What Is Seborrhea In Dogs?

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If you spend a lot of time watching your dog, you may notice they scratch themself from time to time. While scratching is normal behavior, excessive itchiness, skin dryness, and coat greasiness could indicate a skin disorder. Of course, dry skin on dogs isn’t always something to worry about, but some skin problems could be the first noticeable sign of something more sinister. 

Many dogs suffer from skin issues, including dog dandruff, greasy coats, and dry, flaky skin. However, while these symptoms may all sound like different skin disorders, they could indicate seborrhea, a dog skin condition that affects the scalp and results in dandruff, itching, and flaky skin. 

Definition Of Seborrhea

Seborrhea is a dog skin condition that occurs when there’s a defect in the keratinization of the skin, hair follicles, and/or claws.1 Keratin is a protein that forms hair and the outer layer of skin, and when it’s produced in the wrong amounts, it can cause various skin issues, secondary inflammation, and infection.1 There are two types of seborrhea in dogs: primary and secondary. 

Primary seborrhea is a genetic skin disease and is more common in some breeds like Cocker Spaniels and Basset Hounds. However, any dog can have this condition, regardless of breed.2 Meanwhile, secondary seborrhea may indicate an underlying disease or illness, but it can also be caused by aging. 

Causes Of Primary Seborrhea

As we’ve mentioned, primary seborrhea is a genetic disease, so it’s not caused by any external factors or illnesses. However, some breeds are predisposed to this skin condition, including:

  • American Cocker Spaniels
  • English Springer Spaniels
  • Basset Hounds
  • West Highland White Terriers
  • Daschunds
  • Labradors
  • Golden Retrievers
  • German Shepherds1

Most dogs with seborrhea have a family history of the disorder, and the disease typically begins when a dog is less than 18 months old.1

Causes of secondary seborrhea

Causes Of Secondary Seborrhea

Secondary seborrhea is caused by an underlying issue that affects keratin production. Potential causes of this skin disorder include: 

Symptoms Of Seborrhea

Symptoms of seborrhea range from dog dandruff and flaky skin to severe infections and hair loss. Of course, not all dogs will have all of these symptoms, but some may experience dull coats and itching, while others have dirty ears or foul-smelling skin. 

Symptoms of seborrhea

Common symptoms of seborrhea in dogs include:

  • Dull coat
  • Scaly skin
  • Itching
  • Inflammation
  • Pus or infection
  • Hair loss
  • Oily skin
  • Smelly coat
  • Dirty ears2

While seborrhea isn’t localized and affects the entire skin of a dog, you may notice it more on the back, face, and sides. Additionally, dogs with skin folds may be more susceptible to infection, so you may notice red skin or inflammation in the armpits, on the belly or tail, and at the bottom of the neck.2

Of course, with secondary seborrhea, your dog might have other symptoms related to the underlying health condition causing it. These symptoms vary depending on the illness but may include the following:

  • Excessive urination and thirst
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Heat-seeking behavior
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Ear infections1 

Getting Help From A Vet

If you believe your dog has seborrhea, you should have them examined by a vet as soon as possible. Since most cases of this skin disease are due to an underlying medical condition, seborrhea may be one of the first indications your dog is suffering from an unknown illness. 

Since most dogs with this disorder have secondary seborrhea, vets will likely try to determine the underlying cause. Identifying and treating the cause will treat secondary symptoms and illnesses, including seborrhea.1 The most common underlying causes of secondary seborrhea are allergies and hormonal disorders, so your vet will start with a physical examination and questions about the symptoms and their duration. 

Through skin examination, the vet will document the type of skin issues, including hair loss, odor, oiliness, and changes in skin and coat texture. In addition, if your vet believes your dog has secondary seborrhea, they may use other tests, such as blood cell count, biopsy, skin scrapings, and hormonal tests, to diagnose your dog. 

Dogs with seborrhea are at an increased risk of secondary infections because they may scratch themselves, and the oily skin conditions are ideal environments for bacteria and yeast.1 Your vet may take skin samples to identify the type of infection and treat it accordingly.

Vets that determine no underlying cause of seborrhea will diagnose dogs with primary seborrhea, especially based on their breed. Once diagnosed, they will begin treating the illness and its symptoms. 

