All dogs are not created equal.  Keep that in mind when you set out for the bath tub with your K9.

The skin is the largest organ of the body.  It has several important roles and when it’s not functioning quite right, the whole body suffers.  Let’s take a look at some of the more common problems.

Hot spots are painful, red eruptions that can occur anywhere on the body. These are localized ‘concentrated’ lesions, which can become worse when the dog licks it to try to relieve the itching.

Depending on the breed of dog and the severity of the hot spot, the hair may become matted over the area or fall out completely. Any time your dog is licking at one localized area for a prolonged time, investigate to see if a hot spot is brewing.

In the summer, fleas or environmental / contact allergies may be the culprit – many pets are sensitive to flea saliva as well as certain types of pollen, grass and weeds.

Traveling to new areas can also play havoc with a sensitive pup, if he comes into contact with new environmental allergens, to which he hasn’t previously been exposed.

Other possible irritants in the home include detergents used to wash blankets and bedding, household cleaners, or sprays used in the yard. Topical flea medications can cause skin itching (and other health problems).

Any time a non-seasonal bout of itching crops up, it’s worthwhile to look back at what might have been different for your pup in recent days or weeks. Did you switch to a new fabric softener or get your carpets cleaned? Did you visit a new place and let your pup romp in a field where the flowers were blooming?

Skin problems can be caused by food allergies and environmental problems, among other factors. For food-related issues, you can take action to help your dog feel better.

One of the first key questions to ask, however, is if your dog’s skin problems are tied to the food that it is consuming. “Most people jump to change their dogs’ food whenever the dog starts to itch, assuming that the food is the problem,” says Dr. Katy Nelson, an associate emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va. “However, only about 10 percent of pets actually have a food allergy, so finding the true allergen is key to controlling skin problems.” She adds that “even if the allergen is not an ingested one, sensitive-skin formula foods may still help.”

Dog Foods That Target Skin and Coat Issues

Special foods are now available through your veterinarian to address skin and coat problems. They promote a healthy skin and coat with these types of ingredients:

  • Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids: These are found in ingredients such as fish oil and canola oil. They help to manage a pet’s itching and scratching. These oils also “help the skin replenish its own luster,” says Nelson.
  • Unique blends of proteins and carbohydrates that can reduce the risk of bad reactions to food: “When looking for a sensitive-skin formula, ensure that there is just one protein source (e.g., chicken or beef versus ‘poultry products’) and one carb source to reduce antigenic stimulation,” says Nelson.
  • Vitamins and minerals to restore nutrients in the coat and skin: Nelson mentions biotin and vitamin E in particular.
  • Linoleic acid: This acid is found in high-quality, animal-based protein. It helps to keep your dog’s coat shiny and healthy.

Both wet and dry foods may contain all of the above. “Premium wet food can provide the same nutritional benefits as its dry counterpart,” explains Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian for Iams. “Premium foods provide a complete and balanced diet and deliver higher-quality ingredients for easy digestion and absorption of essential nutrients.”

Your Dog’s Breed Matters
Nelson says that certain breeds are more prone to skin and coat disorders. These include hound dogs, white dogs (think redheaded people with sensitive skin), golden retrievers (and other thick-coated breeds), Pomeranians, Doberman pinschers and more.

Wrinkly dogs, such as bulldogs and shar-peis, are notorious for suffering from skin and coat issues. A recent study, published in the journal PLoS Genetics, determined that the wrinkled skin of shar-peis contains an excess of a compound called hyaluronan. Co-author Linda Tintle of Wurtsboro Veterinary Clinic and her colleagues found that the excess is caused by a genetic mutation, which can result in inflammatory skin disease. “With this genetic information, people can avoid breeding shar-peis with many (genetic) duplications,” she says. “Understanding the causes will also lead to more effective treatments.”

Is It Dry Skin?
One common cause of itching is dry skin. If you live in a region with low humidity, it’s more likely that your dog will have dry skin, which is fairly easy to recognize. When you part your dog’s hair, you see flakes of dandruff in the undercoat, and the skin itself may be cracked and tough. The slightest stimulation of the skin—your gentlest touch—can provoke your dog to scratch violently.

Dry skin can be influenced not only by environmental factors, but also by diet. Commercial pet foods process out the good oils that contribute to healthy skin and a lustrous haircoat. Dry pet foods have an even more dehydrating effect on skin and hair and also stimulate increased thirst, which only partially compensates for the drying nature of these diets.

If you must feed dry foods, then by all means add digestive enzymes to your dog’s meals. In fact, digestive enzymes are good to use with any type of food. Enzymes improve the release of nutrients, and beneficial probiotic bacteria also assist in the digestive process. (Probiotics also help with allergies, as noted below.) A healthy digestive system absorbs fluids more readily from the food your dog eats, thus improving hydration and increasing the moisture levels of the skin and haircoat.

Or Allergies?
Another common cause of itchy skin is allergies. Allergies may make your dog’s skin dry, greasy, or slightly dry and oily, and are accompanied by frequent scratching, licking or chewing. We are seeing significantly more cases of allergic dogs than we have in the past; many veterinarians believe that we are experiencing an “allergy epidemic.” While the reasons for this allergy epidemic are uncertain, some of the theories put forth include the aggressive vaccination protocols that many dogs have been subjected to, poor breeding practices and the feeding of processed pet foods.

Whatever the cause, allergies are difficult to address. In the worst cases, afflicted dogs require strong (and potentially toxic) pharmaceuticals just to get some relief. Though allergies are rarely cured, early identification and intervention can keep them under control, and in some cases, can substantially diminish them.

Clinical research has shown that one important way to reduce the likelihood that dogs will develop allergies is to give them high-potency cultures of beneficial probiotic bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bifidus when they are very young. Probiotics are relatively inexpensive, absolutely safe to use, and can save both dog and the owner tons of grief—and visits to the vet—later in life.

Regardless of age, many dogs’ allergies are controlled by improving the quality of their diet, giving them high potency acidophilus cultures and high doses of fish oils; adding freshly milled flax seed; and, in some cases, giving them antihistamines. (It can take up to three months for this regimen to take effect; see sidebar for details and dosages.)

Determining which condition your dog is dealing with requires a vet’s evaluation, but implementing some of the suggestions provided in the sidebar can certainly help your pup be more comfortable in her own skin—literally.