If your dog has scaly skin, it's important that you see your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment. Scaly skin in dogs can be due to a variety of primary skin conditions and sometimes even non-skin related conditions, and therefore, it's important to individualize the exact underlying cause so to address it accordingly. Sometimes, it might not be easy to find the exact underlying cause despite multiple vet visits and treatment trials. Challenging cases should be referred to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist.
My Dog Has Scaly Skin
If your dog has scaly skin, it will look like the skin has gotten thicker, and is getting ready to peel and flake off, turning white, yellow, light brown, or even wax colored, like a scab.
Like dry skin, you will likely see small flakes of skin, like dandruff. Scaly skin in dogs is usually located in just a few localized, specific areas, but if you see these symptoms everywhere on your dog’s body, please check for scabies/mange.
If your dog is able to lick or itch the spot, the hair will be thinner from the agitation, which makes the spot easier for you to see.
You might also see cracking skin, greasy skin, or a foul smell around the area. Sometimes the itching and licking may produce open sores, which can become infected with pus.
Generally, scaly skin in dogs is classified into two categories: seborrhea sicca or seborrhea oleosa. Seborrhea is a medical term used to depict an abnormal increase in the production of skin cells (keratinocytes). In seborrhea sicca the dog develops loose white dry scales. The dog's coat is typically dull and dry. In seborrhea oleosa instead, the dog develops greasy, yellow brown scales. The dog's coat is typically oily and has a rancid fat odor.
Causes of Scaly Skin in Dogs
If your dog has scaly skin, consider that scaly skin in dogs is only a symptom of a deeper issue, and it’s one of those symptoms that can have a wide range of issues. Here are some causes of scaly skin ranging from most to least common:
Allergies, such as a food allergy, contact allergies, seasonal allergy, or allergies as a result of the bite of an insect (as it happens often with flea allergies) are some common culprits. Skin infections (bacterial or fungal), inflammation, or skin parasites such as cheyletiellosis or mange are also not uncommon.
Nutrition deficiencies, especially vitamin A, fatty acid and zinc and other nutrition related issues, such as poor-grade dog food, malnutrition, food pickiness, or chronic under-feeding may be underlying causes of scaly skin in dogs.
If your dog has scaly skin, consider as well age-related body and immune system slowness as well as congenital birth defects around skin health and functions, such as shedding. Congenital birth defects causing scaly skin may include color dilution alopecia, follicular dystrophy, icthyosis, lichenoid psoriasiform dermatosis, sebaceous adenitis, Schnauzer comedo syndrome, epidermal dysplasia and primary idiopathic seborrhea. Such congenital defects typically show up once the dog is around 6 months to 3 years of age.
Other possible causes include immune system diseases or skin scaling diseases that cause poor hair follicle health, skin development, or the body attacking its own skin (as seen with pemphigus foliaceous), tumors (mycosis fungoides or the cutaneous form of lymphoma), dog diabetes and blood circulation issues causing poor skin health. Endocrine causing scaling may be induced by hormone-based issues such as hypothyroidism, cushing disease and sex hormone dermatosis.
Sometimes, scaling may be seen with bacterial skin infection associated with with epidermal collarettes as the epidermal collarettes break off and try to heal causing scaling.
Because scaly skin is just a symptom, there can be multiple things at the same time that cause this skin reaction. Scaly skin usually can’t be diagnosed just by the owner, so when you go to the vet, you want to bring your pet’s health history, so the veterinarian has all of the information they need to find out what is wrong.
At the Vet's Office
Because scaly skin in dogs is just a symptom of a bigger issue that needs to be addressed, treatment can vary widely depending on what is wrong. Your vet will need to see the problem in its entirety to properly diagnose your dog, so you shouldn’t treat your dog until after your appointment, where your vet will have a treatment plan ready for you.
A vet will examine your dog and determine the underlying issue, and come up with a recovery plan specific to your dog’s situation. Often, a skin scrape is a good starting point. The skin scrape is painless and can provide hints to potential causes and your vet can come up with a solution by looking at cells under a microscope.
The solution will address the reason that the scaly skin patches are occurring, as well as address the immediate skin symptoms and discomfort. This plan will almost always contain a special medicated shampoo that isn’t available over the counter, and perhaps a topical cream with medication for your pet’s specific condition.
In the case of food allergies, your vet will help you determine what the allergen might be, and show you how to rule out food allergens. This is typically a long process mostly done at home with guesswork, research, and very strict feeding. If it is a seasonal allergy, insect allergy, parasite allergy, or environmental allergy, your vet will work with you to determine some possible causes and show you how to determine what the specific allergen is and control for it.
If your dog has a nutritional deficiency, your vet will talk with you about what your dog’s current diet looks like, the needs of your particular dog’s breed, and help you find a nutrition plan that works best for you and your dog. Your dog may need retinol in the case of vitamin A responsive dermatosis, or zinc in the case of zinc responsive dermatosis.
For other medical causes of scaly skin, your vet will most likely commission some bloodwork to confirm a diagnosis before starting your pet on a treatment plan specifically tailored for your dog’s condition. Remember that not all dogs are alike - some dogs have specific requirements beyond what a general dog might need. This plan may also include vitamin supplements or suggestions for food enrichment.
What You Can Do at Home
If your dog has scaly skin, there are a few things that you can do at home to help with your dog's immediate discomfort of itchy, dry, and scaly skin. At home, you can do a tick and mite check, check if your dog food was a part of a bad or recalled batch and check the reputation and healthiness of your dog food for your particular dog breed.
You can also bathe your dog in a shampoo for your dog’s specific symptoms. An oatmeal based bath shampoo made purposely for dogs can help relieve itching and restore natural skin moisture. Brushing your dog gently after a bath can help stimulate blood flow and healing. You can also apply a topical skin cream for itchy, dry skin. Many dogs benefit from fatty acid supplements that contain omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
You can also watch your dog to rule out options, such as seasonal allergies, or determine if they are allergic to the pet food that you are giving them. Monitor the wound site for any changes, and if your pet is scratching to the point of drawing blood, consider an e-collar to prevent further self-injury. Also take mental note if your pet is eating, drinking water, and eliminating on a regular basis.
Of course, these are just tips for temporary relief. Home treatment may prevent your dog from having the skin issue solved. If your dog has scaly skin, your best bet is to see your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment.