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Skin problems in dogs and cats

Updated on October 28, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.


Owners Have A Large Role In Fixing It

There is one physical trait that we humans share in common with our pets. Our body's largest organ is also an animal's largest organ.

The lungs would be a good guess since they take up such a huge portion of our chests. But do you consider lungs one organ or two?

It doesn't matter. It's the wrong answer. As every medical practitioner and trivia buff knows, our skin is our body's largest organ, and it causes us problems ranging from annoying to severe.

It also causes our pets problems (especially dogs), and for pretty much the same reasons. One big difference is that we're smart enough to leave our boo-boos alone, but pets aren't. They'll scratch, chew and lick problem areas (self-trauma, in vetspeak), making things much worse.

Skin problems are divided into two categories: primary and secondary. Examples of primary skin diseases include flea bite (or flea saliva) dermatitis, mange, or contact dermatitis from grasses or other external sources.

Secondary skin diseases appear as side effects of other medical problems. Hypothyroidism, for instance, often causes skin problems.

When the cause is finally identified, it's usually after a battery of tests because skin conditions are so difficult to diagnose.

Allergies represent a significant cause of skin diseases, and they can be difficult to diagnose, too.

Sometimes, but less commonly, food is the culprit, with wheat, soy, corn, and dairy products well represented.

More commonly in a food allergy, a protein, chicken for example, is the culprit. Allergies also can be airborne or of the contact type.


Hot spots, also known as moist dermatitis, are familiar to most dog owners. Those conditions are often a result of the animal's chewing, scratching or licking.

Once the skin is broken, a secondary infection can set in making matters much worse.

Ectoparasites, or external parasites, such as fleas, ticks and mites cause problems by breaking the skin and allowing infection to occur. And, if there's a fungus among us, it's often ringworm.

To achieve a diagnosis vets will often perform a skin scrape, where they shave a patch of haircoat and scrape off the top layer of the exposed skin with a scalpel blade. They then examine the material under a powerful microscope.

There are other diagnostic aides as well, such as blood tests, biopsies and a skin-prick test in which they test for a multitude of allergens.

Even with these tools diagnosis is difficult and time consuming because of the skin's varied responses to various attacks.

Treatment usually involves a drug of some sort and can last for a long time, even for life. The arsenal includes steroids, antibiotics, antifungals, antihistamines, topical creams or lotions, even medicated shampoos and rinses.

Many times a skin condition in pets will mean changes in diet and elimination of certain treats.

And, hypo-allergenic foods for pet carnivores typically feature expensive and exotic protein sources such as venison or duck. There are hypoallergenic biscuits for dogs.

There are some things you can do preventatively to help keep your pet's skin healthy. Frequent brushings will remove dead hair and keep the hair from matting.

Shampoos should be minimized, but when necessary done with medicated or hypoallergenic products. Don't use human shampoos, even baby shampoo.

If your pet is subject to dry skin, periodic visits to your groomer might be a good idea. Groomers have the tools, products, training, experience, patience, and that gentle, professional touch that makes the visit worthwhile.

How Conscious Are You About Your Pet's Skin?

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi wetnosedogs, thanks for stopping by. A lot of treats have wheat in them. Those heavily advertised "bacon" treats...out of the first three ingredients, two are wheat.

      Advertising leads you to believe many of these treats are really meaty. Owners have to read the ingredient panels. And table crust, pasta, bagels, toast, English muffins, the last few flakes of cereal in the bowl...they can all negatively impact a dog's skin if he has a grain intolerance. It doesn't even have to be a full blown allergy.

      The grain starts the dog itching and the dog takes it from there with his chewing and scratching. The next thing you spots or an infection. Thanks for weighing in. Regards, Bob

    • wetnosedogs profile image

      wetnosedogs 5 years ago from Alabama

      My oldest female, Bella, has food allergies, soy, corn, wheat. Since we switched foods, she is must better. Certainly agree about treats, too. I bought a treat with wheat in it and sure enough, she was itching like crazy for a few days. I still have those treats hidden away.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Ann, good to see you. A nice happy ending, I like those. If it wasn't such a sad situation, one could crack a lot of jokes about a dog being allergic to human dander. That's quite a reversal. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

      Hi twilanelson, thanks for stopping by. It's worth the extra effort, isn't it? I really feed bad for a dog that is scratching all the time. A customer came into our store once with a dog that couldn't go more than 15 seconds without scratching.

      She was doing everything the dog bread, snack chips, etc. I asked her to try a few things, which she did, and when they came in two weeks later the dog was going more than a minute and a half without scratching.

      She was flabbergasted. She saw an improvement almost immediately and her family just marveled at how he improved every day. A lot of folks just don't connect the dots between family habits and the dog's skin.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Hope to see you again. Regards, Bob

    • twilanelson profile image

      Twila Nelson 5 years ago from Carmichael, California

      Thank you for a nicely written Hub concentrating on our pet's skin. Preventative maintenance as well as veterinary care, patience and consistency throughout treatment help to keep our pet's skin healthy and comfortable. Our pets and their skin should never be ignored because these conditions will not go away on their own. Again I thank you for an easy to understand Hub and have a wonderful day!

    • annstaub profile image

      Ann 5 years ago from Round Rock, TX

      Good article. My dog is plagued with skin problems. Especially her ears. I once helped with an extremely allergic patient with some of the worst skin I had ever seen. Nothing we tried worked for him. He was a rescue dog and had been given up by his owner because of his skin problems. He finally was allergy tested and turns out he was very allergic to human dander. He did eventually find a home.