Seborrhea in Dogs

Basset hound dog relaxing in large plaid chair at home
Cavan Images / Getty Images

Seborrhea is a skin condition that occurs in humans and animals, including dogs. It is a common cause of flaky skin and oily coat in dogs.

What is Seborrhea in Dogs?

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.

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.

Signs of Seborrhea in Dogs

  • Scaling and flaking of skin
  • Greasy appearance of coat
  • Odor coming from coat
  • Redness and/or pigmentation of skin
  • Hair loss
  • Concurrent skin and/or ear infections
  • Itching is not common unless it is due to another skin problem

Causes of Seborrhea in Dogs

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 that typically affects specific dog breeds like the following:

Primary seborrhea usually appears in dogs by two years of age and tends to get progressively worse over time.

Secondary seborrhea is common in dogs and is caused by one or more skin problems, especially the following:

  • Allergies
  • Endocrine disorders or imbalances
  • Skin infections (bacterial or fungal)
  • External parasites

Dogs with irritated skin may be more susceptible to secondary seborrhea.

Treatment for Seborrhea in Dogs

There is no cure for primary seborrhea, but the condition can be managed with medicated baths using an anti-seborrheic shampoo. Vitamin A or retinoids may be used to support skin health and regeneration. Dogs with primary seborrhea will typically need treatment for life.

Treatment for secondary seborrhea is based on the underlying cause. In order to determine the appropriate treatments, your vet will need to first identify the underlying condition(s) that caused seborrhea.

Your veterinarian will perform skin tests like skin scrapes, cytology, biopsy, and/or culture to determine if an infection is present (bacterial, fungal/yeast, or parasitic). Blood tests may be necessary to look for endocrine problems that may have caused seborrhea. Your dog's treatment plan will focus on treating the underlying cause of seborrhea in addition to managing seborrhea itself.

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.

Dogs with bacterial skin infections will need antibiotics for the infection. Antifungal medications are used for yeast or fungal infections. 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.

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).

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 in Dogs

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 to the 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.