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Dermatitis in dogs is a common diagnosis, but what does it actually mean? Here’s what to know about this group of skin conditions, including possible symptoms and treatments.

What Is Dermatitis in Dogs?

Dermatitis refers to a variety of issues that cause inflamed, often itchy, skin in dogs. “Unfortunately, the word ‘dermatitis’ is extremely generic,” explains Dr. Domenico Santoro, DVM, Associate Professor of Dermatology at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. “Essentially it just means inflammation of the skin, which is about 90% of what we see in a multitude of diseases.”

Signs and Symptoms of Dermatitis in Dogs

Itching, scratching, and excessive licking or biting are common signs of dermatitis in dogs. Dermatitis may occur because of secondary bacterial infections. A skin problem may start as a minor itch, but as the dog scratches, then chews and licks, they open the skin, introducing bacteria. Small, pimple-like bumps erupt, burst open, and lead to crusting and scaling.

If the problem moves from the skin’s upper layer to deeper layers, the infected area may become painful and leak fluid. Dead skin may even fall off.

When inflammation doesn’t go away, the skin becomes thickened and darkens. It may start to become scaly, discharge more fluid, or give off a strong odor. If your dog has dermatitis, you may also see pus-filled blisters, scabs, and hair loss, among other symptoms.

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Causes of Different Kinds of Dermatitis in Dogs

Because dermatitis refers to so many different conditions, there are many possible causes, including: irritants that touch the skin, burns, trauma, allergies, such as atopic dermatitis or food sensitivities, and systemic diseases, which are conditions that affect the whole body. Infections can also cause dermatitis, and can be caused by bacteria, viruses, external parasites (like mites or fleas), or fungi (such as yeast).

Ear Mites in Dogs

Ear mites are highly contagious mites (a type of small bug). As their name suggests, ear mites usually show up in dogs’ ears (especially puppies’).

Hot Spots in Dogs

Hot spots, also called pyotraumatic dermatitis, usually result from underlying issues (like flea bites or pyoderma) that encourage a dog to scratch and chew. The scratching creates opportunities for bacteria to enter, while the chewing creates a moist environment where the bacteria thrive, causing the lesion to quickly worsen, hence the name “hot.”

Malassezia Dermatitis in Dogs

Malassezia yeast is a yeast (a type of fungus) that’s already present on dog skin. But when it overproduces, it can irritate your dog’s skin and result in canine yeast dermatitis.

Golden Retriever Scratching
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Mange in Dogs

Mange is a skin disease caused by mites on your dog. There are two types of mange in dogs: demodectic mange and sarcoptic mange (also known as canine scabies). Demodectic mange, or demodicosis, occurs when Demodex mites, which normally live on your dog’s skin, multiply unchecked in hair follicles. In contrast, dogs get sarcoptic mange, a highly contagious condition, when a mite called Sarcoptes scabiei moves from host to host.

Pyoderma in Dogs

A bacterial skin disease, canine pyoderma has several main forms. Often caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus pseudintermedius, skin fold (or surface) pyoderma appears in moist folds of skin or wrinkles. In superficial pyoderma, the infection has penetrated a bit deeper. Deep pyoderma occurs once the infection spreads to the skin layer closest to the dog’s muscle.

Seborrheic Dermatitis in Dogs

Seborrhea is a condition where the outer layer of skin is renewed at an abnormally fast rate. Primary seborrhea in dogs is hereditary, while secondary seborrhea results from underlying medical conditions (like allergies or hormonal problems).

Bloodhound puppy scratching himself in a field of dandelions.
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Skin Allergies in Dogs

Skin allergies (also known as allergic dermatitis) are the most common type of allergic reaction in dogs. They are often caused by allergies to flea bites, food, or environmental factors (atopic dermatitis).

Walking Dandruff in Dogs

Also known as walking dandruff, cheyletiella mites are contagious and can live off a dog for up to 10 days. You’ll spot tiny, white moving specks on your dog’s back and trunk.

Diagnosing Dermatitis in Dogs

Your vet will take your dog’s medical history, then examine them and analyze their symptoms. This will help inform them about what type of dermatitis your dog may have. In the case of flea allergies, for example, your doctor will be able to see flea bites on your dog.

In many cases, your vet will perform skin scrapings or remove discharge. Once they obtain these samples, the vet will examine them under the microscope to look for yeast, parasites, mites, or other organisms.

If there are underlying causes, your vet will determine what they are. This may involve blood work or other examinations. For example, your vet may conduct an intradermal skin test to identify environmental allergens. To identify food allergies, they may change your dog’s diet.

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Dog Dermatitis Treatment

Treating dermatitis ultimately depends on the underlying source causing the inflammation of your dog’s skin. Additionally, treating the specific symptoms of your dog’s skin condition is important to prevent them from causing further trauma to themselves.

To treat itching, your vet may prescribe antihistamines, steroids, or other oral medications. They may also add fatty acids to your dog’s diet. Topical anti-itch sprays can help minimize discomfort. A recovery collar can prevent further infection due to chewing and scratching.

If the cause is yeast, your vet will prescribe topical and oral antifungals. Your vet may recommend washing with canine shampoos with benzoyl peroxide, selenium disulfide, or other products designed to remove scale and grease. They may also prescribe an antifungal dog shampoo containing chlorhexidine, miconazole, or ketoconazole.

If the cause is bacteria, your vet may prescribe oral antibiotics. They’ll likely recommend regular cleansing with a mild antiseptic or antimicrobial shampoo, then using an oatmeal-based dog shampoo to soothe irritated skin. It’s important to thoroughly dry your dog after bathing them. Dampness creates a breeding ground for bacteria or fungi.

German Shepherd Dog getting a check-up at the vet.
©New Africa - stock.adobe.com

If there are mites or fleas present, your vet will likely recommend topical and oral products designed to kill them. If your dog has a flea allergy, use the veterinarian-recommended flea treatment on your dog, and add a flea and tick preventative to avoid re-infestation.

Mites can be hard to find, so your vet may treat suspected cases the same way they would treat confirmed cases. Your vet will likely recommend oral medications like antibiotics and antihistamines, as well as topical options like miticidal shampoo. You will want to wash all canine bedding repeatedly. Treat the environment with dog-safe insecticidal sprays and be sure to disinfect grooming equipment.

If necessary, your vet may refer your dog to a veterinary dermatologist.

New Medications for Dogs With Dermatitis

In recent years, newer, safer anti-inflammatory treatments for dermatitis in dogs have become available. “In terms of therapies, you have the antipruritic — anti-itch — medications,” Dr. Santoro explains. These include lokivetmab, brand name Cytopoint, and oclacitinib, brand name Apoquel.

Lokivetmab fights one type of protein that helps create allergies. Administered by an injection just under the skin, each dose of lokivetmab lasts from four to eight weeks. Oclacitinib is a daily oral medication that reduces itchiness and inflammation due to allergic reactions.

“There’s also the new liquid oral formulation of cyclosporine,” adds Dr. Santoro. Cyclosporine decreases a dog’s immune response, which in turn decreases allergy-related itching and inflammation. Talk to your vet about whether one of these medications could be helpful to your dog.

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