Dog Dermatology - How to Diagnose & Treat Dog Skin Conditions

What causes skin problems in dogs?

Many things can cause skin problems in dogs. Allergies would be the most common, or your dog could have some parasites, or it could be that your dog is simply sensitive to many things.

Think of a dog's skin like saran wrap. It covers and protects the dog. However, dogs with allergies are born with abnormal skin (like holes in the saran wrap). These abnormalities in the skin allow for the allergens, which are normal in all environments, to enter through the skin layer and set off an allergic response, which causes itching and redness. So, it is important to understand that dogs that suffer from contact allergies do not have normal skin. Additionally, these dogs do not have a healthy immune response.

In addition, this inflammation in the skin will change the health of the skin and allow for secondary invaders such as bacteria and yeast to enter the dog's system. Many of these dogs have a less-than-optimal local immune response to these secondary invaders, making them more susceptible to yeast and bacterial infections. Yeast and bacteria are always present in low numbers on every dog's skin. Unfortunately for dogs with allergies, their skin and immune response are inadequate to fight off these secondary invaders.

Dr. Ben Larson
Berry Farms Animal Hospital - Cupola Animal Hospitals

Are dermatology issues painful for my dog?

They can be. Mostly, they're just really uncomfortable versus painful, as the dog wants to scratch, and it's uncomfortable for them.

What are some signs and symptoms that my dog may have a skin condition?

Excessive scratching. You may even see some skin lesions on them, red spots, or raised bumps. They may have ear infections. They could have some GI issues or diarrhea. There are many signs of skin conditions.

What tests will be performed to diagnose my dog's skin condition?

Many tests are dependent on what you find on the physical exam. We may do a skin cytology, where we take some tape and get some skin cells from your dog. We may do a little scraping on their skin and get some flakes and look at those. Another thing we sometimes do is take a swab of their ears. We do all of these things to use the microscope to see on a microscopic level what's going on with their skin.

There are many things to test to determine what may be causing your dog’s allergies. Dog allergens fall into the following groups:

  • Contact allergy – including many grasses and plants, dust mites, and molds
  • Flea allergies – many dogs are highly allergic to flea bites
  • Food allergies – including different types of proteins
  • Inhalant allergy (Atopy) – allergens that are inhaled

Contact allergens, such as flea, food, and dust/pollen, are by far the most common cause of allergies in dogs. These allergens can cause an allergic reaction in the body-focused largely on and within the epidermis, causing severe irritation. The result is a dog scratching itself to the point that skin infections and injuries can occur.

Blood Allergy Testing

Blood allergy testing is the most common form of allergy testing because it is convenient and easy to do. To perform a blood allergy test, a small sample of the dog’s blood is drawn and analyzed. It is then tested for a reaction to a vast array of geographically appropriate allergens, including:

  • Pollens
  • Dust
  • Molds

Blood allergy tests can also determine food allergies as well as allergic reactions to materials like cotton or nylon. Blood tests are much less invasive and time-consuming than skin allergy tests, and they are the most commonly used dog allergy test.

Skin Allergy Testing

Skin allergy testing for dogs is another form of allergy testing used by veterinarians and veterinary dermatologists today. Skin allergy testing is more invasive than blood allergy testing because it requires sedation due to the length of time the dog needs to remain still. To perform skin allergy testing for dogs:

  • The dog is sedated
  • The dog is placed on his or her side
  • A small area on the dog’s side is shaved
  • Small needles inject tiny amounts of each test allergen just under the dog’s skin in a specific pattern and order. If the dog shows a small raised reaction, the allergen causing it can be identified.

After a period of time (usually a few hours), the shaved area is examined to determine which allergens elicited a reaction. Based on what the pattern indicates, a veterinarian and/or veterinary dermatologist can prescribe the most effective treatment protocol. Skin allergy testing for dogs has been estimated to be upwards of 75% accurate in determining the presence of dog allergies. However, skin allergy tests can be inaccurate if the dog has received antihistamines or steroids in the months leading up to testing. Your veterinarian can help determine if skin allergy testing is appropriate and will yield accurate results for your canine friend.

What are some common skin problems in dogs, and how are they treated?

Allergies would be the main predisposing factor. The dog would get skin and ear infections. They can have mites on them from other dogs, or even may have an immuno-compromised type condition as well, so many skin problems in dogs.

Treating allergies in Dogs

It is helpful to understand that allergies cannot be cured, but they can be successfully treated. There are many types of treatments, which include a combination of oral medication, bathing, topical therapy, and even injectable antigen therapy.

Prescribing the correct allergy medicine for dogs depends largely on the symptoms that the dog is displaying, the severity of the symptoms, and preexisting medical conditions. Allergy medicines for dogs may be based on one or more of the following types of therapies:

  • Anti-inflammatory therapy: This treats dog allergies with anti-inflammatory drugs, such as corticosteroids, or with antihistamines that quickly block the allergic reaction in most cases.
  • Immune modulators: These modify and reduce the dog's immune response to reduce the amount of itching occurring from exposure to the antigens.
  • Food and Dietary supplements: These include the use of protein-select diets and the supplementation of fatty acids. Some dogs have allergies just to food and some may have a food allergy and/or contact allergies. The use of Omega three fatty acids can help improve the dog’s response to steroids and antihistamines in some cases.
  • Antipruritic therapy (anti-itch): These include antihistamines, corticosteroids, and a new medication known as Apoquel, which specifically targets the itch response by blocking the substances in the body that cause itching.
  • Shampoo therapy: Bathing can be very helpful to remove the antigens the dog has been exposed to and also to remove dead skin cells and help treat secondary infections such as yeast and bacteria. Some therapeutic shampoos contain anti-inflammatory ingredients that may further benefit your dog.
  • Hyposensitization therapy: If the specific offending allergens are identified by allergy testing, allergy shots can be given to the dog. This form of allergy medicine for dogs consists of weekly injections of very small amounts of an antigen. Repeated dosing helps reprogram or desensitize the dog’s immune system. Approximately 50% of treated dogs will see significant improvement in their clinical signs, while approximately 25% more will see a decrease in the amount or frequency of anti-inflammatory therapy.

To learn which allergy medicine and dog allergy treatment methods will work best for your canine friend, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian today. Every allergy case is different and must be approached on a case-by-case basis.

What if my dog's skin problems go untreated?

If they go untreated, the skin problem is going to fester and get worse and worse. The dog will become more uncomfortable, and then the infections that arise secondary to what's going on will worsen. The treatment will also take much longer, and your dog's going to have to be on much more medicine. Again, it can even be for several months too, so it's imperative to get them checked as soon as possible.

What are curable versus incurable skin problems in dogs?

Curable skin conditions would be some skin infections, parasites, and other things like that. Even some skin masses and cancers that can be cut off are curable. Incurable skin conditions would be other types of cancers that can't be removed or can only partially be removed. Auto-immune type diseases may be incurable. We can manage them, but there's not a cure for them.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (615) 224-7776, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.