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Seborrhea in Dogs – Causes & Treatment Options

Seborrhea in Dogs – Causes & Treatment Options

Approved by Paula Simons, DVM

Seborrhea in dogs is a skin disorder where there is a defect in keratin.

If you’re like me, you start wondering and worrying over every lump, bump, and strange itch that your dog develops. Most of the time, it’s nothing serious.

As you’ll learn in this post, seborrheic dermatitis will make your little pooch feel miserable.

In dogs, seborrhea is a skin disease that is characterized by a defect in keratinization or cornification of the outer layer of the skin, hair follicles, or claws.

Keratinization is the process in which the protective outer layer of skin is being constantly renewed by new skin cells. Seborrhea results in increased scale formation, occasionally excessive greasiness of the skin and hair coat, and often secondary inflammation and infection.

Seborrhea occurs as a result of an underlying condition. Underlying conditions include everything from a parasitic infection to an endocrine (hormonal) disorder.

Primary vs Secondary Seborrhea in Dogs

Seborrhea in dogs is classified as either primary or secondary.

Primary Seborrhea

Primary seborrhea is an inherited disorder.

Secondary Seborrhea

Secondary seborrhea in dogs is caused by an underlying disorder.

Is Seborrhea the Same Thing as Eczema?

Although both skin conditions are completely different, they’re so closely related that the terms “seborrhea” and “eczema” are often used interchangeably. Some doctors, in fact, might not be able to tell the difference on first glance.

Puppies younger than two years of age who present with the symptoms of seborrhea probably have the inherited form of the disease.

Older dogs, however, could have either condition, and can even have both at the same time. Unless your dog has inherited the condition, there’s a good chance there’s an underlying condition that needs treatment.

Seborrhea in Dogs causes extreme itching and possible skin infection.
Pet ‘s skin health.

Clinical Signs of Seborrhea in Dogs

Seborrhea can occur in patches all over the body. You’ll either notice a huge increase in dandruff or too much oil build-up on the face.

In most cases, you’ll notice both signs.

The problem with seborrhea itself is the intense itching it causes. All that scratching and licking can really harm the skin, leaving it vulnerable to bacteria.

Seborrhea dermatitis develops when the skin’s sebaceous glands overproduce the oily substance known as sebum. Healthy skin secretes just enough sebum to keep the skin healthy. If seborrhea develops, an unhealthy accumulation leaves the skin waxy and very itchy.

Unfortunately, there’s no “cure” for seborrhea. It’s not inherently dangerous, but your dog could have flare ups.

Signs of seborrhea in dogs include:

Pruritus

This just means “extreme” itching caused by a disease or condition.

Lesions

These are patches of scaly, flaky skin that might be red or inflamed because of excessive scratching and/or licking.  Lesions can appear on the face, feet, under the tummy (known as ventral axilla), in or around the ears (otitis externa), and under the ear flap or on the paws (erythema).

Odor

Unfortunately, the waxy build-up of sebum is difficult to break down. The longer it sits, the worse it smells. The reason for this is that it tends to trap bacteria, and when the cells begin to die off, a bad smell is emitted.

Fur Loss

Seborrhea in dogs can cause fur loss. That leaves the skin vulnerable to infection. Once the skin is bare, there’s not much left to protect it.

The fur tends to disappear in patches, wherever your dog tends to dig and scratch the most.

There’s a greater urgency to treat the dog when the fur is worn off and the skin begins to open. Once this happens, bacterial infection can occur.

Some veterinarians might prescribe an antibiotic if the skin appears the least bit infected.

Skin that is opened or cracked can invite in some pretty nasty bugs and sometimes it’s just safer to assume a bacterial infection is gearing up for attack.

Scaly Skin

This condition leaves patches of skin looking scaly and flaky, like dandruff.

Redness and inflammation

Seborrhea in dogs doesn’t cause redness and inflammation. The itch is pretty intense, however, and your dog will likely dig at his/her skin enough to cause redness and inflammation.

