Seborrhea is a skin condition that occurs in humans and animals, including dogs. It is also called seborrheic dermatitis and it is a common cause of flaky skin and oily coats in dogs. The condition can be found in the folds of a dog's skin, on the face, and around other parts of the body that are packed with sebaceous glands. It helps to know the kinds of seborrhea and how to handle your dog's skin to make your pet comfortable.
What Is Seborrhea?
Seborrhea is a skin condition characterized by excess sebum production and defective keratinization (the process by which the skin and nails regenerate). It causes the skin to become scaly or flaky, producing dandruff.
There are generally two types of seborrhea. Seborrhea sicca is a dry condition that's flakier, and seborrhea oleosa, which is more of an oily condition. Dogs will typically have a combined condition of the two types of seborrhea.
Symptoms of Seborrhea in Dogs
A dog with seborrhea has symptoms on its body, but you will also find flakes of skin on its bedding to serve as a clear indication your pet has a condition.
Scaling and Flaking of Skin
A dog with seborrhea will experience scaling and flaking of the skin in various folds of its body. These folds can be located on the feet, neck, lips, armpits, thighs, and under the belly where there are many sebaceous glands.
It may cause the coat to have a greasy or waxy appearance, and skin odor is also possible.
Skin folds are typically more affected by seborrhea and may have an especially foul odor. It has the smell of musty oily or greasy hair that hasn't been washed in a while.
Skin Redness and/or Pigmentation
The skin of a dog with seborrhea will become red or pigmented with a darker tone due to the chronic inflammation and irritation of the area.
A dog with seborrhea can lose hair on its body because the hair follicles are affected by the cornification (calloused surface) of the outer layer of the skin.
Seborrhea can also cause chronic waxy ear infections (otitis externa), causing your dog to excessively scratch its head.
Itchy Skin and Scratching
Itchy skin is not common in primary seborrhea but it is more common in secondary seborrhea since the problem is due to another skin issue.
Causes of Seborrhea
Seborrhea is categorized as either primary or secondary. Primary seborrhea is rare; Most seborrhea cases in dogs are secondary.
Primary seborrhea is an inherited condition. It usually appears in dogs by the time they are two years of age and it tends to get progressively worse over time. The following specific dog breeds are prone to primary seborrhea:
- American cocker spaniel
- Basset hound
- English springer spaniel
- German shepherd
- Golden retriever
- Labrador retriever
- West Highland white terrier
Secondary seborrhea is common in dogs and is caused by one or more skin problems. Dogs may be more susceptible to secondary seborrhea if they have the following problems causing irritated skin:
- Endocrine disorders and hormonal imbalances
- Skin infections (bacterial or fungal)
- External parasites
Diagnosing Seborrhea in Dogs
Your veterinarian will need to determine if an infection is present (bacterial, fungal/yeast, or parasitic) and will perform the following skin tests:
- Skin scrapes
- Hair plucking (in search of mites)
- Cytology (examination of blood or tissue cells) for abnormalities
Culture blood tests may also be necessary to look for endocrine problems that may have caused the seborrhea. Your dog's treatment plan will focus on treating the underlying cause of seborrhea in addition to managing seborrhea itself.
There is no cure for primary seborrhea, but the condition can be managed with medicated baths using an anti-seborrheic shampoo. The shampoos rid the dog of excess skin cells and offer relief by making the skin feel softer. Vitamin A or retinoids may be used to support skin health and regeneration. Never use medicated shampoos on dogs that are used on humans. Your vet will choose an appropriate shampoo based on your dog's breed, coat, and degree of oiliness.
Most dogs with secondary seborrhea will be treated with medicated baths and anti-seborrheic topical medications to improve the skin, but this will not fix the underlying cause of seborrhea. Other treatments for secondary seborrhea are based on the underlying cause. To determine the appropriate treatments, your vet will need to first identify the underlying condition(s) that caused seborrhea, which can include the following:
- Bacterial skin infections: Dogs with bacterial skin infections will need antibiotics for the infection.
- Yeast/fungal infections: Antifungal medications are used for yeast or fungal infections.
- Parasites: External parasites are treated with oral or topical formulas to kill the parasites. Treatment may last weeks to months depending on the severity of the skin condition.
- Endocrine conditions: If an endocrine condition like hypothyroidism, Cushing's disease, or Diabetes mellitus is found, your vet will work to treat the condition with the proper medications. It can take weeks to months for these conditions to be controlled and seborrhea to improve. Most endocrine conditions require lifelong treatment and management, including daily medications and regular vet visits for screening. If the endocrine condition is under control, seborrhea should not return (unless it has a different cause).
Prognosis for Dogs With Seborrhea
The prognosis for dogs with seborrhea is good, but if your pet has primary seborrhea, it will typically need treatment for life.
Dogs with allergies may need ongoing treatment for secondary infections and secondary seborrhea. Your veterinarian might refer you to a veterinary dermatologist for allergy testing and management. Dogs with severe allergies may need to be treated with allergy injections for a period of months to years. Allergies and secondary seborrhea may recur from time to time, especially with season changes.
How to Prevent Seborrhea
Primary seborrhea cannot be prevented except by controlling breeding practices. As with any hereditary condition, dogs with primary seborrhea should not be used for breeding.
Secondary seborrhea can be prevented by treating skin conditions before they persist and lead to seborrhea. Be sure to bring your dog to the veterinarian if you notice itching, scratching, or any abnormal appearance on your dog's skin. Keep your dog on flea control all year long to prevent irritation that can lead to skin problems. Be sure to follow your vet's recommendations for long-term treatment and follow-up.