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Dog Dermatitis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
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While just about every dog needs to scratch an itch from time to time, excessive itching may indicate a skin problem or underlying medical condition. Dog dermatitis is an umbrella term used to describe any type of inflammation on your dog’s skin. Whether your dog’s dermatitis stems from fleas or a food allergy or even an infection, it’s important to get to the bottom of the issue and resolve it.
In this article, we discuss dermatitis in dogs and explain what the symptoms are, what causes it, and how it can be treated. By taking care of your dog’s dermatitis, you can enable them to lead a more comfortable life and prevent more serious health conditions from developing. So, if you want to learn more about the signs, causes, and treatment of dog dermatitis, continue reading. Alternatively, you can skip to any section in this article using the links directly below.
- What Is Canine Dermatitis?
- Dog Dermatitis: Frequently Asked Questions
- Final Notes
What Is Canine Dermatitis?
Dog dermatitis doesn’t define one specific condition—rather, it’s a general term used to describe any sort of skin inflammation. There are many ways in which a dog’s skin may become inflamed, including infections, illness, and allergic reactions to flea bites or food.
One of the most prominent signs of dermatitis is pruritus. Pruritus is a medical term that simply refers to the condition of itchy skin. Although pruritus may arise due to a number of reasons, it’s the most common symptom associated with dermatitis. If your dog is affected by pruritus, you may notice them excessively scratching or biting at themselves in an attempt to soothe the itching.
Since dog dermatitis is a general term rather than a definitive diagnosis, it’s important to consult with a vet when you notice symptoms of dermatitis in your dog. Pruritus, inflammation, redness, and rashes are all symptoms that can be attributed to an underlying illness or condition.¹ Whether your dog is experiencing an allergic reaction to something in the immediate environment or has an undiagnosed skin condition, getting help from a qualified vet will allow you to identify the problem, begin treatment, and provide your dog with relief.
Types of Canine Dermatitis
As we explained above, dog dermatitis isn’t a medical condition in and of itself, but rather an umbrella term that describes a wide array of skin conditions. This general term can be further broken down into different types of dermatitis.
Different types of dermatitis are classified depending on their cause and the symptoms they produce. Diagnosing the specific type of dermatitis affecting your dog can help you and your vet in designing a treatment plan that addresses the root cause of the inflammation and relieves the most prevalent symptoms.
Take a look at the list below to see what each type of dermatitis generally entails:
Allergic contact dermatitis is a rare skin condition marked by short-lived lesions that arise when the animal comes into contact with certain allergens. This disorder occurs in dogs who have a hypersensitivity to a particular material or allergen. While initial lesions occur due to a reaction between the dog’s skin and the allergen, secondary lesions can appear as a result of self-trauma and chronic inflammation.²
Atopic dermatitis is a condition that can make your dog’s skin itchy, inflamed, and irritated. The telltale sign of atopic dermatitis in dogs is persistent pruritus. In dogs with atopic dermatitis, you may also notice lesions or redness on the face, ears, front legs, feet, abdomen, and/or under their shoulders.
In many cases, dogs can have a genetic predisposition to develop atopic dermatitis. Additionally, some dog breeds may have a higher likelihood of suffering from atopic dermatitis.³ Atopic dermatitis can also be caused by seasonal/environmental factors and food.
Some dogs also have hypersensitivity to flea and mite saliva, meaning flea or mite bites can lead to irritation or inflammation. In the case of parasitic dermatitis, itchy lesions can often be found on the lower back, inner thighs, and tail of affected dogs. The upside of this form of dermatitis is that it’s relatively easy to take care of—simply get rid of your dog’s pests and you’ll eliminate the root of the problem.⁴
Acral lick dermatitis
Acral lick dermatitis is a common condition where dogs develop thick lesions on their skin as a result of excessive licking. These lesions most often appear on a dog’s legs and feet. The persistent licking is typically driven by an underlying condition, such as an allergic reaction, neurologic disorder, infection, or parasitic disease. It’s important to note that the licking itself can exacerbate the condition and lead to even further damage or infection.⁵
Pyotraumatic dermatitis (hot spots)
Pyoderma is a generalized term for skin infection and consists of pus-filled regions of skin that affect the uppermost layers of skin and hair follicles. This is a common condition in dogs and can be caused by a bacterial or fungal infection of the skin. Pyoderma infections come in two varieties: simple and complex. A simple pyoderma infection is a one-time infection sparked by an allergen or other event. A complex pyoderma infection is a chronic condition typically related to an underlying disease.⁶
Malassezia dermatitis—also known as yeast dermatitis—is a common skin condition in dogs. Major symptoms include severe pruritus accompanied by a foul odor, hair loss, scaly or crusty skin, and inflammation. In most cases, Malassezia dermatitis is indicative of an underlying skin disease.⁷
As you can see, there are many different types of dermatitis in dogs. You may have also noticed that many of these types of dermatitis are similar in how they display themselves and affect your dog. Thus, it can be hard for the average person to differentiate one type of dog dermatitis from another. This is why it’s crucial to consult with a vet if you suspect your dog is suffering from dermatitis. A qualified vet can spot the subtle differences between types of dermatitis and provide you with a diagnosis and an accompanying treatment plan.
