Dog Dermatology

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Pictured: “Louie” Weaver
Pictured: “Louie” Weaver

Constant scratching! Who does it frustrate more, you or your dog?! If your pet needs relief from chronic itching—or any other skin issue—our veterinarians can help you with dog dermatology.

In addition to itching, other skin, ear, hair, and nail issues may include sores, inflammation, loss of fur, or bacterial infection. These, and problems like them, can bring immense discomfort to your dog, and cause distress for you and your entire family. But, starting from this web page, you and your dog can find relief.

Common causes of dermatology issues in dogs include:

  • Anxiety
  • Air-bourne allergens
  • Food allergies
  • Hereditary conditions
  • Hormonal diseases
  • Infection
  • Parasites

Most skin, ear, hair, and nail issues are easy for your pet’s doctor to treat. Other issues may need the attention of a specialist in dermatology for pets. Talk to your vet about your pet’s condition and about board-certified pet dermatologists in the St. Petersburg area. A discussion with the vet may reveal that your dog does not need a specialist after all.

To be sure, some dermatology disorders are serious in both cause and effect. On the other hand, mild cases are very common—and even inevitable. No matter how severe your dog’s condition, it can be either eliminated or managed with compassionate veterinary care.

Some common dermatological conditions that our vets can treat or manage are:

  • Alopecia (hair loss)
  • Atopic Dermatitis (skin allergy)
  • Cysts and other skin growths
  • Dander
  • Ectoparasites (external parasites)
  • Mange (mite infestation)
  • Melanoma (skin cancer)
  • Otitis (ear infection)
  • Pyoderma (bacterial infection)
  • Ringworm (fungal infection)
  • Staph infection (bacterial)

Here, you can learn more about the common skin conditions that can affect your dog. If you have any questions about your pet’s dermatology, we will be happy to help you further—just call or visit!

Alopecia (Hair Loss)

Complete or partial loss of fur (or alopecia) in dogs is usually a symptom of some other condition. There are several causes of hair loss, and our veterinarians can help determine which is to blame in your pet’s alopecia. These causal issues can be categorized into one—or both—of two groups: causes that are accompanied by itchy skin, and those that are not.

Cause of Alopecia

Dogs that acquire alopecia are born with healthy hair follicles and a normal coat of fur. However, later in life, conditions intrude to damage the hair follicles, shafts, skin, or in some other way to reduce hair growth. Some diseases that affect the skin can lead dogs to remove their own fur in attempts to relieve their discomfort.

Alopecia With Itchy Skin

Successful treatment of alopecia requires that we diagnose the precise cause. We want to first address any itching, scratching, and inflammation in areas of hair loss. If your dog is losing hair in areas of inflamed and itchy skin, we can focus our initial diagnostics on these possible causes:

  • Barbering (pulling fur out in efforts to scratch)
  • Allergies (such as foods, mites, or pollens)​
  • Parasites (such as fleas and ticks)
  • Demodectic mange (mites)
  • Bacterial infections (such as staph)
  • Fungal infections (such as ringworm and yeast)
  • Autoimmune diseases (such as pemphigus foliaceus)
  • Color dilution alopecia

Alopecia accompanied by inflammation usually involves itching or pain. Pain and itch can be the result of infection, parasites, or allergies. Moreover, bacterial and fungal infections, as well as parasites, can damage or destroy hair follicles.

In addition, some diseases, traumas (such as burns), and poisonings (such as iodine or mercury) can inflame the skin. Other causes of inflammatory hair loss include friction (such as loose or tight fitting collars), over-grooming, and (rarely) skin cancer. Secondary infections—from still other conditions—can cause inflammation too.

Alopecia Without Itchy Skin

Non-inflammatory alopecia can be the result of deficient nutrition (such as lack of quality protein) and imbalanced hormones (such as hypothyroidism). These can also impede the development of healthy follicles. Some dogs can experience temporary hair loss, without inflammation, during or after pregnancy or serious illness.

If your dog’s alopecia is not accompanied by itchy skin, our vets will focus their concern on the following possible causes:

  • Nutrition deficiency
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Color dilution alopecia
  • Congenital diseases
  • Genetics or heredity

Some dogs that are born with alopecia (as a congenital condition) may display hair loss when, or soon after, they are born. Other dogs may not show signs of alopecia until their “teenage” years. Congenital alopecia can be inherited or not. Either way, underdeveloped hair follicles are typically the reason for the loss or lack of fur.

