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Dog dandruff: causes, symptoms and how to get rid of it

March 15, 2019
Dog dandruff: causes, symptoms and how to get rid of it

It’s a cringe-worthy situation you’ve seen in many shampoo commercials: white flakes scattered on the shoulders of some unfortunate person.

If you’re noticing similar flakes on your dog’s fur, you may be determined to figure out the cause and how to get the unsightly spots to go away for good. Doggie dandruff can be a sign of other problems, so it’s good practice to get it checked out by a veterinarian if you’re noticing a change in your dog’s coat or behavior.

“It’s such a common problem because it has so many potential causes,” says Dr. Christine Cain, assistant professor, CE, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine Dermatology & Allergy Service. “If people are noticing that there’s a lot more dandruff in the coat, or if their dog is showing any other signs like they’re itchy, or super stinky, or anything is changing as far as how they seem to be feeling or acting, they should definitely get it checked out.”

Read on for expert information about this pesky problem, like typical causes, symptoms, treatments and more.

What causes dog dandruff?

Dandruff is generally a secondary condition that has a number of different causes, like allergies, serious skin problems, or certain genetic disorders, to name a few.

"Dandruff, or seborrhea, can be a primary cause or a secondary cause," says Dr. Jennifer Niedziela, of Countryside Veterinary Clinic in Lowville, New York. "Primary seborrhea is very rare and inherited in nature. Secondary seborrhea can be caused by allergies, internal or external parasites (Demodex, Cheyletiella), bacterial or yeast infections, certain endocrine disorders (hypothyroidism, Cushing's disease), dietary abnormalities, obesity and environmental factors such as temperature and humidity."

When it comes to weather, the winter months can be particularly challenging for dogs who are susceptible to dandruff. The low humidity amplifies skin conditions.

“If their homes are very dry, just like we can get dried out during the winter and can have drier more flaky skin, dogs potentially could as well if they’re in a very dry house or there is forced air heating,” Cain says.

Spring and summer can also be tough for dogs that may have seasonal allergies to contend with, as well.

What are the symptoms of dog dandruff?

If you’re noticing random flakes on your dog, there’s really no cause for alarm.  

“A couple flakes, that’s not really abnormal,” says Cain. “It can sometimes depend on, for example, when dogs are in the hospital. Sometimes when they get stressed we’ll notice that flaky skin more. But a few flakes here and there that’s not really concerning.”

Here are some symptoms, though, that could be cause for concern:

Lots of flakes

If you’re seeing a lot of flakes on your dog’s coat, it’s time to get to the bottom of the issue with a professional.

"If your pet's skin is overly flaky, it is important to have them evaluated by a veterinarian to rule out any medical causes," says Dr. Jennifer Johnson, of South Hingham Veterinary Services in Hingham, Massachusetts.

If you notice certain seasonal patterns, be sure to mention this to your vet. Dandruff can appear anywhere on your dog’s body.

“It can be in a particular area,” Cain says. “For example, if the dog has a skin infection on a certain area of their body, sometimes we’ll notice that the skin is more flaky or even crusty in that area. Or sometimes it can be all over the body.”

Itching or discomfort

Depending on the underlying cause of the dandruff, you may notice itching or behavior signaling discomfort.

“If it’s a patient with a skin infection, allergies, certain parasites or even that more rare type of skin cancer that causes skin to be flaky, it can be itchy,” Cain says. “So it just really depends on what the cause is. Dogs who have primary [dandruff], like with a genetic problem, they’re not usually itchy.”

Redness or odor

You may see redness on sections of your dog’s skin.

“If they are allergic or they have a skin infection, then the skin can often be red, as well,” Cain says. “Sometimes it can be stinky, too. The skin might smell different.”

Do certain breeds suffer more from dog dandruff than others?

That’s a tough question to answer definitively, “because it’s such a common secondary change to the skin,” explains Cain. “There are certain breeds for example that are predisposed to certain immune-mediating conditions where one of the typical signs is really flaky skin. There are certain breeds that are predisposed to having a genetic condition that causes them to be really flaky. There’s one called Ichthyosis, that happens in people, too.”

Two breeds often associated with the inherited skin condition of Ichthyosis — affecting the outer layer of the skin — are golden retrievers and American bulldogs.

But, in general, any breed of dog can develop a case of dandruff.

“It’s a problem that can happen in any single dog because there are so many potential causes,” Cain says.

What are the most common treatments for dog dandruff?

Most dogs who have dandruff will have a secondary issue, Cain says.

“The most common causes would be allergies, skin infections, other immune-mediated diseases [other than allergy] and endocrine disorders,” she says.

