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Intro to Pet Dermatology 102: Management of Common Skin Issues - Vet looking at Dogs skin

Management of Common Skin Issues in Dogs and Cats: Pet Dermatology 102

Now that you’re familiar with some of the most common skin issues affecting your furry family members, it’s time to take a deeper dive into how your vet will diagnose and treat these issues, as well as what you can do at home to keep those fur coats shiny and healthy.

How Vets Diagnose Skin Conditions

Skin issues can be frustrating for vets and pet parents alike. When you see your vet for a concern about your pet’s skin, they’ll begin by getting a thorough medical history. Your vet will ask questions about your pet's overall health and lifestyle, as well as the specific skin problem, so come prepared to answer! (Consider keeping a journal of your pet’s habits and food intake, paying special attention to when you introduce new foods or treats.)

These questions will cover diet, any recent environmental changes, the onset of symptoms, if symptoms are worse during certain times of year, if any other pets or people in the household are affected, and any previous health issues that your pet has had. Your vet may also ask you to rate your pet’s itchiness on a scale of one to 10.

Next, a nose-to-tail physical exam will be performed, with a special focus on the skin and coat. Your vet will look for evidence of infection, external parasites, lumps and bumps, and other abnormalities. They will also closely examine the type and location of skin lesions, which can provide valuable info about the underlying cause.

Vet looking at a dog's skin through LED Magnifying Lamp (Vet looking at dog's skin through Magnifying Lamp)

Lastly, they may recommend some or all of the following diagnostic tests. As many skin conditions can look the same and cause similar symptoms, testing is important in getting to the bottom of the underlying cause — and finding the appropriate treatment.

  • Flea comb — Running a flea comb through the fur is an important way to look for live fleas or signs of their presence. Flea feces is called flea dirt, and due to the presence of digested blood, it will turn red on a damp tissue. Importantly, the lack of fleas or flea dirt does not rule out these parasites.
  • Cytology — This test involves taking a small sample from the skin and examining it under a microscope. Your vet may collect a sample by pressing a glass microscope slide onto your pet’s skin, using a piece of tape to transfer cells to the slide, or collecting a sample with a swab (for example, from the ear in the case of an ear infection). They will then examine the sample for the presence of yeast, bacteria, or abnormal cells, which will help guide their treatment recommendations.
  • Skin scraping — If mites are suspected, a small amount of skin is scraped off for microscopic examination.
  • Trichogram — Hair is plucked and examined under the microscope to help identify certain types of parasites or ringworm.
  • Bacterial culture — With deep or complex infections, your vet may suggest a culture to grow the type of bacteria present and determine which type of antibiotic it will respond to.
  • Fungal (aka dermatophyte) culture — This culture can be used to test for ringworm, a type of fungal infection that can cause characteristic skin lesions and secondary infections.
  • Bloodwork — This may be conducted to check for underlying health issues that might contribute to skin problems, for example, hypothyroidism or Cushing’s Disease.
  • Allergy testing — If environmental or food allergies are suspected, your vet might perform tests to identify the specific allergens causing reactions. Allergy testing may involve referral to a dermatologist for a skin test, a blood test, or a feeding trial with a hypoallergenic diet. Allergy testing is not always recommended unless an owner wishes to pursue allergen-specific immunotherapy (allergy shots).
  • Biopsy — In cases where a tumor or serious skin condition is suspected, or if your pet is not responding as expected to typical treatments, a biopsy (a larger sample of skin) may be taken for detailed analysis by a specialist. This usually involves numbing the skin with a local anesthetic and using a punch or scalpel to take a sample of skin.

Common Treatments for Skin Issues

Once your vet has identified the specific issue affecting your pet’s skin with the steps above, they’ll be able to determine the best treatment options. In general, treatment often includes the following:

Parasite Prevention

Flavored pills or topicals applied to the skin on the back of the neck are a key component of managing itchy pets, especially those with parasites or flea allergy dermatitis.

There are many options available, but prescription products are generally more effective than over-the-counter alternatives. Many of these products also treat mange and help prevent heartworm and other intestinal parasites. Ask your vet what they recommend for your specific furry family member.

Vet working on a cat with skin issues on their neck area (Vet looking at cat's skin issue)

Treatment for Skin Infections

If a skin infection is present, either as the primary issue or the result of another underlying condition, such as allergies, it will need to be treated appropriately.

Depending on the severity, this often involves medicated shampoos, wipes, and ointments containing antibiotic, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. Oral antibiotics or antifungal medications are key for deeper or more extensive infections.

Soothing Itchy Skin

Anyone who’s spent a late summer evening battling mosquitos is familiar with how uncomfortable itchy skin can be. Soothing your pet’s itchy skin is an important part of managing their skin condition(s).

