Get the Skinny on Dog Skin Issues


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our August-September issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

Got a dog who starts to itch, scratch, or gnaw his paws as soon as your Aunt Alice comes for a weekend visit?

Your dog might be allergic to her.

“Just like people can be allergic to the dander of dogs or cats, dogs can be allergic to the dander of people,” said Andrew Rosenberg, D.V.M., a board-certified veterinary dermatologist at Riverdale Veterinary Dermatology in Riverdale, New Jersey. “Some dogs are hypersensitive to the microscopic amounts of hair and skin that fall off our bodies and into the home environment.”

Having a dog with a yet-to-be determined skin condition is nothing to sneeze at. And it can be doggone frustrating for you and pure misery for your canine pal.

Dog with hot spots wearing cone by Shutterstock.
Dog with hot spots wearing cone by Shutterstock.

Here’s the skinny on canine skin conditions:

1. Your dog is not alone

Any dog — or breed — can experience skin conditions. Yes, certain breeds are more predisposed to certain skin issues than others, but no dog is bulletproof from acute or chronic skin woes.

2. Move over, diabetes and arthritis

Skin conditions consistently top the charts as the prime reasons people bring their dogs in for veterinary care. In fact, skin issues often claim the 1-2-3 spots in filed pet insurance claims each year: ear infections, allergic or atopic dermatitis (allergies), and bacterial pyoderma (bacterial skin infections).

3. Allergy-causing culprits

The major triggers for canine skin conditions are flea allergy, environmental allergens (such as pollens, dusts, and molds), and food allergies (your dog’s body simply cannot handle say, lamb or fish, without a reaction). But don’t overlook certain diseases, including cancerous skin tumors, lupus (an autoimmune disorder), hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), and Cushing’s disease (adrenal gland disorder).

4. The hot spot owns many identities

That red, moist, oozing, and inflamed skin lesion is also known as pyotramatic, moist eczema, or acute moist dermatitis. Whatever its name, a hot spot often requires oral antibiotics, topical antibacterial, and the use of a medical recovery collar to prevent your dog from trying to lick or scratch at the hot spot.

5. Mr. Sun is not your dog’s best friend


Dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors on sunny days are vulnerable to the sun’s damaging rays and can develop solar-induced cancer. The absorption of ultraviolet light into skin molecules can trigger squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma, said Brenda Phillips, D.V.M., a board-certified oncologist at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in San Diego.

“A dog standing does not have to have his belly pointed at the sun, but there can be reflective sunlight coming from the sandy beach or hot sidewalk striking the regions of his belly that may have little or no hair,” she said.

Check with your veterinarian about dog-safe sunscreen and canine clothing that offers ultraviolet protector factor (UPF) rating of at least 30-plus.

6. You may never know the cause or find a cure

There are more than 160 recognized skin disorders in the dog kingdom. Even board-certified veterinary dermatologists cannot always quickly or precisely identify the cause of your dog’s skin woes. “Skin issues can be frustrating,” said Dr. Rosenberg. “Most skin issues have no cure, and even when they are being managed well, dogs can have periodic flare-ups.”

But you can rally for your dog. Take on the role of pet detective for your dog’s health sake. The more specific clues you can provide your veterinarian, the better the chance of catching a condition early (or, at least better managing it), saving on veterinary bills, and ending the misery in your beloved pup.

Share this info:

The specific type of food and treats you give your dog (yes, include table scraps). Identify any new foods — or commercial dog food brands — that you recently served your dog. The date when you first noticed your dog itching, scratching, gnawing — or you discovered red bumps or suspicious lumps on his coat while petting or grooming him.

  • The location that seems to bring on his skin woes. Was he inside your home, at a dog park, or maybe after a swim in the ocean?
  • Any over-the-counter medicine, pet supplement, or herbal remedy you give your dog that may counter the effectiveness of any prescription medicine he takes.
  • Confess if you do not always give your dog his monthly flea and tick medications in an attempt to save a little money. In your attempt to try to stretch to say, six weeks, you may have made your dog more vulnerable to these nasty parasites. Dogs with flea allergies tend to become itchy toward the back half of their bodies, especially the rump region.

Dr. Rosenberg relies on medications and treatments that have been proven to be effective and safe as verified by scientific peer-reviewed studies. These include giving the affected dog regular allergy shots and omega-3 fatty acid fish oil capsules.

Fish oil capsules by Shutterstock.
Fish oil capsules by Shutterstock.

“Allergy shots are injections used to desensitize dogs to specifically what they are hypersensitive (allergic) to,” he explained. “My best advice is to try not to get too frustrated, and always stick closely to your veterinarian’s recommendations.”

To find a board-certified veterinary dermatologist in your area, visit

A breed (itch, scratch, gnaw) apart

Your dog’s gene pool can play a role in his chance for developing a skin disease.

“Just like allergies and asthma can run in human families, they can run in breeds of dogs,” said Dr. Rosenberg.

Here’s a rundown of the more common skin conditions and the canine breeds more prone to developing them:

  • Atopic dermatitis (pollen allergies): French Bulldog, English Bulldog, West Highland White Terrier, Golden Retriever, Cocker Spaniel, German Shepherd Dog, Pug, Boston Terrier, Shih Tzu, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
  • Food allergies: Labrador Retriever, Chinese Shar-Pei, English Springer Spaniel, West Highland White Terrier, German Shepherd Dog.
  • Non-inflammatory alopecia (hair loss): Plush-coated breeds, including the Pomeranian, Alaskan Malamute, Keeshond, Chow Chow, and Samoyed.
  • Seasonal flank alopecia: Airedale Terrier, Boxer, Schnauzer, and Bulldog.

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