Here are some common treatments for those causes:

Allergies

In her practice, environmental allergies are the most common, but food allergies can look identical, which makes diagnosis “very tricky to figure out,” Cain says.

“You have to rule one out at a time, so usually we’ll start by ruling out food allergy by doing a strict diet change,” she says. “The real way to confirm it is by introducing back the previous diet to see if the dog gets worse on their previous diet.”

Treatment: “There are medications that can help with [environmental] allergies,” Cain says. “If we’re thinking about food allergy, we might recommend a diet change. Think about things like allergy testing. Often we’re managing allergy with multiple different treatment strategies.”

Skin infection

Yeast or bacterial infections, for example — particularly with the presence of staph — can cause dandruff.

“These are normal inhabitants of dog skin, they’re not necessarily picking them up from elsewhere,” Cain says. “When our patients have an allergy or another problem with their skin barrier, they are then susceptible to developing those infections, again, a secondary issue.”

Treatment: “First we identify it, and then we treat with either topical antiseptics or potentially oral medications, depending on the severity,” Cain says.

Immune-mediated diseases

One example Cain gives is a condition called sebaceous adenitis that requires a skin biopsy to diagnose.

“It’s a disease where the oil glands in the skin, or the sebaceous glands, are destroyed, and we think it’s caused by the immune system causing that inflammation to destroy those sebaceous glands,” she says.

Treatment: “[We need] to replace the oils that the skin is missing,” Cain says. “So it’s a lot of topical treatments, and then sometimes we’ll use oral medications to sort of suppress the immune system, suppress the inflammation that’s going on.”

Endocrine disorders

Examples are hypothyroidism, when the thyroid gland doesn’t make enough of the thyroxine hormone, or Cushing's disease, where there’s excess steroid produced by the dog’s body.

Treatment: “Probably the biggest ones we see are hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormone,” Cain says. “That disease is treated by supplementing with thyroid hormone. [Cushing’s disease] needs to be treated typically by decreasing the amount of cortisol or steroid that the body is producing.” This can be done with an oral medication.

What are the most common home remedies for mild dandruff?

There are home remedies to try if your dog has mild dandruff. If your dog has really bad dandruff, it’s wise to schedule a veterinary visit.  

“There may be another reason for it,” says Cain. “People should see their veterinarian to talk about the reason for the dandruff and [get] a specific targeted treatment.”

Here are five home remedies to try:

1. Regularly groom your dog.

This is a simple way to maintain your dog's coat and keep dandruff at bay. Niedziela recommends regular grooming and brushing to "distribute the coat's natural oils and massage the skin." It’s a good idea to make this a part of a regular care routine.

“Like our hair could get dandruff-y if we don’t wash it, the same thing can happen [with dogs],” Cain says. “Most dogs don’t need to wash their hair as often as people do, but that could contribute if they’re just really dirty.”

2. Give supplements of omega-3 fatty acids.

Adding an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to your pet's diet can also promote skin and coat health, resulting in less dandruff. Speak with your veterinarian before feeding your pet any supplements or vitamins, which are typically in liquid or capsule form.

3. Use a humidifier in your home.

Since low humidity can have an impact on dog dandruff — “If there’s really dry air in the household, that can potentially dry everyone’s skin out,” Cain says — it’s good to keep a humidifier going, particularly in your dog's sleeping area. Increasing the moisture in the air can soothe your pup's skin and potentially counter seasonal dandruff.

4. Try anti-dandruff or a soothing oatmeal dog shampoo.

Using an anti-dandruff shampoo made for dogs can help.

"Make sure it is made for dogs, as the pH of dog skin is different from the pH of human skin," Niedziela says. "Using human shampoos can make things worse."

Additionally, dog shampoos with oatmeal can comfort itchy skin.

“Oatmeal shampoos tend to have some soothing and moisturizing effects on the skin,” Cain says.

5. Feed your dog a good diet.

Make sure your dog has a balanced diet with the proper nutrients.

“I don’t necessarily have one brand to recommend but it should be a balanced, commercially available diet,” Cain says. “If there is some reason people are home cooking for their pet — [for instance] they prefer to do it for health reasons or whatever — they should be working with a veterinary nutritionist or with their veterinarian to make sure that the diet is balanced and it’s not missing essential nutrients or vitamins and minerals.”

If your dog has any diagnosed food allergies, make sure you are taking this into account when selecting food. Be sure to consult with a veterinarian if you're unsure what should make up a healthy, balanced diet.

Read next: Is your dog’s stomach gurgling?

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