Pet Skin Conditions

Skin Irritations Most Common in Dogs

Golden retriever scratching

Cats Are Also Impacted

You love having your dog sleep at the foot of your bed, snoozing away in comfort. But there haven’t been many silent nights, as your dog seems to pick this time to bite, scratch and lick himself.

It’s often more than just an annoyance. It could be atopic dermatitis.

Itching to Get to the Vet

Atopic dermatitis and pyoderma—skin conditions most commonly affecting dogs—are two of the top reasons pets visited vets. In fact, more than 90,000 claims for skin conditions were filed by VPI Pet Insurance policyholders in 2009.

Skin conditions affect cats, too: atopic dermatitis was the fifth most common reason VPI policyholders brought their cats to the veterinarian last year.

What is Atopic Dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is an allergic skin disease caused by an immunological hypersensitivity to common environmental substances, such as pollen, dust mites or mold.

The condition can also lead to others: atopic dermatitis is the No. 1 underlying cause of ear infections, according to the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP). Perhaps not coincidentally, ear infections are also the No. 1 reason VPI policyholders take their dogs to veterinarians.

Signs of Atopic Dermatitis

  • The dog incessantly bites, licks and scratches specific areas of its body, causing irritation of the skin.
  • The corners of your dog’s mouth, chin, groin, armpits or between the toes can be stained red-brown from saliva.
  • Black mottling, called hyperpigmentation, is seen on formerly pink skin after the red, irritated skin has gone.

Like humans, dogs can get itchy skin through contact with pollen, grass or even carpet. Certain foods can also cause the reaction.

Treating Dermatitis

While there is no cure for atopic dermatitis, it can be controlled.

  • Steroids can provide short-term relief but have side affects.
  • Antihistamines can also be effective in controlling the itch.
  • Oral medication, such as ATOPICA, targets the immune cells associated with the allergic reaction.
  • Fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and can be a helpful supplement when used in conjunction with other treatments.
  • Immunotherapy is a treatment in which the dog receives a series of shots to desensitize it to a known allergen.
  • Shampoos, rinses and topical treatments can provide immediate relief but are not effective long term.
Veterinarian examines a beagle

Pyoderma: Another Common Itch

Pyoderma—or “hot spots”—is a bacterial infection of the skin most often caused by an allergic reaction. Just like humans, dogs can get itchy skin through contact with pollen, grass or even carpet. Certain foods can also cause the reaction.

Pyoderma is often seen in dogs allergic to fleabites. The skin will become very itchy, and the dog will scratch, lick and bite, causing inflammation and infection.

What Does Pyoderma Look Like?

Signs of pyoderma include red and inflamed skin, commonly called “hot spots.” Look for a rash or lesions, which may look like small bumps or raised, round scabs. Pus-filled or blood-filled blisters may also be evident, along with crusting or scaling with a loss of hair.

Pyoderma most commonly appears inside the ears, in the groin area, in between toes and along the middle of the back.

Acne: Not Just For Teenagers

Cats love to rub their chins along different surfaces, releasing oil from their sebaceous glands. If these glands become clogged, acne appears on the cat’s chin or lips. These blackheads, which make your cat’s chin appear dirty, can become swollen and infected.

Acne is commonly seen on dogs’ chins, too. Preventing and treating acne is simple, albeit requiring some supervision and patience.

Possible Causes of Pet Acne

  • Stress
  • Use of plastic food bowls. Plastic is porous and traps bacteria that can be transferred to your cat. Also, some cats are hypersensitive to plastic. Use steel, glass or porcelain dishes instead.
  • Poor grooming habits
  • Overactive sebaceous glands
  • Food allergies

Treating Pet Acne

Ask your veterinarian for the best remedy for your pet. Keeping the infected area clean can help with recurrence. Some treatments include:

  • For mild cases, cleansing with antibiotic soap, hydrogen peroxide, iodine or Epsom salts. Your veterinarian might recommend topical Vitamin A or using a cleanser containing benzoyl peroxide.
  • For more severe cases, antibiotics may be needed to treat infection, or a steroid used to reduce severe inflammation. Clipping the fur around the chin—by your veterinarian—helps enable deep cleaning.
  • Never treat your pets with acne medications made for humans.

Other Feline Skin Conditions

Cellulitis is a widespread infection of the tissues of the skin. It is caused by an untreated puncture wound, usually as the result of a fight. It causes swelling and is most commonly found on the foot, leg or tail. It is usually treated with an antibiotic shot and then through a course of oral antibiotics.

Allergic dermatitis usually is caused by a reaction to fleabites. Your cat will bite and scratch incessantly, possibly resulting in hair loss. Prevent flea infestations by using a flea control product recommended by your veterinarian.

Scratching and excessive licking can also be the primary sign that your cat may have atopic dermatitis. It is unclear whether it is genetic, as it is in dogs.

Cats also can have pyoderma. The most common symptom is scaling, usually on the lower back. Recurrent, non-healing deep pyoderma in cats can be the result of a systemic issue, such feline immunodeficiency virus or feline leukemia virus.

Ask Your Veterinarian

The best thing you can do for your pet is to contact your veterinarian if you suspect a skin issue. Your veterinarian can help you determine whether your dog or cat has a skin condition and the best treatment for it.


If you liked this story, you may enjoy reading more about pet skin allergies.


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