Yeast infections in dogs — and what you can do about them
Swimming, extra long walks, BBQs and plenty of playtime with your dog are just some of the things you both savor about summer — but there’s one warm weather activity neither of you want any part of.
“Double the number of dogs come in for yeast problems in the summer than in winter,” says veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker. “Humidity and heat cause a lot of yeasty parties. Those long heavy ears that don’t get a whole lot of airflow down in those ear canals, those dogs absolutely are prone to having parties in their ears that they never wanted.”
There are ways to put the kibosh on that kind of soiree right away if you know and understand the symptoms of yeast infections and learn how they grow, inside of those long heavy ears and beyond. If yeast has already created an infection in your dog, here’s what you need to know about causes, potential treatments and how to prevent infections from happening again.
What should you know about yeast infections in dogs?
“Yeast are a part of the normal flora of dogs and cats,” Becker says, though she notes that dogs are more likely to get yeast infections. “So when yeast goes crazy, the question we have to ask ourselves is why would something that naturally occurs on our pets bodies go crazy? And it’s usually that there’s been a disturbance of the microbiome, so something has thrown off the natural balance.”
What are the symptoms of a canine yeast infection?
If you observe your dog constantly scratching his or herself, pawing at the ears, chewing on the feet or dragging their backside along the ground, that’s a sign of discomfort, and yeast could be the culprit.
“Dogs [with yeast infections] are typically profoundly itchy,” Becker says.
An unpleasant smell
Your nose may detect a yeast infection before your eyes do.
“They smell like a Frito cornchip or cheese popcorn; they smell musty,” Becker says.
Red, moist skin
Dogs suffering from yeast infections may have irritated skin.
“They can oftentimes have red, moist skin,” says Becker. “Yeast infections occur in damp, warm areas, so creases of skin are on the tail base, in the ears, folds of the lips, between the toes, creases of the elbows, armpits and groin are most common.”
What causes yeast infections?
Your veterinarian may investigate whether there’s an underlying cause of your dog’s yeast infection. The top reason dogs get yeast infections, Becker says, is antibiotics.
“Antibiotics are way over prescribed in veterinary medicine, like neurotically overprescribed,” she says.
Typically, it’s a cycle that goes like this: Dogs that have allergies are itchy, they scratch themselves prompting a hot spot, which ultimately ends with a trip to the vet.
“Instead of treating just the hot spot, the veterinarian puts them on systemic antibiotics,” Becker says. “This doesn’t just kill off bacteria where the hot spot is, it kills off all their good bacteria.” The bad news: within about two weeks, the dogs are stinky, flamingly itchy, red and swollen from secondary yeast.
Your dog’s body may be unable to fight yeast infections.
“There’s a simple, easy blood test that can measure immunoglobulins that will tell you if the dog doesn’t have a functional immune system,” she says.
If a vet determines that your dog is IgA deficient, that means he or she is deficient in being able to make certain antibodies that protect the skin, leaving them vulnerable to infection.
If you give your dog a bath twice a week, whether they’re dirty or not, you could be setting your dog up for yeast infections.
“There’s a lot of either germaphobes or people that just believe twice a week they’re going to put their dog in the bathtub and use aggressive shampoos,” she says. “There are some shampoos out there that do, of course, kill yeast, but some people use sulfur-based shampoos that are really aggressive.”
Your dog could have an allergic reaction to yeast itself.
“Dogs can be allergic to almost everything, including some aspects of themselves,” she says. “In those situations, if your dog is profoundly reacting to the yeast that’s growing on them, my recommendation is to do what’s called desensitization therapy.”
Look for more about that in the treatment section.
Are there certain activities that promote yeast infections?
Yes! A lot of the activities you both look forward to in summer are conducive to “yeasty parties,” as Becker describes them. If you’re worried about yeast infections, you just need to get smart about how you handle the aftermath of these activities.
Taking your dog to the lake
It’s great to let your dog swim in the summer, but you have to be smart about cleaning your dog afterward.
“You at least have to hose them down [after],” she says. “Leaving the body wet after they’ve been in a lake is one fantastic way for yeast infections to get started.”
Exercise in hot, humid areas
If you and your dog are running around in the heat of the summer sun for extended periods, that could spell trouble with yeast.
“In humid areas, dogs can suffer from faster yeast growth,” she says.
Feeding your dog sugary snacks
Yeast loves sugar, so avoid pet foods and treats that include honey, high-fructose corn syrup, potatoes, corn, wheat and rice in the ingredient list, Becker says.
“My goal would be single-ingredient, meat-based treats,” she says, adding that the vast majority of treats contain starch that holds them together through the baking process. “Dehydrated or freeze-dried meat — you really can’t go wrong feeding dogs and cats meat — because it doesn’t foster yeast infections. Even the ‘grain-free’ snacks often times have hidden sources of starches that you need to evaluate the bag for.”
