarcoptes treatment) Dips (see below for dog scabies treatment) Excellent
Dog Ringworm (dermatophytosis) Face, Ears, Paws Wood's lamp test, fungal culture Antifungal shampoos
Prescription medications for more advanced cases (griseofulvin, keotconazole)
See below for dog ringworm treatment.
Dog allergy (contact hypersensitivity to environmental allergens, also called contact irritant dermatitis) Generalized (all over body)

Areas of body with little hair (scrotum, chin, between the thighs, paws, front abdomen
Skin cultures (fungal culture)
Skin Biopsy
Avoidance of allergen

See below for detailed dog skin allergy treatment
Excellent if cause is identified
Dog Mast Cell Tumor Back half of the body Biopsy Surgical removal
Steroids (glucocorticoids)

Skin Appearance Related to Primary Dog Skin Problems

Skin symptoms can indicate certain dog skin problems.  Use the following table to identify possible underlying causes that are primary in nature, meaning that they are the direct result of whatever dog skin problem is affecting your dog.

Canine Skin Appearance and Related Dog Skin Conditions

Type of Dog Skin Lesion Definition Possible Canine Skin Conditions
Macule Flat isolated spot that is a different color than surrounding areas Acanthosis
Allergic Dermatitis
Bleeding Disorder
Papule Small elevated and firm area (2), pink or red in color, cause by some type of inflammation

dog skin papule
Dog Skin Papule
Source: Dermatology for Small Animal Practitioner
Dog Skin Allergy
Nodule An isolated firm elevated skin area larger than 1cm that extends deeper into the skin

dog skin nodule
Dog Skin Nodule
Source: Dermatology for Small Animal Practitioner
Skin Inflammation
Tumor Swollen skin area. It can extend deep into the skin tissue.

dog skin tumor
Dog Skin Tumor
Source: Dermatology for Small Animal Practitioner
Benign (not cancerous) neoplasms
Malignant  neoplasm (cancerous, fast growing/spreading)
Dog Skin Cysts
Pustule Elevated skin area filled with puss.  Large pustules are called plaques.

dog skin pustule
Dog Skin Pustule
Source: Dermatology for Small Animal Practitioner
Dog acne
Canine Folliculitis
Wheal A raised dog skin lesion that appears soon after exposure to the cause, usually appears and disappears

dog skin wheal
Dog Skin Wheal
Source: Dermatology for Small Animal Practitioner
Dog Hives
Insect Bites
Allergy skin test reactions
Vesicle Raised skin area filled with clear fluid. Large vesicles are called bullae. 

dog skin vesicle
Dog Skin Vesicle
Source: Dermatology for Small Animal Practitioner
Canine autoimmune disease

Secondary Dog Skin Problems and Symptoms

Secondary dog skin problems occur as the result of another problem such as dog skin scratching or itching.

Secondary Canine Skin Problems and Related Symptoms

Type of Dog Skin Lesion Definition Possible Canine Skin Conditions
Scaling Loose skin particles or flakes Canine Seborrhea
Allergic Dermatitis
Epidermal Collarette Round scaling areas Folliculitis
Dog Skin Crusts Dry blood or puss on the skin or coat Pyoderma
Multiple Dog Skin Conditions
Dog Scars Damaged skin covered by fibrous tissue Burns
Dog Skin Ulcer Break in the skin where you can see lower skin layers

dog skin ulcer
Dog Skin Ulcer
Source: Dermatology for Small Animal Practitioner
Excoriation Skin injury from scratching Dog Hot Spots (also called acute moist dermatitis)
Dog Scabies
Dog flea allergy
Lichenification Thickened skin after healing form scratching or other dog skin injury

dog skin lichenification
Dog Skin Lichenification
Source: Dermatology for Small Animal Practitioner

Acanthosis nigricans
Allergic Dermatitis
Hyperpigmentation Dark spots on dog skin

dog skin hyperpigmentation
Dog Skin Hyperpigmentation
Source: Dermatology for Small Animal Practitioner
Hormonal imbalance
Dermatatitis with injury due to dog skin scratching, rubbing
Chronic Inflammation
Hyperkeratosis Skin Thickening on areas of the body such as the dog footpads Autoimmune Disease
Dog Calluses
Dog hard pads (nasodigital hyperkeratosis)

Dog Skin Problems by Breed

A good starting point for diagnosing many dog skin problems is to see if your breed is prone to a specific dog skin disorder.  Many breeds have a higher incidence of canine skin diseases as indicated below.

