Dermatitis in Dogs

itchy dog

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Dermatitis is a skin problem that can affect any dog. It may be confused with other skin problems but causes extreme discomfort and can even result in infected lesions. Knowing the signs and causes of this reoccurring issue can help you get your dog some relief and potentially even avoid what contributes to the problem.

What Is Dermatitis in Dogs?

Dermatitis is a skin condition that causes itching, redness, and lesions on the skin of dogs. 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. People can also have a specific type of dermatitis called atopic dermatitis and may describe it as an itchy rash.

There are several skin layers and they act as a natural barrier. When the skin becomes damaged or dry, moisture is not retained and inflammation can occur. Histamine may also be released, depending on the cause of the dermatitis, which causes a dog to itch and further damage the skin. This creates a vicious cycle of skin trauma, discomfort, and inflammation. It can occur anywhere on a dog's body and may even come and go throughout the year.

There are several different types of dermatitis seen in dogs and they are attributed to the underlying cause but the word dermatitis may be used for any type of inflammation of the skin.

  • 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

Signs of Dermatitis in Dogs

Signs of Dermatitis in Dogs

  • Itching
  • Red skin
  • Moist skin
  • Skin lesions
  • Hair loss
  • Foul odor

Pruritis or itching is the classic symptom of dermatitis in dogs. Dogs with atopic dermatitis may itch more severely at night so owners often notice collars jingling while they are trying to sleep. This symptom is also seen alongside red and moist skin, hair loss, and sores or lesions on the skin. A foul odor from the skin may also be detected if it has become infected.

hot spot on a bulldog
Uwe Gille/Wikimedia CC 3.0 

Causes of Dermatitis in Dogs

Dogs can develop a type of dermatitis from one or more several things but anything that causes skin irritation and itching may be referred to as dermatitis.

  • Environmental allergens - Grasses, dust mites, pollen, and other common environmental allergen can cause atopic dermatitis in a dog that is allergic to them.
  • Food allergens - While true food allergies are actually uncommon, if a dog is allergic to something it eats, these foods can cause atopic dermatitis.
  • Yeast infection of the skin - Malassezia dermatitis is caused when a dog has a yeast infection on its skin.
  • Fleas - If a dog is allergic to fleas, flea allergy dermatitis can be caused when a flea bites a dog.
  • Self-induced trauma - Scratching and incessant licking can cause trauma which may result in acral lick dermatitis or pyotraumatic dermatitis.
  • Substances or surfaces that irritate the skin - Cleaners, detergents, fabric softeners, and various chemicals that may come into contact with 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 full physical examination and will run some diagnostic tests to confirm or rule out dermatitis. A skin scrape and cytology may be collected to look for mites, bacteria, and yeast. A flea comb may also be used to look for black flea dirt or live fleas, especially if your dog is not currently on a flea preventative. 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.

Treatment of Dermatitis in Dogs

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

If environmental allergens are suspected, an allergy test may be performed to determine the specific cause. This may be done by drawing blood or performing a special skin test. If food allergens are suspected though, allergy tests are not very accurate so strict food trials are usually recommended to determine the potential causes of the dermatitis. Avoiding these environmental or food allergens alongside medications to address the symptoms your dog is experienceing will be utilized in your dog's treatment plan.

If fleas are the cause of dermatitis, products to kill the live fleas on your dog as well as in the environment are necessary. It can be difficult to eradicate fleas in a home due to the hardy pupal stage of the flea so regular cleaning, long-lasting treatments, and consistent flea preventatives for your dog will be used. Symptoms may also be treated with various medications.

Yeast infections that cause dermatitis will require antifungal 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.

How to Prevent Dermatitis

Many dogs are pre-disposed to developing dermatitis simply based on their breed so it may be impossible to completely prevent it depending on whether its parents had a problem. In a study with Labrador 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. Because of this information, dogs with atopic dermatitis should not be bred.

If your dog has allergies, avoiding allergens will help decrease the prevalence and severity of atopic or atopic-like dermatitis. Regular bathing and foot baths can be helpful if the problems are environmental and various supplements containing Omega-3 fatty acids, beta-glucan, hardy kiwi, ceramides, palmitoylethanolamide (PEA), and other ingredients to support the skin health can be beneficial. Finaly, regular use of flea preventatives will help prevent flea allergy dermatitis.

At Risk Dog Breeds

When it comes to atopic dermatitis, some breeds are known to be more likely to develop it than others. Females may also be at a slightly higher risk than males but in general, any dog can develop the atopic variation as well as other types of dermatitis.

  • Chinese Shar-Peis
  • Bull Terriers
  • Tibetan Terriers
  • Spaniels
  • Akitas
  • Chow Chows
  • Dalmatians
  • Wirehaired Fox Terriers
  • German Shepherd Dogs
  • 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
  • Welsh Terriers
  • Bichon Frises
  • French Bulldogs
  • Cairn Terriers
  • Miniature Schnauzers
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.
Article Sources
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  1. Prelaud P, Cochet-Faivre N. A retrospective study of 21 cases of canine atopic-like dermatitis. Proceedings, Meeting of the European College of Veterinary Dermatologists, Mainz, Germany;15:15, September 14, 2007. 

  2. Shaw, et al. Estimation of heritability of atopic dermatitis in Labrador and Golden retrievers. Am J Vet Res 2004; 65:1014-1020.

  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.