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Skin health in dogs

Skin acts as a barrier between the harsh environment and the sensitive inner skeletomuscular and visceral system, so is a very important part of the body to keep healthy. However, it is often the first organ to show external symptoms of ill health or allergies. Because generally our pets are covered with fur coats, it can still be difficult to see initial signs of skin disease, but one of the most commonly reported issues is the dog scratching and licking constantly at itself. Symptoms of skin problems can range from itchy, dry, flaky, or reddened skin to smelly, discoloured, greasy skin and anything in between.

Skin issues can occur when an animal develops an allergy to substances in the environment such as dust mites or pollen, or a food allergy, or if the animal is subjected to parasites such as fleas or skin mites. Sometimes allergic skin disease cannot be narrowed down to a particular cause, which makes it even more difficult to treat. Skin can also become infected with bacterial, yeast, or fungal overgrowths – often of organisms that are already present on healthy skin, but that in some situations multiply rapidly and cause an imbalance. Wounds can also introduce problems by allowing bacteria to penetrate the outer epidermal layer and in some cases by causing the animal to lick and worry at the wound in a self-perpetuating cycle of damage. Dogs sometimes even do this when there is no discernible reason, causing themselves fairly extensive damage.

The best way to minimise the risk of your pet developing skin conditions is to help keep the skin as healthy as possible. Skin can be kept healthy from the inside by making sure the diet has the right balance of essential fatty acids, such as Omega 3 and Omega 6. High quality veterinary formulated diets should already have these in the right amount and right ratio, but there are also supplements to provide a bit extra if the diet is lacking.

It is important to not bathe your pet too regularly, as the natural oils will be stripped away if shampooing is too regular. Your vet will be able to recommend the best bathing frequency for your pet, depending on their breed and activity. When shampooing, a pet-specific shampoo must be used. The acidity of human skin is very different than in dogs and cats, so when bathing your pet it is essential to use a gentle shampoo formulated especially for animals. There are many shampoos on the market specific to certain conditions or breeds as well, for example shampoo for flaky skin, or specifically for white dogs such as Westies.

A good grooming routine will also help with the health of your pet’s skin. If your dog has a long or thick coat, matts or knots can form, causing the skin underneath to become irritated and unhealthy. Brushing and combing out the fur will also allow you to spot any red or sore patches so they can be dealt with earlier. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, fleas, ticks and lice should not be given a chance to cause any initial damage. This means a good quality preventative should be used at the minimum treatment interval specified on the leaflet of the product.

Unfortunately some dogs are still prone to skin problems despite your best efforts. In this case your veterinary surgeon will be able to run tests to diagnose the problem. These days it is even possible to see if your dog is allergic to something, and if so they can undergo immunotherapy! Even though it can seem like a long and frustrating (and sometimes expensive) path to get to the bottom of some skin problems, it is worth it in the end to help your pet (and stop them keeping you up all night with the scratching…)