Canine Skin Conditions by Breed

Dog Breed Diseases that can cause Dog Skin Problems
Beagle  Demodicosis: mange
Sebaceous Gland Tumors
Boston Terrier Atopy (inhalant allergies)
Boxer Dog Acne
Dog Atopy
Neoplasms, Tumors
Cocker and Springer Spaniels Canine Hypothyroidism
Lichenoid Psoriasis form dermatosis
Lip-fold dermatitis
Dog Swimmers Ear (otitis externa)
Canine Seborrhea
Collie Dermatomyostis
Discoid Lupus Erythematosus
Nasal Pyoderma
Dachshund Acanthosis nigricans
Dog Ear Alopecia (dog hair loss)
Doberman Pinscher Canine Acne
Acral lick dermatitis
Color mutant alopecia (dog hair loss)
Flank sucking
German Shepherd Calcinosis Circuscripta
Discoid Lupus Erythematosus
Dog ear tip fly dermatitis
Canine Seborrhea
Golden Retriever Dog Hot Spots (acute moist dermatitis)
Canine Atopy
Canine Folliculitis
Dog swimmer ear (otitis externa)
Labrador Retriever Acral lick dermatitis
Dog Hot Spots
Canine Atopy
Canine Folliculitis
Canine Lipoma
Canine Seborrhea
Dog Otitis externa
Dog Swimmers Ear
Lhasa apso Dog Atopy
Hair Matting
Poodles Tearing (epiphora)
Granulomatous sebaceous adenitis
Dog Cushings Disease (Hyperadrenocorticism)
Dog Swimmers Ear (otitis externa)
Canine sebaceous gland tumor<
Shar Pei (breed known for the most skin problems) Canine Atopy
Dog Hypothyroidism
Dog Food Allergy
Contact Allergies
Canine Folliculitis
Canine Seborrhea
Immunogoblulin A deficiency
Cairn Terriers Dog Atopy
Scottish Terrier Dog Atopy
Canine Folliculitis
West Highland White Terrier Dog Atopy
Canine Seborrhea
Epidermal Dysplasia
Dog Food Allergy
Dog Swimmers Ear
Cutaneous Yeast

How to Treat the Most Common Dog Skin Problems

To treat dog skin problems effectively, the cause of the problem such as allergy or infection needs to be identified.  Reaching a quick diagnosis is sometimes difficult, since dog skin problems due to allergy and infection often result in similar symptoms. Because of this, a veterinarian will often prescribe antibiotics and a medicated shampoo since this will treat a potential dog skin infection. If the condition does not clear up, then additional steps can be taken to treat a dog skin allergy.

Veterinarians also make use of corticosteroids (steroids) to address dog skin itch and inflammation.  These are not prescribed for periods longer than 2 weeks unless needed due to potential side effects such as increased drinking (called polydipsia), increased appetite (polyphagia) and increased urination (polyuria). You may also see your dog panting more than usual and tiredness. The medications should be given after a morning meal.  If you see any side effects, or changes in your dogs behavior or mental condition, be sure to immediately alert your veterinarian.

Dog Skin Itch: To help avoid scratching, anti-itch medications are often prescribed. Itching in a dog in reaction to an allergy is the equivalent of a human sneeze. The allergen causes chemicals to be released in the dog's body which causes skin inflammation.  The result is a dog skin itch.

Prescription medications such as cortisone can bring short term relief by blocking the release of the chemicals in the body that cause itchy dog skin, but are often avoided due to potential side effects.

Other medications that are used to achieve the same effect are antihistamines. Give these medications to your dog on an empty stomach. These products have few side effects (commonly sleepiness), but only help 1 in 5 dogs.  Antihistamines are given to dogs throughout the allergy season affecting your dog.

Several anti-histamines are available over the counter including:

Caution: Do not use if your dog is pregnant. Also, do not use an anti-histamine if your dog is on other medications without consulting with a veterinarian as it could result in an abnormal heart rate. 

If your dog is suffering from atopy (inhaled or seasonal allergy), then combine the use of an anti-histamine with shampoo therapy.

Dog Shampoo Therapy for Typical Dog Skin Conditions

Often, an owner will notice one of the following dog skin problems or conditions:

Each may be improved with the purchase of the right dog shampoo or skin care product. 

Purchasing a Dog Shampoo to Clean and Moisturize the Skin:

Only use shampoos that are formulated for dogs. Look for products that have essential fatty acids, and preferably contain biotin, Vitamin E (anti-oxidant) and vitamin B-5/pantothenic acid (helps with hair).  Look for products that are hypoallergenic and/or all natural. 

A recommended dog shampoo that meets these criteria is DermaPet Conditioning Shampoo.

Dog Dry Skin Treatment

After using a product like the DermaPet mentioned above for bathing, if a dog has dry skin, there is some benefit to using a bath oil, conditioner, emollient (allow oils to enter the skin) or humectant (moisturize by trapping water in the skin).  Products that contain fatty acids can also be helpful.

These products can be applied daily to the skin, and can be particularly helpful for dogs that live in warmer or dry climates.

A recommend dog skin conditioner is DermAlly Oatmeal Skin Conditioner.

Dog Seborrhea Treatment  (flaking dog skin)

Canine seborrhea can result in dry dog skin or greasy dog skin.  These dog skin problems result from skin cells being produced faster than older dead cells can fall away from the dog.

To moisturize the skin of a dog with seborrhea, something as simple as bathing in plain water for 10 to 15 minutes can help.Medicated shampoos can also be of help such as those that contain sulfur and salicylic acid.

A recommended dog seborrhea shampoo is DermaPet DermaBenS Shampoo.

