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What is dermatitis in dogs?

Dog dermatitis is a condition that can affect your dog’s skin, causing itching and inflammation. Itching can be very uncomfortable for your dog. If ongoing, dermatitis in dogs can start to affect your pet’s quality of life, affecting their appetite and their ability to rest. Constant scratching, licking and biting makes the skin red, sore and open to infection. 

The main causes of dermatitis in dogs are:

  • Parasites: Fleas, mites, ticks
  • Infections: Bacterial or fungal
  • Allergies: Environmental (such as pollen, grass, dust mites) or food

The main areas of dog dermatitis can be found on your dog’s: 

  • Ears 
  • Paws
  • Tummy
  • Armpits 

Certain skin conditions can also affect the face, bottom, back and sides. 


Symptoms of dermatitis in dogs

There are several symptoms of dermatitis in dogs which can affect their behaviour and can eventually lead them to lose their hair. If your dog has a skin condition, you may notice that your dog is showing signs of:

  • Itching
  • Excessive scratching
  • Rubbing on the carpet
  • Hair loss
  • Greasy or flaky skin with an odour
  • Chewing their paws 
  • Saliva staining (red/brown staining on the fur where your dog has been licking)
  • Redness of ear flaps, sometimes with dark waxy discharge
  • Thickening or dark colour of skin (especially in hairless areas)
  • Redness or rashes on the belly
  • Spots or crusts on the body

How is Dermatitis diagnosed in dogs?

Some causes of dog dermatitis can be diagnosed by the areas affected and whether a single pet or several pets in a household have the symptoms. 

Tests we can carry out during a free consultation are:

  • Flea comb: Flea dirt or live fleas will indicate a flea infestation
  • Tape strips: Where we use sellotape to collect a small sample of skin cells and surface bacteria which we can examine under a microscope. This will often show yeasts and bacteria if present.
  • Skin scrapes: This is where we scrape the top surface of the skin to examine under a microscope. This is used to detect mites which live in the skin layer. 
  • Hair plucks: These will allow us to detect some parasitic and fungal infections.
  • Wood’s lamp: A UV light is used to detect some types of fungal infection (ringworm).
  • Blood tests: These can be used for dogs with allergic dermatitis to find out what they are allergic to. This can sometimes be helpful to avoid the triggers of allergies. 

Tests we may need to carry out under sedation are:

  • Skin biopsy: Sometimes a full-thickness sample of skin is required to find certain types of mites and to detect certain skin conditions which cause hair loss.
  • Skin scrapes: Of sensitive areas such as around the eyes or paws. 

Treatment of dermatitis in dogs 

There are various ways to treat dermatitis in dogs and care for your pet depending on the severity of their condition. 

  • Parasitic dermatitis: Regular use of a prescription flea, tick and mite treatment will eliminate the majority of these problems. Unfortunately, many fleas are now resistant to supermarket products so they cannot be relied upon to treat an infestation. 95% of the flea life cycle occurs off your pet, so a household treatment will also be required. Only certain prescription products will cover mites and ticks, so be guided by your vet as to which product your pet needs. Most of these require monthly treatment, although there are some which can last up to 3 months.
  • Skin infections: An infection on the surface of the skin can be effectively controlled by the use of medicated shampoos. These require regular (often twice weekly or more) use initially to bring the infection under control. They can then often be reduced to once a fortnight to maintain the skin, dependent on your dog’s condition. Some dogs with deeper skin infections may require prolonged courses of antibiotics (6-8 weeks or more) to control the infection.
  • Allergic dermatitis: The management of this is more complex and will likely be for the lifetime of your pet. They may become allergic to more things as they go through life. If your pet is allergic to dust mites or storage mites, reducing the numbers of these within your dog’s accommodation may help. Storing food in sealed containers will reduce storage mites.
  • Treatment of carpeted areas, bedding for dust mites can also help, or ideally having your pet on hard floors and washing bedding regularly.
  • Avoiding known triggers such as grasses/pollens and washing your dog’s legs after walks can help reduce irritation.
  • Conducting a food trial can be worthwhile, as many dog allergies can be at least partly controlled by an appropriate diet. This involves a 6-8 week exclusion diet, using a prescription hypoallergenic diet. Nothing else must pass your dog’s lips, except water, during this time. After the food trial, you will need to gradually expose your dog to normal foods/treats to find out what the triggers are. This may not work for every dog.
  • Oatmeal and skin hydrating shampoos can be very useful for dogs with dry, flaky skin.
  • Medications to control itching — these include steroids, Atopica, Apoquel and Cytopoint. Steroids are usually used for short term management of itching as there can be long term side effects. They are usually very effective. Atopica treats the immune system cause of the itch so is useful at preventing skin infections. Apoquel is an anti-itch tablet, and in conjunction with the other measures above, can be very effective. It has fewer side effects than steroids. Cytopoint is the newest treatment available. It is given by regular injection, every 4-8 weeks and is very specific to itch, meaning it has very few side effects. 

Is dog dermatitis contagious?

Allergic dermatitis and most dog skin infections are not contagious to other animals or members of the family. The only conditions which could affect other pets and also humans are:

  • Ringworm: Is a fungal infection, which is spread between dogs and humans through spores. Ringworm in dogs is a patch of hair that can either be a scab or inflamed and in humans, ringworm will look like a circle red rash, which can be fairly itchy.
  • Flea infestation: All animals in the household will need treating. Humans may be bitten on the ankles/feet by emerging flea larvae, but they will not live on humans.
  • Harvest mites: These are tiny, bright orange mites, only found in late summer. They will often affect multiple animals in the household and can cause an itchy rash where your pet’s feet have come into contact with you, so often on the tummy or legs where they have sat on your lap.

Prevention of dermatitis in dogs 

There are ways to prevent dermatitis in dogs and caring for your pet including adapting their diet, and similar to humans, avoiding the use of cleaning or wash products that could cause irritation to their fur:

  • Regular use of prescription parasite control 
  • Feed good quality food without artificial food colourings and flavourings
  • Prompt veterinary treatment for itching to prevent secondary infections
  • Avoiding contact with strong detergents /cleaners which may cause skin reactions
  • Avoid buying puppies from dogs with skin conditions, as allergies are often inherited.


If you are concerned about your pet’s skin, please contact your local Animal Trust surgery or book a free consultation online. 

Further Reading

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