There are many oral and injectible medications that can help, including antihistamines, steroids, and newer options such as Apoquel (oral tablet) and Cytopoint (once-monthly injection), which are incredibly safe and effective. These medications can provide quick relief, but must also be used in conjunction with other appropriate treatments. If the underlying cause is not addressed, the itch will simply come back.

Managing the Underlying Cause

Here is where treatments can vary significantly. Lumps and bumps may need to be surgically removed. Pets with food allergies will need to eat a hypoallergenic diet. Interested owners may wish to pursue immunotherapy injections to target their pet’s specific allergies. Hypothyroidism, Cushing’s Disease, or other medical conditions can be managed with medications.

Last but not least… the Cone of Shame

As much as loving pet owners hate to do this, it may be necessary to put your pet in a cone or inflatable “donut” collar to help keep them from licking and chewing, which can cause further damage to their skin.

Dog with cone around head looking sad (Dog with cone of shame on)

Prognosis: Living With an Itchy Pet

Living with an itchy pet requires patience and a proactive approach to their comfort and care. The prognosis can vary widely depending on the underlying cause. But with consistent treatment and management, many pets lead happy and comfortable lives.

In some cases, skin issues will fully resolve after treatment. In others, such as dogs with environmental allergies, the goal of treatment is to reduce the clinical signs and the frequency of flare-ups.

How Can I Keep My Pet’s Skin and Coat Healthy?

The following tips can help keep your pet’s skin and coat healthy and beautiful.

  • Feed a high-quality complete and balanced diet — A high-quality diet that is complete and balanced will include key nutrients for skin and coat health.
  • Consider Omega-3 supplements — Fish oil supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids can be beneficial for reducing inflammation in the skin (and elsewhere in the body) and promoting a healthy skin and fur coat. Check with your vet for product and dosing recommendations.
  • Keep up-to-date on flea and parasite prevention — To keep parasites at bay, it’s recommended to use a broad-spectrum parasite prevention for all pets in your household year-round.
  • Groom regularly and bathe as needed — Depending on your pet’s fur coat, their grooming requirements may vary. However, following a consistent grooming routine will help keep their fur coat sleek and healthy, as well as give you a chance to check them over for any abnormalities or lumps and bumps on the skin. Unless directed by your vet, it is best not to bathe your pet more than once a month, since bathing can actually dry out their skin.
  • Avoid allergens — Keeping your house clean, using air purifiers or filters, and wiping down your pet’s paws after they enter the house can all make small differences in the allergen load that your pet is exposed to.
  • Consult your veterinarian promptly about any concerns — As with most things, skin issues are easier (and more cost-effective) to manage at the first appearance of clinical signs.
Brown dog outside scratching his head with back leg (Dog scratching neck)

FAQ: Your questions about managing pet skin conditions

Are skin conditions contagious to other animals or people?

Some skin conditions, like mange (caused by mites) and ringworm (a fungal infection), are contagious to other pets and even humans. It's essential to identify and treat these conditions promptly to prevent spread. Most other common skin conditions, such as allergies and infections, are not contagious. Nevertheless, it’s always important to use good hygiene when handling a sick pet.

How can I tell if my pet has a skin infection or allergy?

Both can cause itchy skin, redness, and skin lesions. Allergies are also a common cause of skin infections. If your pet suffers from chronic or recurrent skin infections, chances are an allergy or some other underlying issue is involved. Still not sure? Read Part 1 of the Pet Dermatology series here.

How long does it take for a skin infection to resolve?

Simple skin and ear infections should resolve after two weeks of appropriate treatment. However, it’s important to remember that the condition is likely to recur unless the underlying cause is addressed as well.

When should I consult a veterinarian about my pet’s skin condition?

Consult a veterinarian if your pet's skin condition does not improve with basic care, worsens, or if your pet seems uncomfortable. Persistent scratching, hair loss, or any unusual skin changes warrant a vet exam.

Are there any home remedies for minor skin issues, or should all skin concerns be seen by a vet?

Very mild cases of itchy skin may be managed with medicated shampoos and certain over-the-counter medications, such as Benadryl and omega-3 fish oil supplements. However, it is always best to consult your veterinarian. Your pet may require additional testing or prescription medications such as antibiotics. In some cases, home remedies can cause more harm than good.

How can I tell the difference between a harmless lump and one that needs vet attention?

In most cases, you can’t. And your vet won’t be able to either, unless they collect a sample for further evaluation. Skin lumps and bumps look similar, and while many are benign and harmless, others are cancerous and will require removal or additional treatments. It is always best to alert your vet to any new lumps or bumps on your pet’s body, especially if you notice they’re changing (in size, shape, or color), are painful, or are accompanied by other symptoms.

Will pet insurance cover skin issues?

This will depend on the specific type of pet insurance you have, and which policy you have selected. It is important to note that pet insurance will generally not cover skin issues if they are considered a pre-existing condition. This can be a complicating factor as skin issues are often a lifelong issue for many pets.

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