Dog Skin Infection Treatment

Medicated dog shampoos with selenium are often used to treat dog skin bacterial infections.  These shampoos clean at the base of the hair follicles, helping to remove infection.  Selsun Blue is commonly used for this purpose.

Shampoos that contain chlorhexidine such as Duoxo can help with dog skin infections caused by bacteria, ringworm or yeast.  Iodine based shampoos also can be used for bacterial and fungal infection.

Treating Dog Hot Spots

Often a dog skin allergy or dog flea allergy specifically can cause skin scratching and licking which results in hair loss in specific areas of the coat.  These are referred to as dog hot spots.

These types of dog skin problems are treated with shampoos that contain Benzoyl Peroxide. For example, DermaPet Benzoyl Peroxide Plus or Pyoben would be good choices.

In terms of dog hot spot treatment, we suggest the following:

  1. Remove/cut dog hair around any infected lesions
  2. Give your dog a bath using a hypoallergenic shampoo such as DermaPet Conditioning Shampoo
  3. After rinsing shampoo, use a Benzoyl Peroxide based shampoo such as DermaPet Benzoyl Peroxide Plus.  Leave on the dog for about 10 minutes, making sure that you cover infected areas or hot spots with the suds.
  4. If you believe the hot spot was caused by a flea, then follow the use of the two shampoos with a dip such as Naturasil Herbal Flea Dip.
  5. If this therapy doesn't help over time, your dog might need a short course of steroids, followed by use of this hot spot approach.  Infection may also require antibiotics.

Treating Dog Flea Skin Allergy

For dog skin flea allergy we suggest use of a dip such as the one offered by Adams Flea Dip and one bath per week with a hypoallergenic shampoo such as the DermaPet Conditioning shampoo mentioned above.  Insecticide based shampoos are recommended by some veterinarians, although others consider them to be ineffective.

Dog Skin Infection (Pyoderma)

If you see puss filled bumps or pimples on your dog's skin, that isn't caused by allergy, it is probably caused by a bacterial dog skin infection. Other causes include skin injury, fleas, mange, hormonal issues, seborrhea, autoimmune disease (lupus), cancer, high temperatures, high humidity levels, use of medications such as steroids, and ringworm.

 Symptoms of dog skin infection include:

Skin infections usually occur in dogs with a compromised immune system, so it is important to visit the veterinarian for a diagnosis and to rule out hormone deficiency related diseases such as Cushings and hypothyroidism.

Treatment commonly starts with the use of antibiotics for about 2 weeks or longer depending on how fast your dog is healing.   Antibiotic treatment usually lasts for 2 weeks.  Commonly used antibiotics includes Erythromycin, Clindamycin, Amoxicillin, Cephalexin and Enrofloxacin.

An anti-bacterial shampoo such as the Duoxo can be of help as well.  Frequency of use varies from 1x every 2 days to 1x every 2 weeks based on the severity of the condition and the preference of your veterinarian.

Dog Ringworm

Canine ringworm is a fungal infection that causes hair loss in localized areas on dogs, taking shape as the commonly known round skin areas.  If it in just a few areas, it is possible that the problem will go away on its own.

Dips such as Naturasil for Ringworm are effective if the ringworm has spread all over a dogs body. If this doesn't work, then oral prescription medications can be used (called Griseofulvin).

Dog Skin Yeast Infection (cutaneous malassezia)

Yeast on a dog's skin can result in a dog scratching or chewing the skin. This often happens in specific areas of the body such as scratching dog ears., face, toes or under the dog's tail.

If the condition is diagnosed as being mild, then a Benzoyl peroxide based shampoo such as the DermaPet Benzoyl Peroxide can be helpful.  Cases that are not mild will require a prescription medication (Nizoral, Clavamox).

Dog Skin Problems Caused by Parasites

There are several dog skin problems caused by parasites.  This includes:

Dog Skin Allergy

Dog skin problems that involve allergy fall into five broad categories as indicated below.  The goal of diagnosis is to identify the specific cause of the dog skin condition, and then to address how to avoid the cause, while at the same time treating any symptoms.

Homeopathics for Dog Skin Problems

Many owners and vets believe in the ability of homeopathic products to strengthen the dog's ability to protect the skin.  This includes products which address symptoms such as Allergy Itch Ease. Others are formulated to help dogs during and after conventional treatment restore skin and coat condition while speeding recovery.  Skin and Coat Tonic falls into the category of products that promote healthy skin and coats.

Both of the links above will take you to reputable manufacturers who provide the latest scientific research behind this approach.  Note that they are not a specific cure, but meant for general support.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Dog Skin Conditions

As you can see from the discussion above, there many possible types of dog skin problems. If you decide to treat the condition yourself at first, consider the shampoo therapy recommendations listed above.  If you do not see improvement after several days, or not other changes in your dog's general condition, be sure to seek the advice of a veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist.

References for Dog Skin Problems

Melman, Dr. Steven A.
Skin Diseases of Dogs and Cats

Hypothyroidism in Dogs, Washington State University

Skin Problems in Dogs, WebMD

Mueller, R.S.
The Dog with Papules, Pustules and Crusts
Dermatology for the Small Animal Practitioner

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