Given the fact that dermatitis is a general term, there will be variations in the symptoms your dog displays depending on the type of dermatitis they have. Yet, there is some consistency when it comes to dog dermatitis. For instance, pruritus appears as a major symptom with most types of dog dermatitis. A dog’s skin will likely become itchy once it becomes inflamed, scaly, or otherwise irritated.
To help you recognize symptoms as they arise, here’s a list of symptoms common to different types of dog dermatitis⁸:
- Excessive itching, scratching, and/or licking
- Redness of the skin
- Thickening of the skin
- Oily dandruff
- Unpleasant odor
- Hair loss
Symptoms may appear on a seasonal or non-seasonal basis. Additionally, it’s possible your dog has non-seasonal dermatitis yet experiences seasonal flares. This could be due to the various environmental allergens present in the environment throughout the different times of year.
Aside from the symptoms listed above, your dog may display secondary symptoms brought on by excessive scratching and licking. This self-trauma can lead to lesions, scabbing, and hair loss. Bacterial and yeast infections can also develop due to self-trauma and skin inflammation.
Discovering the root cause of your dog’s dermatitis allows your vet to design an effective treatment plan. In this section, we examine some of the different causes and explain how each can potentially lead to dermatitis in your dog.
Some breeds and coat colors, such as blues and whites, have a higher predisposition for developing dog dermatitis than others. As far as atopic dermatitis in dogs is concerned, these breeds are high-risk for developing the condition³:
- Chinese Shar-Pei
- Wirehaired Fox Terrier
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- Boston Terrier
- Lhasa Apso
- Scottish Terrier
- Shih Tzu
- West Highland White Terrier
Yet, breed isn’t the only determining factor of dog dermatitis. Several other irritants, agents, diseases, infections, and allergens can trigger dermatitis in dogs. Below are some of the most common causes of dermatitis:
- Flea allergy: While enough fleas can bother almost any animal, a flea allergy isn’t a reaction to the flea itself. Rather, some dogs actually have hypersensitivity to flea saliva. This means that flea bites can cause a significant amount of skin irritation and inflammation.
Typically, the most straightforward way to treat a flea allergy and soothe your dog’s dermatitis is to eliminate the fleas. Please consult your veterinarian about the most effective way to treat and manage the fleas.
- Food allergy: Dermatitis in dogs can be caused by an allergy to one or more food items. Just like humans can be allergic to certain food items, so can dogs. The resulting allergic reaction can lead to dog dermatitis and possibly other health issues.
The most effective way to treat a food allergy in dogs is to eliminate the problematic food item from your dog’s diet. However, in some cases, identifying the food item causing dermatitis in your dog can pose a challenge. This is where a dietary elimination trial may prove useful.
A dietary elimination trial is used to identify food sensitivities in animals. Dogs are fed a specialized novel protein diet for a predetermined period of time in order to isolate any food items they may show allergic reactions to. One literature review suggested that a diet elimination trial should last a minimum of ten weeks to effectively identify any food allergens.⁹
- Contact allergy: Some dogs have hypersensitivity to environmental allergens. Their skin may react to pollen floating in the air, plants in and around the home, certain materials in the surrounding environment, or some other type of allergen.