Symptoms of Alopecia

Hair loss can be patchy in spots or widespread across a dog’s body—regardless of the cause (generally speaking). The pattern of hair loss can be symmetrical on both sides of the body or localized to one area. In addition to these possible hair-loss patterns, symptoms of alopecia can include skin that is…

  • Itchy
  • Inflamed
  • Infected
  • Thickened
  • Mis-colored
  • Scaly

Remember, if your dog is shedding excessively, this may be a normal stage in your pet’s growth and development. Pets naturally shed old hair, to be replaced by new hair. On the other hand, if excessive shedding appears alongside any of the symptoms or signs of alopecia, please let us know.

Alopecia Diagnosis

Diagnosing alopecia means determining the cause of hair loss. Finding the precise cause will depend on a thorough understanding of your dog’s history and on a pet exam by your veterinarian. Your vet will need to know, or look for…

  • Your breed’s predisposition to inherited or congenital alopecia
  • Your dog’s regular routine and habits
  • The onset, progression, and nature of symptoms
  • Whether symptoms include itching and infection
  • The distribution and pattern of hair loss
  • Whether hair is lost at the follicle or is torn
  • The presence of parasites, such as fleas and mites
  • The presence of any other health issues

Your pet’s doctor will comb your dog’s fur to look for evidence of parasites. The doctor will also take skin scrapings to have them tested. Laboratory tests can include cultures and smears to look for the presence of infection by bacteria, fungus, or yeast. Further, (if needed) a skin biopsy can reveal or confirm the cause of your pet’s alopecia if it is a foreign agent, inflammation, or cancer.

If skin tests return negative, or if a hormonal imbalance is suspected, the vet may have blood and urine samples tested. This is to see if an underlying disease or deficiency is playing a part in your dog’s loss of fur. Allergy testing may also be recommended, especially if itchy skin is involved.

Treatment of Alopecia

Treatment will address the cause of hair loss that your veterinarian diagnosed. For example, if the culprit is parasitic in nature, your vet will prescribe a preventative. If infection is the cause, the treatment will include an antibiotic. If an underlying disease is at fault, your veterinarian will devise a treatment plan to manage the condition and restore your pet to better health.

It can take time to pinpoint the exact cause of a pet's alopecia. But together, and with the help of a board-certified pet dermatologist if needed, we will find it. Your veterinarian will prescribe medication to control your pet’s itching and discomfort in the meantime. Then, when the exact cause is discovered, your dog will be on the right treatment to stop the loss of fur and to prevent it in the future.

Atopic Dermatitis (Skin Allergy)

Atopic dermatitis, or atopy, is the medical term for environmental allergies. This skin disease is characterized by allergic reactions to inhaled allergens such as pollen, dust mites, and grasses. Scientists are unsure of the exact cause of atopy, but they believe genetics may play a role in a defective skin barrier and an overactive immune system.

When humans suffer environmental allergies, the tell-tale signs are congestion, sneezing, runny nose, or itchy watering eyes. But in dogs, the main symptoms of allergic reaction to airborne allergens are itchy and infected skin. (Although some dogs may suffer watery eyes or sneezing like the rest of us.)

Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis

Symptoms of atopic dermatitis may appear as early as puppyhood. More generally, however, symptoms begin between the ages of one and six. These symptoms may worsen over time. Symptoms of atopic dermatitis in dogs may include skin that is…

  • Red
  • Itchy
  • Missing fur
  • Infected
  • Oily
  • Foul-smelling
  • Dark (advanced)
  • Thick (advanced)

And then there’s the scratching! Dogs may scratch, nibble, lick, or rub the areas that itch until the skin turns red and sores develop. Itching may occur at specific places on the body, or all over. Specific areas most often affected by atopic dermatitis are the face, chest, armpits, and especially the ears, legs, and feet. Some dogs may suffer the disease only at their ears.

Infections can result from bacteria or yeast entering the skin, causing the area to be oily and foul-smelling. Generally, the bacteria and yeast that cause these infections are the same bacteria and yeast that live on everyone’s skin all of the time. In an allergic dog, the inflammation from the allergies will break down the barriers that the skin is supposed to provide.

Once the skin barriers are broken down, the naturally occurring bacteria and yeast will find easy access and begin reproducing, creating the skin infection or pyoderma. Scratching and infection can also lead to areas of missing fur. Older dogs suffering from atopic dermatitis are prone to more frequent infections of the skin or ears, which can result in dark, thickened skin.

Treatment of Atopy

Your veterinarian can help control your dog’s skin reactions to airborne allergens, in most cases, with medication. Some treatments do not begin to work until several weeks or months after they start. So other medications may be suggested to help reduce symptoms in the meantime. There are pros and cons to each treatment of atopic dermatitis, so discuss with the doctor which regimen is best for your dog.