Treating seborrhea in dogs

Common Type of Seborrhea in Dogs

The most common type of seborrhea in dogs is known as secondary seborrhea. Things like allergies and parasites can trigger the condition.

Endocrine disorders like hypothyroidism, Cushing’s, and Alopecia X can create conditions ripe for seborrhea, because they upset the dog’s natural hormonal rhythm.

Primary seborrhea is more often seen in younger dogs (typically younger than 2 years of age) and is considered an inherited disorder.

The highest incidence of seborrhea occurs in the following dog breeds:

  • American Cocker Spaniels
  • English Springer Spaniels
  • West Highland White Terriers
  • Basset hounds.

Dry Seborrhea (Sicca)

Ironically, dogs diagnosed with seborrhea often have a combination of dry AND oily seborrhea. Some dogs simply have dry skin that can be treated with the application of coconut oil (for example).

Dogs with seborrhea, however, will shed a lot of skin that resembles dandruff (flakes). Dry skin will cause your dog to itch, but dry seborrhea will be much more severe.

Oily Seborrhea (Oleosa)

Oily seborrhea produces the thick, waxy sebum that clings to your dog’s skin. This is the stuff you might notice on your dog’s face, paws, ears, or under the belly. You might even see it accumulating in your dog’s armpits.

It might seem to disappear after bathing your dog, but don’t be fooled! There’s a good chance it will come back.

The best way to prevent it from returning, or at least lessen the severity of seborrhea in dogs include treating the underlying condition. Keep reading to learn how to reduce and/or prevent flare-ups.

Cause of Seborrhea in Dogs

As mentioned above, seborrhea is either considered primary (inherited) or secondary (caused by an underlying condition).

Common allergies or underlying disease like Cushing’s, Addison’s, and hypothyroidism are to blame. Other possible reasons for the development of seborrhea in dogs include:

Fungal Infections (Malassezia Dermatitis)

Yeast is normally found on a dog’s skin, but if the growth goes into overdrive, it can cause dermatitis and inflammation.

Interestingly, a fungal infection could be the cause of seborrhea or could be a secondary condition related to seborrhea.

Fungus are parasitic, spore-producing creatures. They survive by ingesting food from the hosts they are growing on. Of the numerous fungal species in the environment, only a few are infectious.

Soil is the main cause of fungus in dogs. As pet parents, you know how much your dog loves to roll and/or dig in the dirt. Go to any dog park and you’re bound to see it in action.

If there is fungus present, it can easily affect the dog’s skin and can be inhaled or ingested. Some types of fungi will only thrive in or on animals that have weak immune systems. Immunosuppressive medications or extended use of antibiotics may lower a dog’s immune system.

Other things that can cause a lowered immune system in dogs include:

  • captivity
  • poor nutrition
  • viral infections
  • cancer
  • steroids

In some cases, fungi can harm otherwise healthy animals. It may only affect a certain part of the body or affect the entire body.

Fleas and/or worms (internal and external)

I think it’s safe to assume we all know what fleas and worms are. We know what a nuisance they are and what they can do to a dog’s skin.

All that itching! Internal and external parasites need to be treated properly. That means continuous doses of appropriate medication (ask your veterinarian) in order to stop the cycle.

Poor Conditioning

Poor conditioning can result from things like an injury, old age, arthritis, etc. Anything that limits your dog’s ability to groom can create conditions ripe for seborrhea in dogs.

Environment Factors

Your dog might be perfect for you, but not a good fit for the environment. Hot, humid weather isn’t right for some breeds just as cold, wet weather isn’t right for others.

Intestinal Malabsorption

This means that something is getting in the way of your dog absorbing vital nutrients.

Intestinal malabsorption can be the result of a variety of things including SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), and pancreatic diseases including exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) which is common in dogs.

Vitamin Deficiencies

Vitamin deficiency could be the result of a poor diet or malabsorption.

Vitamins important for health skin and immune function in dogs include vitamins A and C, all of the B vitamins ( biotin, folate, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, thiamine, vitamin B-6, and vitamin B-12), vitamin D, E, K, and choline.