While it may be difficult to narrow down the environmental allergen that’s triggering your dog’s dermatitis, identifying it can be extremely helpful in coming up with treatment for canine dermatitis. A contact allergy may also be seasonal and flare up only during certain times of the year.
- Bacterial/yeast infections: In some cases, dog dermatitis may be a sign of a bacterial or yeast infection. If a dog’s immune system is weakened or they contract a skin condition, bacteria that already exists on their skin can develop into an infection.¹⁰
Bacterial and yeast infections may also arise from your excessive scratching and itching due to an existing skin condition. Untreated dermatitis can eventually lead to infection. To treat an infection, your vet may recommend a course of antibiotic medication.
In order to reach a diagnosis of canine dermatitis, your vet will likely start by reviewing your dog’s medical history, checking for pre-existing conditions, and analyzing any symptoms. They may also order some of the following lab tests¹¹:
- Skin scrapings: Skin scrapings are used to determine whether any mites are present on your dog’s skin. Superficial skin scrapings collect a sample from the epidermis, while deep skin scrapings collect a sample from within the hair follicle itself.
- Combing of coat: A flea comb is used to determine whether parasites are present on the surface of your dog’s skin and trap them.
- Hair trichogram: When conducting a hair trichogram, veterinarians use forceps to extract a group of hairs and mount them in mineral oil. These hairs can then be examined to determine whether your dog’s dermatitis is the result of parasites, infections, or disease.
- Cytology: Impression smears of the skin can help to identify fungal, bacterial, and neoplastic skin diseases.
- Fungal cultures: By scrubbing a tool such as a new toothbrush on a dog’s skin, a vet can collect a fungal sample for further analysis.
- Bacteria cultures: In some cases, pustules can be extracted from a dog’s skin and examined in the laboratory for signs of infection or disease.
- Biopsy: Samples of skin tissue can be taken in severe or unusual cases where the dog’s dermatitis doesn’t respond properly to treatment.
- Intradermal skin testing: Intradermal skin testing is typically reserved for animals who indicate severe or long-lasting allergic signs.
- In vitro diagnostic tests (ELISA/RAST): These tests can be performed on blood and tissue samples taken from dogs, and are often used as an alternative to intradermal skin testing.
How you treat dog dermatitis is ultimately going to depend on the underlying condition. Below are some of the available treatment options for dogs with dermatitis³:
- Avoidance of allergens: Removing problematic allergens from your dog’s immediate environment is perhaps the simplest and most effective way to treat dog dermatitis if the condition is triggered by an allergic reaction. This allergic reaction may stem from a certain food, environmental allergen, or material. In any case, keeping your dog away from the allergen in question can alleviate the symptoms of dog dermatitis.
The difficulty with avoiding allergens is that you may not always know what’s causing your dog’s allergic reaction. Getting to the bottom of this can be extremely difficult. However, things like a dietary elimination trial can come in handy in cases like these.
- Medicated baths: A medicated bath can help with your dog’s pruritus and may be useful in eliminating fleas, mites, and other parasites. Generally, for dogs experiencing dermatitis symptoms, professionals recommend giving them a bath on a weekly or biweekly basis. Speak with your vet about the frequency of bathing as well as which products to use.
- Immunotherapy: Allergen-specific immunotherapy is a course of treatment aimed at increasing your dog’s tolerance to problematic allergens. This involves exposing your dog to small doses of the problematic allergen and gradually increasing the dosage until your dog can better withstand these allergens. Immunotherapy can be administered using either injections or via pills ingested orally.
- Medication: There are several medications that can relieve itching in dogs and control the symptoms of dog dermatitis. The right medication is going to depend on your dog’s medical history and the condition they’re suffering from. Speak with your vet to determine if medication is right for your dog’s dermatitis.
Dog Dermatitis: Frequently Asked Questions
Are some breeds predisposed to developing atopic dermatitis?
Yes, some breeds have a higher likelihood of developing atopic dermatitis than others. The following breeds tend to have a predisposition to developing atopic dermatitis³:
- Chinese Shar-Pei
- Wirehaired Fox Terrier
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- Boston Terrier
- Lhasa Apso
- Scottish Terrier
- Shih Tzu
- West Highland White Terrier
When do dogs usually develop dermatitis?