Slacking in the cleanliness department can prompt yeast infections, especially if you have a dog that’s prone to them. Dogs that have really small, tight ear canals with floppy pinna [the part you see that is made of cartilage and covered by skin and fur] are especially vulnerable to yeast infections in their ears.
“If your dog is wet but dirty, that’s a recipe for disaster,” she says.
How are yeast infections treated?
For antibiotic-related infections
If the yeast infection is caused by steroids or antibiotic treatment, talk to your vet about options.
“The good thing about steroids and antibiotics is both of those drugs should be used short-term, so they’re not forever medications,” she says. “Nowadays, hopefully veterinarians are recognizing that the best treatment is, in fact, probiotics [and] anti-fungal shampoos that can be used to help manage yeast infections.”
For immunodeficiency-related infections
Your vet may help you manage your dog’s underactive immune system, which can be the underlying cause of yeast infections.
“One of the biggest triggers for that could be hypothyroidism or a low thyroid, and that’s easily diagnosed with a simple blood test to check your dog’s thyroid levels,” she says. “If your dog was born immunodeficient, then you can ask your veterinarian to measure your dog’s immunoglobulins, and then you supply those immunoglobulins in powder form to the diet.”
Your dog will need an immunoglobulin supplied to them for the rest of their life.
“And if your dog is hypothyroid, most likely your dog will need medications for hypothyroidism supplied the rest of his life,” she says. “But if you do that, they go on to live normal, happy, healthy lives, and they don’t have recurrent yeast infections once you manage those two conditions.”
For yeast allergy-related infections
Desensitization therapy is what Becker recommends for dogs that are allergic to yeast.
“Just as you would desensitize your dogs to pollens, ragweeds and grasses, you can actually desensitize your dog to yeast, and that’s done through a veterinarian that orders a specific desensitized serum for your dog,” she says, adding that it’s just like an allergy shot for humans.
For overbathing-related infections
Becker’s rule of thumb is that “you should bathe your dog when they’re stinky or when they’re dirty,” so make sure you’re not overdoing it. If your vet has diagnosed a yeast infection, baths with specific shampoos will help prevent it from spreading. She recommends bathing your dog regularly using an herbal or anti-fungal dog shampoo, like tea tree oil shampoo, and cleaning the affected areas well. Avoid oatmeal shampoos, which can promote yeast growth.
How can you prevent yeast infections?
Take a look at your dog’s diet
Yeast loves sugar, so avoid pet foods and treats that include the list mentioned above: honey, high-fructose corn syrup, potatoes, corn, wheat and rice.
"With pets that are dealing with yeast blooms, you've got to get the sugars out of your pet's diet,” Becker says.
Removing carbs from your pet's diet can help fight yeast overgrowth, so discuss options with your vet.
Talk to your vet about probiotics
Probiotics can benefit dogs just as they do humans.
“If your dog has either been on antibiotics or has recurring yeast infections, one of your best defenses is probiotics,” Becker says.
Avoid oatmeal shampoos
Yeast love moisture and thrive in a high-sugar environment.
“Oatmeal is a carbohydrate, carbs break down into starch, which breaks down into sugar,” Becker says. “So one way to feed a yeast infection is through oatmeal-based shampoos. I love oatmeal for non-yeasty dogs, but for yeast or dogs that have allergies, you don’t want to use oatmeal.”
Try a vinegar rinse
There are natural ways to reduce the likelihood of yeast infections.
“You put a cup of vinegar in a gallon of water,” Becker says. “I like using that after a bath to slightly acidify the skin, and vinegar does a fantastic job at helping to minimize yeast growth in a recurrent fashion. I use a vinegar rinse after an anti-fungal bath to help slow down how quickly yeast reoccur on the body. You pour that on, towel dry that in, but you leave it on your dog kind of as a residual, natural, anti-fungal longer-term treatment.” It's important to not use the solution on your dog's head and avoid the eyes. Pour the rinse from collar to tail "making sure to rub the solution into their skin, including their armpits, belly and inner thighs."
Swab ear canals with a drying agent
As mentioned, yeast likes warm, small ear canals.
“If every single time your dog gets out of the tub or out of a lake, apply a drying agent to swab those ear canals out,” she says, recommending witch hazel. “And that really is the mantra—we want our dog’s ears clean and dry, clean and dry. If we can do that then you really minimize the environmental contributing triggers to recurrent yeast infections.”
Dried oregano from the supermarket or from the garden has worked for some of Becker’s clients. She says, “They’ll basically salt their dog’s food with dried oregano and I’ve had a lot of clients tell me that if they start that early in the summer, they have been able to prevent yeasty ears all summer long.”
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