Does Your Dog Have Folliculitis? Here Are Natural Ways to Help

A dog scratching himself.
A dog scratching himself.

Do you think there’s a particular dog someone had in mind when the term “mangy mutt” was coined? Lassie? Nah, too windswept. Toto? Nah, too fluffy. Snoopy? He’d never put up with such disrespect. Actually, if I didn’t know better, I’d suspect the original poster pooch was our dear departed family Airedale. Like most members of his breed, Beethoven (named before the movie came out, thank you very much) was stately and majestic-looking much of his life. But when he was about 3 years old, he spent a long weekend at a local kennel — and a couple weeks later, he started looking like a gruesome moth-eaten carpet.

Our family vet diagnosed something called folliculitis, which she described as inflammation of the hair follicle. Follicles, as you may know, are tiny openings positioned along the skin’s outer layer. This makes them vulnerable to irritation caused by allergies, environmental agents, repeated chewing/scratching, and some pretty pesky microorganisms.

The vet told us that Beethoven’s irritated follicles were actually playing host to a bacterial skin infection. The condition, known as bacterial pyoderma, was probably picked up during his stay at the kennel. I made the mistake of looking up this official-sounding term, so I can tell you that the layman’s translation is “pus embedded in the skin.” Yeah, can’t really unsee that.

Further adding to the irritation extravaganza was Beethoven’s seasonal pollen allergy. This “triple threat” of allergies + irritation + bacterial overgrowth is apparently not uncommon with folliculitis. It can prompt a truly vicious cycle of pain, inflammation, itchiness, and patchy fur loss.

Regrettably, when it comes to canine folliculitis, other factors can contribute to flareups as well. Fungal organisms are one known culprit. Veterinary dermatologist Dr. Lowell Ackerman, author of Guide to Skin and Haircoat Problems in Dogs, notes that ringworm (dermatophytosis) is an especially common cause.

Additionally, an external parasite called demodex canis routinely lives in the hair follicles of many adult canines. According to veterinarian Dr. Richard Pitcairn, founder of the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy, the presence of this parasite often causes no symptoms whatsoever. That’s because the immune system of most adult dogs keeps the parasite population in check. But when a dog’s immune system is weakened or simply immature, folliculitis can definitely result from a demodex infestation. That’s why our dog Maizy’s coat was such a clumpy mess when we first adopted her. Having spent time in an abusive puppy mill, Maizy’s immune system had been compromised from constant neglect and poor diet.

Because folliculitis can be triggered in multiple ways, veterinary medicine uses multiple treatment methods to clear up symptoms. For example, the shelter vet treated Maizy’s demodex issue with orally administered milbemycin oxime (found in many heartworm preventives); and Dr. Ackerman notes that fungal infections can be treated with either oral or topical agents. Beethoven’s pyoderma was treated with a 10-day course of oral antibiotics. We were also given a special shampoo containing the ingredients ketoconazole and cholorhexadine. And according to Dr. Pitcairn, oral steroids are sometimes suggested for especially intense itching to help break the inflammation cycle.

While these vet-recommended remedies helped Beethoven and Maizy, they also had some decidedly unsavory side effects. I remember both pups experiencing digestive upset, loss of appetite, loose stools, and (in Beethoven’s case) an extremely weird fur discoloration that lasted for months. All this prompted me to research supportive natural remedies that can help address both symptoms and underlying causes of folliculitis. Here are some insights and options you may want to discuss with your vet.

Labrador eating out of a metal food bowl by Shutterstock.

Diet/lifestyle factors

  • When allergic inflammation triggers folliculitis, remember that many vets can perform skin and blood tests to pinpoint precise allergens. Minimizing these allergens in your pup’s daily environment can often prompt noticeable improvements over time.
  • A common type of folliculitis called “chin acne” is extremely common in cats — but it’s also seen in dogs. The condition is usually caused by contact with certain types of plastic. So in this case, simply try switching to ceramic or stainless steel bowls.
  • Keeping the immune system strong helps discourage demodex mite overgrowth. So make sure your pup’s diet is rich in high-quality protein; and free of meat by-products, artificial colors/flavors/preservatives, and chemical fillers. Look for pure meat as the first ingredient. Don’t trust product packaging — always check the label.

Topical tamers

  • I personally regard certain enzyme-based topical products as minor miracle-workers. Zymox, for example, offers a triple-enzyme spray that helps address bacterial, fungal and yeast-related irritations. It can be misted on once per day, and there’s no need to pre-clean or rub sensitive skin.
  • If skin is extremely irritated, aloe vera can often provide soothing, anti-bacterial moisture. Twice per day, try lightly spraying your canine’s skin and fur with a product like BioMiracle Organic Aloe Mist.
  • Pure, alcohol-free witch hazel offers mildly skin-soothing astringent properties. Pour some into a spray bottle, and mist your pup once or twice daily. Completely avoid products that contain irritating alcohol.

Soothing supplements

  • Dr. Pitcairn stresses that immunity begins in the gut. This is why probiotics are beneficial for such a wide array of issues — including folliculitis. Help regulate intestinal bacteria by adding a pet-formulated product like Wholistic Pet Digest-All Plus to your pup’s mealtime bowl. It’s not an instant remedy; but rather, a way to address underlying imbalances over time. Follow feeding instructions on the container.
  • Dr. Karen Becker notes that the anti-inflammatory benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids can help with a wide range of disorders. Fish oil is easiest for dogs to assimilate, but you can also sprinkle about a teaspoon of ground flaxseed on daily meals. The latter can also help ease constipation that may be caused by certain pharmaceutical remedies.

Has your furry friend ever struggled with a bout of folliculitis? What worked? What didn’t? Share your personal insights!

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