Dogs generally develop dermatitis between the ages of six months and three years. While breed plays a role the development of dog dermatitis, sex does not. You should also keep in mind that dermatitis in dogs can be seasonal rather than chronic, so it’s possible you may not notice symptoms of dog dermatitis until your pet is older.³
Where do dermatitis symptoms typically appear?
Dog dermatitis symptoms can appear in a number of places across a dog’s body. Some of the most common areas for dermatitis symptoms to occur include¹²:
- Base of the tail
- Between the toes
- Near the eyes
As you might be able to tell from the list above, dermatitis symptoms can appear almost anywhere on a dog’s body. The areas where the symptoms display themselves may give clues as to what specific condition your dog is experiencing. You might consider making note of the different areas where your dog most often scratches and itches before speaking with your vet.
How do I treat my dog’s dermatitis?
The most effective treatment method for your dog’s dermatitis will depend on the underlying cause of the condition. Potential treatment options include helping your dog to avoid allergens, giving them medicated baths, engaging in immunotherapy, or administering medication.
Dog dermatitis can make your pet feel itchy, uncomfortable, and irritated. Since every dog owner wants the best for their pet, it’s always best to seek out treatment for canine dermatitis as soon as you recognize the symptoms.
Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of the symptoms of canine dermatitis as well as the treatment options available for your dog. Once you address your dog’s dermatitis, you can turn your attention to other tasks like training your dog to stop barking.
If you suspect your dog has dermatitis, use Dutch to quickly schedule an online consultation with a qualified vet. Dutch-affiliated vets can assess your dog’s symptoms, come up with a diagnosis, design a customized treatment plan, and provide ongoing care. We’re also the only pet telemedicine company to facilitate the delivery of medications right to your door. So whether you’re looking for treatment for dog dermatitis or dog separation anxiety, contact Dutch today to access the high-quality treatment your dog deserves.
- Moriello, Karen A. “Dermatitis and Dermatologic Problems in Dogs.” MSD Veterinary Manual, MSD Veterinary Manual, June 2018, https://www.msdvetmanual.com/dog-owners/skin-disorders-of-dogs/dermatitis-and-dermatologic-problems-in-dogs?query=dog+dermatitis.
- Olivry, T, et al. “Allergic Contact Dermatitis in the Dog. Principles and Diagnosis.” The Veterinary Clinics of North America. Small Animal Practice, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 1990, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2251735/.
- Diaz, Sandra. “Canine Atopic Dermatitis.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Aug. 2020, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/integumentary-system/atopic-dermatitis/canine-atopic-dermatitis?query=dog+dermatitis.
- Dryden, Michael W. “Flea Allergy Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Apr. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/integumentary-system/fleas-and-flea-allergy-dermatitis/flea-allergy-dermatitis-in-dogs-and-cats?query=Flea+allergy+dermatitis.
- Shumaker, Amy K. “Diagnosis and Treatment of Canine Acral Lick Dermatitis.” The Veterinary Clinics of North America. Small Animal Practice, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 26 Sept. 2018, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30268424/.
- Diaz, Sandra. “Pyoderma in Dogs and Cats.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Sept. 2020, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/integumentary-system/pyoderma/pyoderma-in-dogs-and-cats?query=Pyotraumatic+dermatitis.
- Bajwa, Jangi. “Canine Malassezia Dermatitis.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal, Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, Oct. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5603939/.
- Moriello, Karen A. “Dermatitis in Animals.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Jan. 2020, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/integumentary-system/integumentary-system-introduction/dermatitis-in-animals?query=dermatitis.
- Pucheu-Haston, Cherie M. “Cutaneous Food Allergy in Animals.” MSD Veterinary Manual, MSD Veterinary Manual, Oct. 2020, https://www.msdvetmanual.com/integumentary-system/food-allergy/cutaneous-food-allergy-in-animals.
- Hunter, Tammy, and Ernest Edward. “Yeast Dermatitis in Dogs.” VCA Hospitals, https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/yeast-dermatitis-in-dogs.
- Moriello, Karen A. “Diagnosis of Skin Diseases in Animals.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Jan. 2020, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/integumentary-system/integumentary-system-introduction/diagnosis-of-skin-diseases-in-animals.
- Elfenbein, Hanie. “Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments.” PetMD, PetMD, 13 Feb. 2020, https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/skin/c_dg_atopic_dermatitis.