Pet InfoRx®
Dog Dermatitis

Almost every pet owner will experience, at least once, a pet that has skin issues. While many are treated fairly simply and uneventfully, others can be more complicated and require more specialized treatment.

The following information should give you an idea of what dermatitis is, what to do, and how you can best prevent it.


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Dogs Are 'Thin-Skinned'

Dog is itchy and scratching

A dog’s skin (epidermis) is only 3 to 5 cells thick, while a human’s skin is at least 10 to 15 cells thick. Since dogs have less layers compared to humans, their skin is more sensitive.

And even though dog skin is covered in fur, it encounters toxins, pathogenic organisms, and physical stress. Therefore, the skin acts as an immune organ and is the body's largest organ. This is why it's essential to help keep it healthy.

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What Is Dermatitis?

To put it simply, dermatitis is inflammation of the skin. While age can be a determining factor for some of the different causes, any age of pet can be affected. Some terms you may have heard used with regards to dermatitis are ‘hot spots’ (actually called acute moist dermatitis), rash (papules, pustules, etc.), and pododermatitis (this is where dermatitis affects your dog’s paws). It can present in many different ways and anywhere on the body. Some examples of symptoms are:

  • Pruritus – your pet is itchy
  • Alopecia – your pet loses their fur in patches or large areas
  • Scaling or dandruff – whitish flakes
  • Odor
  • Redness
  • Papules – lumps or bumps
  • Pustules – looks like pimples
  • Thickening of the skin – reminds one of elephant skin
  • Hyperpigmentation – the skin looks black (You can see an example of this in the photo below. This little guy has environmental allergies, and that's why the inside of his ears have turned black over time. This is a mild case; some cases, especially on stomachs, are much more pronounced.) 
    Frenchie with skin allergies

What Causes Dermatitis?

The problem is that dermatitis can be caused by various things. Some causes include:

  • Exposure to heat and cold
  • Contact with chemicals or other substances
  • Parasites – fleas, ticks, Demodex, scabies
  • From allergies – environmental or food-based
  • Endocrine disorders – Hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease
  • Autoimmune diseases – Lupus or Impetigo

The Most Common Causes of Dermatitis Based on Age

  • Birth to 4 months: Localized demodicosis (mange), milk protein burns
  • Before 1 year: Demodicosis (mange), food and flea allergy, atopy (allergy), environmental contact
  • 1 – 3 years: Hypersensitivity (atopy, food, flea), primary idiopathic (unknown cause), pyoderma (a purulent skin disease)
  • 3 – 9 years: Hypersensitivity (atopy, food, flea), endocrinopathy (hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease)
  • Over 9 years: Endocrinopathy, neoplasia

dog with itchy paw and skin issues

Less Common Causes of Dermatitis 

  • Anal Gland Infection – you might see ‘hot spots’ on hip or rump (read more about anal gland infections)
  • Ingrown Dewclaw – alopecia or ‘hot spot’ on paw or leg
  • Arthritic Pain
  • Wet Nylon Collar – leaving a collar on during and after a bath (the dampness of the collar is what causes the issue)
  • Prongs from an underground or invisible fence collar
  • Powdered Carpet Freshener (your dog may be reacting to it)
  • Behavioral – acral lick granuloma (because this condition can often be due to stress or anxiety, help your dog with their boredom or separation anxiety)
  • Fecal or Urinary Incontinence (the lack of control to hold it, i.e., a dog that is potty trained, having potty accidents)

What You Should Do If Your Dog Has Dermatitis

The best thing you can do for your pet if you notice any of the signs listed above is to take them to your veterinarian right away. While dermatitis isn’t an emergency, the sooner it is treated, the sooner your pet feels better, and the causative issues can be addressed. In the long run, this will be less expensive, hopefully, for you.

Some Things Your Veterinarian May Do to Determine the Cause

  • Conduct a complete physical examination (they need to see the extent of the dermatitis and the possible cause(s))
  • Clip the fur in the area around the problem
  • Do a skin scrape (look for mites in the different skin layers)
  • Perform an ear cytology (looking to see if yeast and/or bacteria is present)
  • Run a culture (if pustules – essentially pimples – are present, your veterinarian will sterilely open one of them up and, using a sterile ‘Q-Tip,” swipe the area and then test what kind of bacteria is present) 
  • Run blood work and urine testing (for example, a complete blood count looking at RBC, WBC, and Platelets; a chemistry analysis to evaluate organ function such as liver and kidney, and finally a urinalysis to evaluate your dog's urine for bacteria, protein and other types of sediment
  • Conduct allergy testing, using a blood sample, for both environmental and food allergens 
  • Recommend a strict food elimination diet trial to determine what protein your pet may be allergic to in their diet
  • Run specialized blood tests: ACTH Stim, thyroid panel, etc.
  • Perform a skin biopsy and send it to the laboratory for analysis