Treating Underlying Causes of Seborrhea in Dogs

Antifungal medications are often used to treat fungal infections in dogs.

Due to the similarities in how the two conditions manifest, fungal and yeast infections are frequently confused. These two infections are, however, distinct from one another and react differently to specific medications. 

Treatment of a yeast infection can include:

  • Oral anti-yeast medication
  • Topical treatments including prescription strength anti-yeast cream, lotion, shampoo, and/or wipes.

Treatment Options for Dogs with Fleas/Worms

Preventing an infestation is easier than clearing one. That said, there are amazing products on the market these days that are safe and efficient.

The best ones are the all-in-one medications that rid the dog of fleas, ticks, and worms. For example,

Simparica Trio

Simparica is a comprehensive monthly oral chewable medication. Your dog will think he/she is getting a treat. What they’re actually getting is protection from hookworms, roundworms, heartworms, five different kinds of ticks, and fleas.

Revolution

Revolution is a monthly topical medication for cats and dogs. It treats and prevents fleas, American dog ticks, ear mines, and canine sarcoptic mange.

Advantage Multi

Advantage Multi is applied topically and is a great option for controlling a variety of canine parasites. This includes fleas, roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms. It also works on curing demodex mites, ear mites, mange and heartworm prevention.

Nexgard Spectra

This broad spectrum medication combats external and internal parasites. For a full month, it will shield your dog from fleas, ticks, mites, intestinal worms, heartworms.

These are just a sample of the many products on the market designed to keep your dog healthy. These products help to get to the root of the seborrhea problem.

Managing a Dog’s Health Depending on Environment

You can’t do much about the environment in which you live. However, there are things you can do to ensure your dog’s skin remains healthy.

Watch for any signs of excessive itching or allergies affecting the skin. Regular veterinary check-ups can go a long way in keeping your dog healthy.

Winter tends to leave the air in our homes dry. This can lead to dry, itchy skin in our dogs. On the other end of the spectrum is hot summer days. This, too, can lead to skin problems.

Proper hydration, balanced nutrition, and avoiding the hottest times of the day can help keep your dog’s skin healthy.

Some people look for quality air filtration systems for their homes. These are especially good for people with allergies to dust, pollen, and mites.

Treating a Dog With Malabsorption

Bacterial overgrowth is a small intestinal disorder marked by an increase in gut bacteria.

The development of a condition known as small intestine bacterial overgrowth is the main worry with bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

Nutrient malabsorption occurs as a result of the bacteria damaging the colon’s absorptive surface, which prevents digested food from being absorbed from the bowel and into the body.

Treatment types will vary depending on the cause of the malabsorption. Your veterinarian is the best source for information on prescription diets for dogs with this condition.

Treating a Dog With Vitamin Deficiencies

If the veterinarian suspects your dog’s seborrhea may be causes in part or fully by a nutrient deficiency, he/she will be able to point you in the right direction for the highest quality food for your dog.

If you cannot afford the kind of prescription food suggested, ask if there are commercial products that work just as well. Your veterinary may be able to help in this regard.

Seek Help From a Board Certified Veterinary Dermatologist

Dogs are prone to a variety of skin conditions and a veterinary dermatologist may be the best person to help.

These professionals have extensive expertise and can identify many dermatological diseases. If you feel your dog’s health is not improving, or you want to see someone in this specialized field, ask to be referred to a veterinary dermatologist.

Use the button below to locate a veterinary dermatologist near you:

Frequently Asked Questions About Seborrhea in Dogs

Is Seborrhea Contagious?

Seborrhea in dogs is not contagious. However, the underlying cause of it could be contagious.

There’s a risk of contagion from parasitic, bacterial, fungal and certain viral skin diseases. Conditions like mange (scabies), lice, and mites are contagious.

How Often Should a Dog with Seborrhea be Shampooed?

It’s actually not a good idea to shampoo your dog more often, especially using the traditional dog shampoo you might buy at the store.

The best thing you can do for your dog is talk to a licensed veterinarian or a licensed holistic vet about treatment options.

