Labrador Retriever dog scratching

Dogs can have many different types of dermatitis.

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Dermatitis in dogs: signs, causes and treatment

By Dr Jo de Klerk, BVetMed (Hons) MScTAH MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

Dermatitis is common in dogs and is sure to cause them discomfort, but it doesn't have to be a problem for long if you follow the right advice and consult a vet.

Dermatitis is a common condition in dogs. The word ‘derm’ relates to the skin and ‘itis’ relates to inflammation. There are many causes of dermatitis in dogs, and treatment varies depending on the underlying cause.

Dermatitis is uncomfortable and even though it is not life-threatening, it should certainly not be ignored.  

Definition of dermatitis

The definition of dermatitis is any condition of the skin that leads to inflammation and redness, as well as sometimes blisters, pimples or red spots.

Causes of dermatitis

Dermatitis can be caused by direct irritants, such as cleaning materials, infectious agents, such as bacteria, yeast, fungi or parasites, hormonal changes, and allergies, such as environmental or food allergens.

Types of dermatitis

There are several different types of dermatitis. The most common type of dermatitis is allergic dermatitis, also known as atopic dermatitis. This is when the skin becomes itchy and inflamed from exposure to food or environmental allergens, such as pollens. Bacterial, fungal and parasitic dermatitis are also common types of dermatitis. Common bacterial infections include Staphylococcus, common fungal dermatitis includes Malassezia or ringworm, and common parasitic infections include fleas and mites.

Contact dermatitis is another type of dermatitis, where the skin has come in contact with something irritating. There are also other types of dermatitis that are less common. These include seborrheic dermatitis, commonly known as dandruff, acral lick dermatitis, which is an infection from licking an area of skin, and hormonal dermatitis, which is a result of internal hormonal abnormalities.

How can I treat my dog’s dermatitis at home?

Treating your dog’s dermatitis at home requires you to know the underlying cause of the dermatitis. This might be outwardly obvious, such as visible dandruff or fleas. If there are fleas, then applying a flea treatment to kill them off and spraying the environment with a pet-friendly insecticide will resolve the problem. If there is dandruff, then a shampoo that is tailored to moisturising the skin will help treat it.

If you do not know why your dog has dermatitis, or if the skin is broken or particularly uncomfortable, you should call a veterinarian to organise a clinical examination for your dog. Your veterinarian will be able to determine what treatment your dog will need, which may include anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, or soothing or antiseptic shampoos.

Is dermatitis in dogs curable?

Dermatitis in dogs is sometimes curable, depending on the cause. Allergic dermatitis is a chronic condition that can never be cured while still in contact with the allergy. Discovering what the underlying allergy is can be difficult, and even once determined can often be challenging to avoid. Therefore, allergic dermatitis is usually simply manageable but not curable.

However, other causes of dermatitis, such as bacterial or parasitic dermatitis, can be cured with appropriate treatment from your veterinarian. Acral lick dermatitis can also be curable, however the underlying cause for licking must also be treated. Frequently this is pain in a joint that is causing your dog to lick the area, and treating the underlying cause in addition to the dermatitis is vital for achieving resolution of the problem.

What causes atopic dermatitis in dogs?

Atopic dermatitis, or allergic dermatitis, is an inflammation of the skin caused by allergies. There are two categories: environmental and food allergies. Common food allergies include proteins such as chicken or beef. Common environmental allergies include pollens, grasses and dust. There can also be other less common causes of allergies, such as chicken feathers, house dust mites, parasites and fungi. These can be determined with a blood test sent to a specialist laboratory for testing.

The skin reacts to these allergens by releasing histamine. Histamine causes areas of inflammation, redness and considerable itchy discomfort. The most common areas affected are in the groin, under the armpits and under the paws.

Can I give my dog Benadryl for dermatitis?

Benadryl is a human medication that contains an anti-histamine called diphenhydramine. While anti-histamines can be successful in treating allergies in both humans and dogs, it is not recommended to give your dog any medication without first consulting a veterinarian.

In addition to this, Benadryl is not licensed for use in dogs, so even though anecdotally it appears safe for use in dogs, there are safer and more effective medications available from your veterinarian that are licensed and known to be effective for use in dogs.