In addition, regardless of the treatment your dog receives, remember that dogs with atopic dermatitis often also have allergies to substances other than airborne ones. These other causes of allergic reaction, such as foods and parasites, can only exacerbate the allergies your pet suffers due to atopy. So additional treatments and preventatives that target these other allergy sources may be required.

Targeted Ant-Itch Therapy (Apoquel and Cytopoint)

In allergic dogs, their allergies trigger production of certain proteins which send signals to the brain to create an itch response. Medications like Apoquel and Cytopoint target those proteins and block them from getting their signals out. Both drugs are themselves composed of proteins—specific enzymes that neutralize the main proteins involved in allergic itch. These medications work for many kinds of allergic itch including atopy, food allergy, and even flea allergy.

Apoquel is the first medication (a selective Janus Kinase enzyme inhibitor) to treat itch and inflammation caused by atopy and skin allergies in dogs. It is administered orally in daily tablet form, with milder side effects than other drugs. It is for dogs one year old and older. Its effects begin within four hours and provide relief from inflammation and itch within 24 hours.

Cytopoint (a monoclonal antibody designed to neutralize the Interleukin-31 protein) is made for dogs. Like Apoquel, it is a more recent treatment for atopic dermatitis, but it has even fewer side effects. It is administered by your veterinarian as an injection and starts preventing itch within 24 hours. Depending on your dog, injections are given every one to two months, either continuously or seasonally. It is safe for dogs of all ages.

Steroids

This is one of the original treatments for environmental allergies and is still one of the most common. Steroids, which make use of cortisone, can be very effective but can also have more side effects. They help prevent itch and inflammation very effectively. On the other hand, they can lead to over-eating, -drinking, and -urinating. More frequent or more resistant infections are also possible.

While the side effects of steroids are undesirable, this treatment option may be the only option that can effectively control your dog’s atopy. Alternative treatments, though they may be less effective, can be more tolerable. Your vet can help you decide which is in the best interests of your pet.

Antihistamines

Histamine plays an important role in human allergies, but is not as big a factor in canine allergies. For this reason, antihistamines are generally not highly effective for moderate to severe atopy. That being said, antihistamines are generally safe. Drowsiness is typically their only side effect. Antihistamines can be more effective when used with EFAs (essential fatty acids). EFAs themselves have no side effects, but they may not be effective until up to two months after start of treatment.

ASIT (Allergen Specific Immunotherapy)

While steroids and antihistamines attempt to control the symptoms of atopic dermatitis, ASIT seeks to strengthen the immune system against airborne allergens so that symptoms are a non-issue. Similar to what vaccinations are to viruses, ASIT is an injection regimen that helps build your dog’s immunity to environmental allergens.

First, your veterinarian will perform allergy testing to reveal which allergens affect your pet. Then, after determining the allergens to which your dog is sensitive, we can do our best to avoid them. But avoiding allergens has extremely limited results, especially in regard to the airborne variety. This is where ASIT comes in; now we can proceed to desensitize your pooch to the allergens we identified earlier. (This may or may not be in addition to other treatments, depending on your vet’s recommendation.)

The immunotherapy injections in ASIT stimulate the immune system to resist the allergic reactions of the allergens contained within them. This helps prevent the reaction or at least makes it a lot more bearable. ASIT injections are administered every 1 to 3 weeks perpetually. They become effective in 6 to 12 months and have a 60 to 70% success rate.

Supplementary Treatments

Atopic dermatitis is often accompanied by other conditions that require treatment or prevention. It is not uncommon for dogs with atopy to experience secondary infections of the skin and ears, such as yeast infection. They may also be prone to sensitive skin.

If this is the case for your dog, your vet will recommend an antibiotic, flea preventative, medicated shampoo, or antifungal medication, as the case may be. These will treat the secondary conditions and/or prevent them from exacerbating your pup’s allergic reactions. In addition, an anti-inflammatory can help control the itch.

Sometimes, treatment for atopic dermatitis needs to only be administered for a short time. But if symptoms reoccur soon after treatment ends, we will need to consider extending the treatment long-term, and possibly adjusting the treatment regimen.

Ultimately, the exact nature of allergy, infection, skin type, and temperament of your dog will help determine the best combination of therapies to treat your pet’s atopy. Finding the combination that works best for your individual dog may require several visits with a pet dermatologist. Remember, our hope is that you and your pet will need fewer vet visits and will find relief.

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