Dermatitis in Dogs

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

itchy dog

Carol Yepes / Getty Images 

Dermatitis is a skin problem that can affect any dog and causes extreme discomfort and can even result in infected lesions. The term "dermatitis" refers to a wide range of skin conditions of varying severity. For example, some forms of dermatitis are caused by environmental allergens, while others care caused by yeast infections. Dogs will typically respond well to treatment, which usually involves antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, or steroids. It may be confused with other skin problems, so knowing the signs and causes of this reoccurring issue can help you get your dog relief and potentially avoid what contributes to the problem. Pay a visit to your vet for a proper diagnosis.

What Is Dermatitis?

Dermatitis is a skin condition that causes itching, redness, and lesions on dogs' skin. It is often a chronic condition that many dogs suffer from and can occur year-round, seasonally, or situationally depending on the underlying cause of the problem.

When a dog's skin becomes damaged or dry, inflammation can happen. It can occur anywhere on a dog's body and may even come and go throughout the year. Histamine, which causes a dog to itch and scratch, may also be released, depending on the cause of dermatitis. The scratching creates a cycle of skin trauma, discomfort, and inflammation.

There are many different skin conditions in dogs attributable to specific underlying causes, but the word "dermatitis" may be used for any skin inflammation. Some of these dermatitis conditions include:

  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Atopic-like dermatitis (a variant of atopic dermatitis)
  • Flea allergy dermatitis
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Acral lick dermatitis (also known as lick granuloma)
  • Pyotraumatic dermatitis (also known as hot spots or acute moist dermatitis)
  • Malassezia dermatitis

Symptoms of Dermatitis in Dogs

The symptoms of dermatitis in dogs can range in appearance and severity. Different combinations of symptoms can point to different types of dermatitises.

Symptoms

  • Itching
  • Red skin
  • Hot spots
  • Hair loss
  • Foul odor

Itching

Itching is the most commonly seen symptom of dermatitis in dogs. Dogs with atopic dermatitis may itch more severely at night, so owners often notice collars jingling while trying to sleep.

Red Skin

Bacteria causes reddened skin in dogs with dermatitis. Your dog's scratching may exacerbate this redness.

Hot Spots

You may notice "hot spots" on your dog, also known as acute moist dermatitis. Aggressively itchy, wet sores will develop on the dog's face and flanks. If scratched, the sore may excrete a clear liquid.

Hair Loss

Hair loss is symptomatic of more than one form of dermatitis. Flea allergic dermatitis may cause dogs to lose hair if they repeatedly scratch their itch until some of their coat falls out. Scratching as a symptom of atopic dermatitis can also lead to hair loss.

Foul Odor

Dogs with infected skin may develop an odor. This odor could be a symptom of yeast overgrowth, dried wound secretions, or an excess of oils. A foul odor is commonly associated with seborrheic dermatitis.

hot spot on a bulldog
Uwe Gille/Wikimedia CC 3.0 

Causes of Dermatitis

"Dermatitis" refers to dogs' wide range of skin conditions, so the causes are plentiful. Dogs can develop dermatitis in many ways, but anything that causes skin irritation and itching may be referred to as dermatitis.

  • Environmental allergens: Grasses, dust mites, pollen, and other common environmental allergens can cause atopic dermatitis in an allergic dog.
  • Food allergens: While true food allergies are uncommon, if a dog is allergic to something it eats, the food can cause atopic dermatitis.
  • Yeast skin infection: Malassezia dermatitis is caused when a dog has excess yeast growth.
  • Fleas: If a dog is allergic to fleas, flea allergy dermatitis is caused when a flea bites a dog.
  • Self-induced trauma: Scratching and incessant licking can cause trauma, resulting in acral lick dermatitis or pyotraumatic dermatitis.
  • Substances or surfaces that irritate the skin: Cleaners, detergents, fabric softeners, and various chemicals that may contact a dog's skin can cause irritation and subsequent contact dermatitis.

Diagnosing Dermatitis in Dogs

If you suspect your dog has developed dermatitis, a visit to your veterinarian is in order. Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination and run diagnostic tests to confirm or rule out dermatitis. A skin scrape and cytology may be collected to look for mites, bacteria, and yeast. Your vet may also use a flea comb to look for black flea dirt or live fleas, especially if your dog is not currently on a flea preventative medication. On occasion, a skin biopsy may be obtained, too. If there are no signs of other skin issues, dermatitis may be diagnosed based on your dog's history and specific symptoms.