Some Things Your Veterinarian May Prescribe for Your Dog's Dermatitis

  • Antibiotics – to kill the bacteria causing the infection – usually for 2 to 6 weeks depending on the cause
  • Medicated shampoo – bathing and treating the bacteria and/or yeast topically
    • *NOTE* Medicated shampoo must remain in contact with your pet’s skin for 10 to 15 minutes BEFORE rinsing the lather. When bathing, DO NOT scrub or scratch the skin as you are making the shampoo lather. Gently rub or massage to create lather.
  • Steroids for the inflammation and itching  
    • *NOTE* Steroids may increase your dog’s need to eat and drink more, as well as urinate more frequently. DO give extra water and allow your dog to have more frequent potty breaks – this may even be needed overnight. DO NOT feed your dog more despite all their begging!
  • Antifungal medications
  • Immunotherapy (caninized monoclonal antibody) – A non-drug, injectable treatment given by your veterinarian to help with the symptoms of allergic dermatitis and atopic dermatitis. Relief begins within 1 day, and one injection can provide relief for 4 to 8 weeks. It is considered safe for all ages, and there are no known drug interactions. Ideal for those dogs that are difficult to medicate with pills. Safe for dogs with comorbidities (other illnesses).
  • Systemic immunosuppressants – Pills are available that help control pruritus (itching) associated with allergic dermatitis and control atopic dermatitis. They have been found to start providing relief within 4 hours of administration and effectively controlled itch within 24 hours with allergic dermatitis. Typical treatment is to medicate your dog twice daily for 14 days and then decrease to once daily. This may end up being a lifelong treatment plan, but your dog will need to have bloodwork monitoring. Some pets are able to eventually come off of this type of treatment.
  • Ear medications – extra ear cleaning may be required (see this video for how to properly clean ears)
  • Prescription hypoallergenic or novel protein (a protein source your pet has never been exposed to) diet
    • *NOTE* Try to remember all the potential proteins (chicken, beef, lamb, eggs, etc.) that you may have fed your dog throughout their lifetime. The best thing to do is bring the ingredients list from your pet food – current and past types, as well as any treats – for your veterinarian to review

dog with itchy skin on couch

Keep Your Dog Comfortable

There are a few things that may make your dog more comfortable that you can try.

  • A cool-mist humidifier helps moisten the air, which helps relieve some of the skin's dryness. Also, a cooler environment is more comforting to their skin.
  • Placing a traditional e-collar or a Kong® Cloud collar when you're not home prevents your pet from chewing at the affected areas, which can hinder or slow healing.
  • Using an Adaptil® pheromone diffuser in the room your pet will stay may calm them down, or you can try VetriScience® ComposureTM treats.
  • If your pet is really itchy, ask your veterinarian if sedatives would be helpful.

How Do You Know Things Are Improving?

You will notice, usually in a few days to a week, that your dog is improving because the inflammation (redness and swelling), rash (papules, lumps), pustules (pimples), etc., will start to lessen. Your dog will not scratch as much to not at all. The skin, in general, will begin to look smoother compared to what it was.

How Do You Know When Things Are Not Improving? What You Should Do.

Within the first few days to a week, you will know that your pet isn’t improving because the inflammation and the rash will not improve and will likely spread and worsen (the skin will get thicker and possibly begin to get pigmented – turn black). Your pet will continue to scratch at the area or new areas. Your pet will continue or start to lose more fur. There are times as well that your pet may have a decreased appetite.

If your pet isn’t showing signs of improvement, despite following all instructions given to you regarding medications, bathing, and food, you should contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may need to run additional tests and/or change the types of medications they initially prescribed your dog.

*NOTE* Improvements from food trials need to be given at least 12 weeks, but you should see some improvements in your pet’s skin sooner.

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How to Prevent This from Happening in the Future

There are a few things you can do to help prevent reoccurrences. This, however, is dependent on the cause and not all dermatitis reoccurrences can be prevented.

  • Be sure to regularly give your dog flea and tick prevention medication (either topical on the skin or oral tablet)
  • Feed high-quality dog food
  • Give your pet joint supplements (if over two years of age)
  • Give your dog fish oil
  • If appropriate, at the first sign of infection, start using medicated shampoo (if previously prescribed).
    • *NOTE* Never use human shampoos on your pet, especially if they have sensitive skin. For routine baths for pets with sensitive skin, hypoallergenic shampoo is best.
  • If your pet is found to have food allergies, ONLY feed the veterinary approved diet and treats you were prescribed
  • Clean ears on a routine basis
  • Properly and consistently give medications your veterinarian prescribed – do not let meds lapse
  • Avoid air fresheners, carpet fresheners, and fabric softeners. Only use hypoallergenic laundry detergent if your pet is diagnosed with atopy or other environmental allergies.
  • Prevent your pet from licking and chewing at areas by distracting them with toys, especially interactive food puzzles

As always, contact your veterinarian, as soon as possible if you notice any signs or symptoms returning. It is possible your pet can develop new causes for their dermatitis. 

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