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Skin and Coat Problems in Dogs and Cats

See Supplements for Dogs and Cats with Skin Problems.

Fleas, dermatitis, dry skin, hot spots and other skin problems can make life miserable for you and your pet. The resulting scratching, itching, biting and licking contributes to the vicious cycle that a dog or cat with skin problems endures.

Thankfully, there are many natural pet remedies available to combat fleas, reduce hots spots and itching and help treat the underlying problems (often times immune-related) that may be causing skin irritations and disease.

Common Skin Problems in Dogs and Cats

For dermatitis caused by flea bites, see the Flea Bite Dermatitis page.

Allergic dermatitis is probably the most common skin disease that affects companion animals.  Atopic Dermatitis, also called atopy, is the technical term for allergies.  Atopy is a genetic disease in which a dog or cat becomes sensitized to environmental proteins called allergens.  In non-allergic pets, these allergens produce no symptoms.  In allergic dogs and cats, the allergens cause the clinical signs you commonly see, which include itching and the pet's associated scratching and chewing. 

Allergies usually occur within 1 to 3 years of a pet being exposed to environmental allergens.  As a result, pets vary in the age at which they begin to display signs of allergies.  While some dogs may exhibit symptoms in early puppyhood, others may not do so until midlife or even later.  Typically, the animal suffers from itching, and scratches, licks, and bites in an ongoing effort for relief. They can experience hair loss (from repeated licking), seborrhea, thick and damaged skin. Treatment options include antihistamines, oral and topical steroids, avoidance of allergens and supplements containing essential fatty acid (EFAs) and antioxidants.   See all supplements for Pet Skin Allergies.

Sarcoptic Mange, or scabies is a tiny, crablike creature that burrows into a dog's skin and causes terrible itching.  The mite is invisible to the naked eye, and therefore is sometimes diagnosed as an allergic reaction.  The itching and inflammation associated with Sarcoptic Mange usually begins at the ears and elbows and then spreads down the pet's legs.  One telltale sign is the ferocious scratching that your pet engages in, and which seems to compound the inflammation and itching.  As the problem progresses, you may detect a characteristic, pungently foul odor from your dog. Sarcoptic Mange is highly contagious so it is best to take your pet into the vet for immediate treatment. During and after treatment, antioxidants and essential fatty acids (Omega 3,6, and 9) may be beneficial to help restore the skin to a healthy state.

General Dermatitis is a very frequent problem found in dogs and cats and proves difficult to treat, as there may be many causes. Dermatitis can range from simple reddening of the skin to severe, chronic open sores with thickening of the skin, hair loss and odor. Since the skin is a reflection of the health of the internal organs and immune system, the lesions are really secondary to other chronic diseases such as bowel disorders and allergies.  Treatment is aimed at reducing inflammation of the skin and strengthening the immune system.

Demodicosis (also called Red mange or Demodectic Mange), is one example of a situation where an immune deficiency allows a benign situation to become untenable.  The red mange mite is considered a normal inhabitant of all dogs' skin and is not a problem until an immune deficiency allows the mites to reproduce in great numbers and make the dog miserable.  When adult dogs develop dermodicosis, it is usually the result of an underlying cause that is immune-related such as hypothyroid disease or Cushing's disease. Also geriatric dogs may be more susceptible to demodectic mange because their immune system doesn't function as efficiently as it did when they were younger. An immune support product like Immugen or ModucareVET would be beneficial for dogs with a compromised immune system.

Conventional Treatment

Typically a veterinarian will try to hone in on the underlying problem for the skin condition.  This can prove difficult and time consuming when your pet is in misery.  Food or airborne allergies may be nearly impossible to isolate.  Immune system problems are similarly complex and hard to diagnose. 

Some veterinarians prescribe corticosteriods for the relief of allergies and other skin irritations.  Such prescriptions mask the symptoms of the problem, rather than alleviate it and can also cause long-term damage to the liver, gastrointestinal tract, suppression of the immune system, diabetes, osteoporosis and other problems.  In the case of red mange, cortisone may provide relief for only a day, rather than weeks.  Other medical treatments for red mange are very toxic.  They involve dipping the animal into treatments that may kill the mites, but fail to address the immune deficiency that is the underlying problem. 

Natural Treatments

A holistic approach to the treatment of your pet's skin conditions is the best way to ensure a successful outcome.  Focus on providing a high quality diet that contains a good protein source (not by-products) and limited grains. A good diet will lessen the occurence of allergic episodes which are often caused by grains, preservatives and coloring.

Next, consider the overall health of your pet. Does your cat or dog get sick easily, have chronic infections or allergies. If the underlying problem is a compromised immune system, consult with your veterinarian about whether they could benefit from an immune support product like Immugen or ModucareVET.

If your dog or cat is in good health but experiences dry, flaky skin, and itchiness, then essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other nutrients will help to promote healthy skin because they work at the cellular level to provide the nutrients needed for skin development.

The following nutrients are necessary for the development of healthy skin and coats in animals:

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids (EPA and DHA) - These are vital nutrients that help prevent the skin from drying and flaking.  In addition, they are also natural anti-inflammatory agents, which gives them a double role in alleviating skin conditions. 
  • Omega-6 Fatty Acids (Linoleic Acid) are an essential component for chemical reactions in the body. However, in dogs, linoleic acid cannot be synthesized so it must be consumed from a dietary source. Linoleic Acid is important for normal skin and coat health, for cell membrane integrity and fat-soluble vitamin interactions.
  • Vitamin C is essential to overall health. This antioxidant aids in resisting viral and bacterial infections, and reduces the effects of some allergy-producing substances. Its primary function is to maintain collagen, a protein necessary for the formation of skin, ligaments and bones.  Vitamin C also enhances T-cell production which helps to fight off viral and bacterial infections and some allergies. Vitamin C is especially beneficial to animals with any type of chronic disease, infection allergy or dermatitis.
  • Vitamin E prevents the fats and fat-soluble vitamin A stored in the body from breaking down and combining with other substances that may become harmful to the body.
  • Vitamin A is vital for healthy skin and good eyesight.  It plays an important part in the growth and repair of body tissues.
  • Zinc is an essential trace mineral found in most tissues of the body and a deficiency in this mineral can increase a pet's susceptibility to infection.

For Immune-Related Skin Disorders:

The following nutrients have been shown to support the immune system so that it is better able to fight disease and infections:

  • Reishi mushrooms work as an anti-inflammatory and antihistamine to relieve respiratory ailments and allergy symptoms. They have been found to enhance immune modulators, which are important for fighting viral and bacterial infections and they also inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
  • Echinacea is an immune stimulant that helps the body defend itself against viral infection. It works in two ways: 1) It contains three compounds with specific antiviral activity: caffeic acid, chicoric acid and echinacea and 2) the root extracts of echinacea act like interferon, the body's own antiviral compound.  Echinacea has been used by Native Americans to heal wounds and skin problems, and reduce inflammation.
  • Astragulus root has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine to strengthen Chi, the building block of physical and spiritual energy. More recently, it has been used to restore immune function in cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy.
  • Thymus (Bovine) - The thymus is responsible for many immune system functions, including the production of T lymphocytes, which are extremely important to protecting animals from bacteria, fungi, parasites, viruses, cancer, allergies, dermatitis and immune disorders.

See Skin Supplements for Dogs and Cats.