If environmental allergens are suspected to be present, an allergy test may be performed. Your vet may do this by drawing blood or performing a particular skin test. If food allergens are suspected to be present, food trials are used in the place of allergy tests because of higher accuracy.

Treatment

The treatment for dermatitis will depend on how it was caused in your dog specifically, but antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, steroids, and other medications are routinely used.

If fleas cause dermatitis, products to kill the live fleas on your dog and in your surrounding area are necessary. It can be difficult to eradicate fleas in a home due to the hardy pupal stage of the flea. A vet may recommend regular cleaning, long-lasting treatments, and consistent flea preventatives for your dog. 

Yeast infections that cause dermatitis will require anti-fungal treatments alongside other medications to ease your dog's itching and inflammation. Sometimes medicated baths, sprays, or mousses are also utilized.

Contact dermatitis and dermatitis that resulted from self-trauma will be treated symptomatically. Treatment may include various oral medications, sprays, medicated baths, mousses, and sometimes even bandages if open sores or wounds are present.

Prognosis for Dogs With Dermatitis

The prognosis for dogs with dermatitis varies greatly depending on what is causing your dog's allergic reaction. Atopic dermatitis, for example, rarely resolves itself without treatment.

At the beginning of treatment, you should anticipate frequent visits to the vet. With time and once the dermatitis improves, checkups will become more infrequent. 

It's essential to keep a close eye on your dog's symptoms and ensure your healing dog doesn't relapse. The discomfort caused by untreated dermatitis can alter a dog's personality and lead to aggression or shyness.

How to Prevent Dermatitis

Many dogs are predisposed to developing dermatitis based on their breed, so it isn't always preventable. In a study with Labradors and Golden Retrievers, 65% of the puppies were born with dermatitis if both parents also had atopic dermatitis, and 21-57% were born with it if only one parent had it. Dogs with atopic dermatitis should not be bred.

If your dog has allergies, avoiding allergens will help decrease the prevalence and severity of dermatitis. Supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids, beta-glucan, hardy kiwi, ceramides, palmitoylethanolamide (PEA), and other ingredients to support skin health can benefit your dog. Regular bathing and foot baths can be helpful if the causes of the dermatitis are environmental. Finally, regular use of flea preventatives will help prevent flea allergy dermatitis.

At-Risk Dog Breeds

Some breeds are more likely to develop dermatitis than others. Female dogs may also be at a slightly higher risk than males, but any dog can develop an atopic variation and other dermatitis types.

  • Chinese shar-peis
  • bull terriers
  • Tibetan terriers
  • spaniels
  • Akitas
  • chow chows
  • dalmatians
  • wirehaired fox terriers
  • German shepherds
  • English bulldogs
  • golden retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • boxers
  • Boston terriers
  • Lhasa apsos
  • pit bull terriers
  • pugs
  • Scottish terriers
  • shih tzus
  • West Highland white terriers
  • Irish setters
  • cairn Terriers
  • miniature schnauzers
  • Welsh terriers
  • bichon frises
  • French bulldogs
FAQ
  • What are the itchy sores on my dog?

    The sores on your dog, sometimes called "hot spots," are known as acute moist dermatitis. The sores will develop on the dog's face and flanks and may excrete a clear liquid if scratched. These sores are painful for your dog and should be diagnosed and treated as soon as noticed.

  • How do I know which kind of dermatitis my dog has?

    Since there are many forms of dermatitis in dogs, it isn't always clear which specific condition is causing your dog's symptoms. In order to diagnose definitively, bring your dog to the vet for a full examination.

  • What is the difference between fleas and dermatitis?

    Your dog can have fleas without having flea allergic dermatitis. Fleas can cause dermatitis, and scratching that comes with flea-related itchiness can cause additional skin irritation.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.

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Article Sources
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  2. What’s New in Canine Atopic Dermatitis. ISVMA.

  3. Miller WH, Griffin CE, Campbell KL, eds. Hypersensitivity Disorders. In: Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology 7 th ed. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier; 2013:372.