Seborrhea in Dogs

Peee-ewww! If this is your reaction when you are around your four-legged friend, or if he is super itchy, he might be suffering from a skin condition called seborrhea or seborrheic dermatitis. Seborrhea is common in both dogs and their owners, but for dogs the most common symptom is itchy, stinky skin.

There are two types of seborrhea: oily and dry. Many dogs have a combination of both. Seborrhea causes the skin to release a waxy, greasy substance that formulates in the ears and armpits and around the belly, elbows, and ankles. This greasy substance is very fatty and VERY smelly. It causes dogs to itch like crazy; often, the affected areas become crusty and bleed. Frequently, secondary infections can set in due to itching-induced open sores.

There are two causes of this greasy, stinky condition: genetics and unrelated underlying conditions.

Breeds most commonly affected with the genetic form of seborrhea are:

  • German shepherds
  • West Highland white terriers
  • Cocker spaniels
  • Basset hounds
  • Dachshunds
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Golden retrievers
  • Doberman pinschers
  • Shar-peis

Seborrhea can also be the result of an underlying cause or condition, rather than a problem with the skin itself.

This is often the case when older dogs develop seborrhea; some of the causes or conditions include:

  • Allergies
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Dietary deficiencies
  • Absorption disorders
  • Parasites
  • Autoimmune disorders

Aside from a nasty, foul odor, symptoms of seborrhea may include a greasy, oily coat; scaly skin; and dandruff- like flakes in the fur.

Your veterinarian will conduct a thorough history and physical exam of your dog.

Other tests may include:

  • A skin scraping to rule out parasites
  • Fungal and bacterial cultures
  • A fecal exam to rule out fecal parasites
  • Chemistry tests to evaluate kidney, liver, and pancreatic function as well as sugar levels
  • A complete blood count, chemistry panel, urinalysis, and thyroid tests to look for evidence of underlying disease, such as hypothyroidism
  • Cortisol tests to rule out Cushing’s syndrome, a common hormonal disorder in older dogs that is often accompanied by skin problems

Treating seborrhea depends on the cause. If it is a result of an underlying condition, treating that condition will help to control it. If the cause is genetic, there is no cure but there are ways to control the seborrhea. These may include the use of shampoos and conditioners, fatty acids and vitamin/mineral supplements, and other medications, such as antibiotics, to treat any secondary infections.

If you suspect your pooch has seborrhea, contact your veterinarian for more information.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

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Dog Skin & Coat Disorders

Skin and haircoat diseases in dogs can cause hair loss, scratching, and excessive licking, and can be the result of many disease processes. Learn more about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of these diseases.

Many puppies seem to have more dandruff or dry, flaky skin than would be expected. This is quite normal in puppies and is especially noted in those with dark coat colors. This is simply because the dander becomes quite visible against the dark hair. In most puppies, especially those less than four months of age, the normal lubricating glands (sebaceous glands) of the skin tend to be underactive. As these glands mature their lubrication output increases to match the needs of the coat. Factors such as dry air (low humidity) will also contribute to dander production. Dander is dry, dead skin that in the absence of moisture will flake away and be visible as white flakes. This 'flaking' may also be itchy.

The only symptoms are the white skin flakes most pronounced about the neck, back and rump areas. The flaking process may create a mild itching much like humans experience from dry, flaky skin. There are no real risks other than hair loss. This, however, is rare. Severe flakiness or hair loss should not be considered normal dandruff production and an examination of the skin should be done. If the itching is intense, suspect other factors such as fleas, lice or mange mites. Fatty acid supplements such as Drs. Foster & Smith Vitacaps or Vitacoat work well at supplying needed oils for the hair coat. Oatmeal shampoos followed by a moisturizing rinse will help keep the oils in, cleanse the skin and remove the dander.


Sebborheic skin exudes a waxy, greasy substance and occasionally you may see comedones (blackheads). Often, dogs have an unpleasant smell due to this excessive production of fatty acids which gives a characteristic odour of "wet dog".

With dry seborrhea, dandruff is more frequent and a lack of sebum irritates the skin. Skin darkening (hyperpigmentation) and hair loss are also common.

The damage to the natural protective skin barrier creates a favourable place for bacterial or yeast infections and itching may appear too. The ears or the tail ('stud tail') are sometimes affected or it may be that only one part of the body is involved.

Stud tail is an overactive sebaceous gland with seborrhea symptoms limited to the upper part of the tail.

Treatment for Seborrhea in Dogs

There is no cure for primary seborrhea, but the condition can be managed with medicated baths using an anti-seborrheic shampoo. Vitamin A or retinoids may be used to support skin health and regeneration. Dogs with primary seborrhea will typically need treatment for life.

Treatment for secondary seborrhea is based on the underlying cause. In order to determine the appropriate treatments, your vet will need to first identify the underlying condition(s) that caused seborrhea.

Your veterinarian will perform skin tests like skin scrapes, cytology, biopsy, and/or culture to determine if an infection is present (bacterial, fungal/yeast, or parasitic). Blood tests may be necessary to look for endocrine problems that may have caused seborrhea. Your dog's treatment plan will focus on treating the underlying cause of seborrhea in addition to managing seborrhea itself.

Most dogs with secondary seborrhea will be treated with medicated baths and anti-seborrheic topical medications to improve the skin, but this will not fix the underlying cause of seborrhea.

Dogs with bacterial skin infections will need antibiotics for the infection. Antifungal medications are used for yeast or fungal infections. External parasites are treated with oral or topical formulas to kill the parasites. Treatment may last weeks to months depending on the severity of the skin condition.

If an endocrine condition like hypothyroidism, Cushing's disease, or Diabetes mellitus is found, your vet will work to treat the condition with the proper medications. It can take weeks to months for these conditions to be controlled and seborrhea to improve. Most endocrine conditions require lifelong treatment and management, including daily medications and regular vet visits for screening. If the endocrine condition is under control, seborrhea should not return (unless it has a different cause).

Dogs with allergies may need ongoing treatment for secondary infections and secondary seborrhea. Your veterinarian might refer you to a veterinary dermatologist for allergy testing and management. Dogs with severe allergies may need to be treated with allergy injections for a period of months to years. Allergies and secondary seborrhea may recur from time to time, especially with season changes.

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