Treatment for Seborrheic Dermatitis

How seborrhea in dogs is treated depends on the cause. However, vets may choose to treat seborrhea itself to make your dog more comfortable. A few options to treat seborrhea in dogs include: 

  • Anti-seborrheic shampoos: Frequent baths with anti-seborrheic shampoo can reduce the symptoms after a few weeks, but how long this treatment takes varies.2 Unsure how to give your dog a bath? Check out this guide to bathing your dog
  • Ear cleaning: Cleaning their ears every 2-3 days with a medicated cleaner can eliminate the infection in the ears.2 
  • Inflammation treatment: Since seborrhea is characterized by skin inflammation, your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs like prednisone.2
  • Treating the underlying condition: If your dog suffers from secondary seborrhea, your vet will treat the underlying cause. For example, dogs with secondary seborrhea due to food allergies will do a food trial or an elimination diet to remove the ingredient that causes the reaction. Meanwhile, dogs with diabetes typically require insulin injections.2 If your dog is diagnosed with secondary seborrhea, your vet will come up with the best treatment plan to treat the primary underlying condition, which should clear up symptoms associated with seborrhea. 

Depending on the severity of the condition, it may take several weeks for symptoms to resolve. If your dog has secondary seborrhea, their primary disease will need to be managed throughout the rest of their life in most cases. Unfortunately, even though seborrhea can be managed with proper treatment, it may never fully resolve. Therefore, your dog may need treatments to prevent discomfort for the rest of their life.2 

However, if your dog’s seborrhea is due to an underlying cause, treating the cause can greatly reduce the skin condition. In some cases, seborrhea can be cured. For example, if your dog has secondary seborrhea due to a food allergy, eliminating the allergen from their diet can prevent seborrhea from returning. 

Luckily, once you know the right treatment for seborrhea, you can easily manage your dog’s condition with baths, grooming, and ear cleanings. However, you should continue to monitor their skin since treatments can become less effective over time. If you notice your dog’s skin changing even though you’re doing the treatments at home, they may need to be re-examined by a vet to develop a more effective treatment plan. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How to treat seborrhea at home?

Never treat seborrhea or other dog skin conditions at home without consulting your vet. In most cases, vets will provide anti-seborrheic shampoos to help symptoms improve. However, treatment mostly depends on the type of seborrhea your dog has. Dogs with secondary seborrhea will need additional treatment for their primary health condition to improve their skin and reduce discomfort. 

Does seborrhea in dogs make them smell bad? 

Seborrhea in dogs can cause a foul skin odor because their skin produces a waxy substance on the ears, armpits, and abdomen. But, of course, there are also many other symptoms of seborrhea, including discomfort and itchiness. Treatment for seborrhea should improve the skin odor and reduce all other symptoms, but some dogs may need regular treatment for the rest of their lives. 

Is dog seborrhea contagious to humans?

Seborrhea is not contagious to humans or other pets. However, some underlying diseases that cause seborrhea are contagious. For example, fleas can spread from pet to pet, causing seborrhea in both animals if not treated promptly. 

Shiba Inu itching as a result of seborrhea 

Final Notes

Dry skin on dogs is fairly common, especially for dogs with underlying health conditions like food or skin allergies. Dry skin in dogs isn’t necessarily cause for concern, but when accompanied by other conditions, it may indicate a more serious disease. Seborrhea in dogs can be primary or secondary, so it’s important to have your dog examined by a vet as soon as you notice the signs. 

Worried about your dog’s skin? Whether your dog is scratching more than usual or experiencing dry, flaky dandruff, they need treatment to reduce discomfort. Talk to a Dutch vet. We can help you diagnose and treat seborrhea to improve your dog’s quality of life. Whether your dog has skin allergies, food allergies, or any other underlying condition, we can help reduce their symptoms so they can live a healthier, less itchy life. Try Dutch today. 



  1. White, Stephen D. “Seborrhea in Dogs - Dog Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, 29 Sept. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/skin-disorders-of-dogs/seborrhea-in-dogs.

  2. “Seborrhea in Dogs.” PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/skin/c_dg_canine_seborrhea.

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