The veterinarian will prescribe a medical-grade shampoo with specific instructions on how much and how often to shampoo your dog.

In fact, the veterinarian may prescribe products that contain tacrolimus, glucocorticoids, and/or Cyclosporin, all of which are good for seborrhea in dogs.

seborrhea in dogs

Is Diet Change an Option?

If your dog is overweight, suffers from various allergies, or is fed a lot of unhealthy “human” food, you might want to try a diet change.

If there’s any chance that your dog could have an underlying condition, check with your veterinarian first. The thing is, some of the best dog food choices in the world may not be the best for your dog. It really depends on what’s going on inside your dog and the only way to get a clear diagnosis is through the vet.

Adding Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids to your dog’s diet might also be an option. A healthy diet combined with omega fatty acids could go a long way in helping your dog.

In most cases, diet change probably isn’t going to make a huge difference in treating seborrhea, especially if the underlying cause hasn’t been addressed.

How Should I Groom a Dog with Seborrhea?

Ultimately, you’re going to find numerous products on the market that claim to cure seborrhea. Some probably work better than others and your veterinarian is the best person for advice. The product you choose will depend on whether your dog has oily or dry seborrhea.

Once you’ve settled on the right product for your dog, don’t overdo it. Too much grooming is as bad as too little. In the beginning, you might be instructed to wash/groom your dog a few times a week, gradually reducing the number of washes required.

Pay particular attention to cleaning the skin folds. Some dogs, like the Chinese Shar-Pei, pugs, and the bullmastiff, have numerous skin folds that need to be cleaned thoroughly.

After thoroughly cleaning inside the folds, it’s important to dab the area dry. Keeping moisture trapped against the skin will promote the development of yeast, worsening dermatitis, and hot spots.

The waxy buildup of the oily-type of seborrhea is the perfect trap for bacterial growth.

You might not even notice how much has accumulated if your dog has long, floppy ears. Even if you clean the outer ear, there is likely a lot more buildup much deeper in the ear canal that’s simply not safe for you to clean at home.

That stuff could have been sitting there for a long time…long before some of the other seborrhea symptoms became obvious. Over time, the buildup will lead to chronic ear infections that need to be treated with antibiotics.

Can I Make My Own Dog Soap?

The things you need to make homemade soap for your dog are likely things you have in your home right now. To start, you can use coconut oil, olive oil, and a base oil like almond oil.

Warning: Essential oils can be toxic.

Pinterest has a huge variety of soap recipes to choose from. Check out one of my faves: BloggerBlasts.com

It’s unlikely that any homemade soap is going to get rid of seborrhea in dogs.

However, if you combine your home-made treatment with products that nab any underlying conditions (like parasites, for example), you just might be able to avoid flare-ups.

Will It Come Back?

The reality is, if you have a dog prone to skin conditions it will probably come back. There are some things you can do to avoid (or lessen the severity) flare-ups.

These include keeping on top of parasitic control, helping your dog maintain good hygiene (get in those skin folds!), being on the alert for the first signs of seborrhea to catch it quick, maintaining a healthy diet, and keeping regular check-ups with the veterinarian.

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Summary

Let’s face it, seborrhea is not pleasant. It’s a smelly, greasy, flaky mess that’s going to make your dog feel miserable.

Patches of fur loss is common in dogs who constantly itch. Skin can become inflamed, cracked, and vulnerable to bacterial infection. Don’t feel bad if your dog has seborrhea!

Unfortunately, it’s a common thing. The best thing you can do is work with a licensed veterinarian to determine why your dog developed seborrhea in the first place.

After that, all you can do is maintain a plan that will keep your dog healthy and happy over the long-term.

Remember, I’m not a veterinarian and I cannot diagnose or treat your dog. If you’ve read anything here that you believe is inaccurate, feel free to contact me directly at [email protected]

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Works Cited:

WHITE.STEPHEN. Merck Veterinary Manual. www.merckvetmanual.com, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/skin-disorders-of-dogs/seborrhea-in-dogs. Accessed 3 July 2022.

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