Your veterinarian will be able to determine what medication is needed, because if the cause of the dermatitis is not an allergy, an anti-histamine may not be the best medication for your dog.

What does dermatitis look like on a dog?

Dermatitis can vary in appearance depending on the underlying cause. In most dogs, dermatitis appears as a red rash, sometimes with spots or pimples, which may or may not have white heads to them. It can progress to broken, oozing or blistered skin if severe. Chronic dermatitis will eventually lead to increased melanin content in the skin, which appears black.

What does contact dermatitis look like on a dog?

Contact dermatitis looks like a red rash on the skin of your dog. If the irritant that your dog has come into contact with was particularly corrosive, the skin may be broken and oozing. Contact dermatitis is usually located on the belly, chest or paws of your dog.

Can I use hydrocortisone cream on my dog?

Hydrocortisone cream is not a licensed medication for dogs and there are often more suitable alternatives from your veterinarian. It can cause side effects if ingested internally – and most dogs will lick off creams from their skin. Also, if applied to dermatitis of an infectious origin, it will potentially make it worse. Therefore, it is important to consult a veterinarian before applying any cream to the dermatitis.

How long does contact dermatitis last in dogs?

Most cases of contact dermatitis recover by themselves over the course of a few days or weeks, however since any type of dermatitis is uncomfortable, scratching and licking can cause a secondary bacterial dermatitis that complicates your dog’s recovery. These cases require treatment from a veterinarian to resolve and can potentially last for over a month.

Is canine dermatitis contagious?

Most causes of canine dermatitis are not contagious from dog to dog, however parasitic dermatitis can be extremely contagious. Fleas and mites feed on blood, and will quickly jump from one dog to another if they are in contact.

Can humans get dermatitis from dogs?

There are not many types of dermatitis that transmit from dogs to humans, however there are two types to be aware of. Parasitic dermatitis, particularly that caused by mites, can result in bites to humans resulting in itchy skin. Also, a type of fungal dermatitis, known as ringworm, can transmit to humans, resulting in red circular patches on the skin. If you think you have contracted a type of dermatitis from your dog, you should consult your doctor.

What causes dog dermatitis?

There are many causes of dog dermatitis, including allergies, bacteria, yeasts, fungi, parasites, hormonal changes, self-trauma and irritants that your dog has been in contact with. Determining the underlying cause of the dermatitis is vital to successfully treat it.

What can I put on my dog’s sores?

There are many home remedies for sores on dogs, however knowing why your dog has a sore in the first place is important to successfully treat it. Keeping the sore clean is part of the treatment process, and this can be done effectively by cleaning it twice daily with dilute salty water. Salt is a natural antiseptic.

You should not put any type of topical treatment, cream or ointment on your dog’s sores without consulting a veterinarian first. There are creams available over the counter at your veterinary practice or at your local pharmacy, which can be effective, but using the wrong treatment can hinder your dog’s recovery.

Can Neosporin be used on dogs?

Neosporin cream should be used cautiously on dogs and never without veterinary approval first. A very thin layer can be applied to a raw area of skin to prevent a bacterial infection. It is not safe for your dog to consume it, as it can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting, and therefore every effort should be made to prevent your dog from licking it. The best way to do this is to place a buster collar on him.

What is a natural antibiotic for dogs?

Antibiotics are substances that fight bacteria. They are similar to antiseptics, which prevent infection. There are many types of natural antibiotics that are safe to use on dogs. The most common natural antibiotic is manuka honey. If a veterinarian approves, this can be applied to wounds and broken skin. Salty water is also excellent at keeping bacteria at bay. Colloidal silver is also an effective natural antibiotic, however it can cause discolouration of the skin and some complications with absorption of certain medications, so you should discuss using it with a vet before applying it to your dog.

Tea tree oil and garlic are also both natural antibiotics, but these are both toxic and dangerous for your dog, and should never be used.

What can I put on my dog’s raw skin?

If your dog’s skin is raw, you should clean it with salty water and then allow your veterinarian to examine it to determine the best topical treatment. Raw skin can be very sore and uncomfortable, and so it is best not to treat it with home remedies. Often oral medication is also needed to treat it from the inside out and achieve the fastest and best resolution.

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