Yeast are a kind of fungus that commonly cause infections of the ears and skin in dogs. There is a great deal of misinformation out there regarding the role of diet in yeast infections and what foods can help treat or cure these kinds of infections. The truth is that for many pups, diet has nothing to do with these infections. There are many other important causes and treatments to consider, plus lots of effective ways to prevent these infections in the first place.
What Are Yeast Infections in Dogs?
Yeast infections are most often caused by the Malassezia species and most commonly affect the ears, skin and/or paws in dogs. Yeast are an opportunistic organism, meaning, they are always present in the environment and in small amounts on all dogs’ skin. When the normal protective barriers of the skin are damaged, the yeast can multiply and cause an infection. Common signs of a yeast infection in a dog include itchy, red skin with a distinct odor. When the infection is in the ears, dogs may shake their heads or paw at their ears due to the itchiness and discomfort. When the paws are infected, dogs often lick and chew at their feet, leading to brown discoloration of the fur.
Why Do Yeast Infections Occur in Dogs?
There needs to be some underlying reason that the normal protective barriers of the skin are not functioning properly, allowing the yeast infection to take hold. Some of the most common reasons for this include skin diseases such as allergies, hormonal disorders, conditions that cause an overproduction of oils or keratin in the skin, and/or genetic predispositions for excess oil production or excess skin folds. Any conditions that cause a dog to be itchy or to have fragile, oily, or moist skin can allow yeast to set up shop and multiply. Some of the breeds that are known to have these predisposing factors include the West Highland white terrier, cocker spaniel, dachshund, German shepherd, shih tzu, poodle, and boxer.
What Role Does Diet Play in Yeast Infections?
There are a lot of false claims that the right diets or supplements can prevent or cure yeast infections in dogs. However, in most cases, this is not true. Yeast are always present in the environment and on our pets’ skin so what your dog eats will not change this. There are myths that restricting carbohydrates will prevent yeast infections, however, there is no scientific evidence to support this. We also know that some formulations of grain-free diets may put our pups at risk for a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, so these should be avoided.
The only situation where diet may play a role is for dogs who have a specific food allergy. In those cases, a diet change would be necessary to treat the underlying condition causing the skin to be vulnerable to yeast infections. A food allergy should be diagnosed by a veterinarian and a safe, balanced diet should be recommended by that veterinarian to ensure all of your pup’s nutritional needs are still being met. Sometimes this includes doing an elimination diet trial where certain common triggers are eliminated in the diet to see if the dog’s skin improves over time. This will not cure a yeast infection that is already present, but may prevent an allergic dog from having more yeast infections in the future.
Effective Treatments for Yeast Infections
Treatments for yeast infections have 2 goals:
- Directly destroy the yeast that are causing the infection
- Treat any underlying health problems that may be causing the skin to be fragile and appealing to yeast
If this is the first time your pup has ever had a yeast infection, your veterinarian may recommend simply destroying the yeast and monitoring to see if it happens again. For those dogs who have recurring yeast infections, however, it is very important to do further testing to look for some of those underlying conditions. When appropriate, your veterinarian may recommend blood tests to look for hormonal problems such as hypothyroidism as well as allergy testing. Some dogs may also benefit from evaluation by a specialized veterinary dermatologist who can test for skin allergies and other skin conditions.
When it comes to destroying the yeast itself, there are multiple ways to attack depending on your pup’s specific condition, including:
- Antifungal wipes, rinses, or creams may be prescribed to destroy a localized infection
- Antifungal medications formulated for the ears if the yeast is in the ears
- Antifungal medication administered by mouth may be prescribed when the infection covers a very large area or cannot be treated topically
Preventing Yeast Infections
Keeping your pup’s skin and ears healthy is the best way to prevent yeast infections from occurring in the first place. This means treating underlying conditions whenever possible, as well as preventing irritation to the skin from conditions like fleas and other skin parasites.
- Flea and Tick Preventative: Make sure your pup is on a monthly preventative for fleas and ticks.
- Antifungal & Antiseptic Shampoo: If you have a dog who is predisposed to yeast infections due to its breed or chronic conditions that can’t be completely cured, your dog may also benefit from regular baths with an antifungal & antiseptic shampoo, or regularly using antifungal wipes on its paws or other skin folds that are hard to keep clean and dry.
- Ear Cleaner: If you have a pooch who is suffering from recurring ear infections, there are also specialized ear cleaners with a drying agent to help keep the ear canals clean and prevent yeast infections.
Always consult your veterinarian before starting any of these preventatives and better yet, ask your veterinarian for a recommendation on what preventatives would be best for your pup’s specific condition.
Guillot and Bond. Malassezia Yeasts in Veterinary Dermatology: an Updated Overview. Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology. vol. 10, no. 79, 2020. doi:10.3389/fcimb.2020.00079.
Bajwa, Jangi. Canine Malassezia Dermatitis. Canadian Veterinary Journal. vol. 58, no. 10, 2017, pp. 1119-1121
Freeman, Lisa. Diet-Associated DCM: Research Update. September 2021