When a dog has a brittle coat, you may want to investigate the issue. In healthy dogs, under normal circumstances, the skin should be moist and a bit oily, and the coat soft and shiny.
However, skin and coat issues in dogs are widespread. In fact, skin and coat issues are one of the top causes why dog parents seek veterinary help.
When the skin and coat health is compromised, the skin becomes dry and scaly, and the coat becomes rough and brittle. Interestingly, dark-coated dogs may even develop coat color changes. For example, black dogs may turn grayish.
In this article, we will discuss brittle coats in dogs – the potential causes, diagnosis, and treatments.
We will also emphasize the importance of contacting the vet as soon you notice coat quality changes because sometimes brittle coats can be a red flag for a significant health issue.
What is Brittle Coat in Dogs?
A brittle coat in dogs refers to the development of coarse or rough hairs with split ends. It can be caused by many issues varying from poor grooming to systemic and potentially life-threatening conditions.
It is worth mentioning that sometimes a brittle coat can be a normal occurrence. For example, dogs are likely to develop brittle coats during shedding season. Brittle coat is also common in intact female dogs when they are producing milk.
You do not have to be an experienced dog parent to notice brittle coat issues in your dog. More often than not the signs are quite obvious – just looking at the coat and touching it are enough.
Generally speaking, a healthy skin and coat can be described with the following adjectives: smooth, clean, lustrous, shiny, pliable and non-smelly (except for the normal “doggy” odor).
On the other hand, when describing an unhealthy skin and brittle coat, you will likely use the terms: broken, dry, coarse, dull, smelly, itchy, greasy, flaky and bumpy.
Signs of a Brittle Coat in Dogs
Brittle and dry skin and coats trigger a myriad of signs and symptoms, but these are the most common.
Before describing the excessive shedding, we must note that a certain level of shedding is normal. Dogs normally shed twice per year when the seasons change (spring and fall).
However, the shedding is labeled as excessive, in the following situations:
- Persists for a particularly long period
- There are clumps of hair scattered around the house
- Bald patches start appearing on your dog.
The healthy coat is shiny and lustrous. Dulling of the coat is usually associated with nutritional deficiencies (usually essential fatty acids) and inadequate grooming habits (too frequent, not frequent enough, human shampoos).
Even healthy dogs have that particular (not very pleasant but not repellent) “doggy” smell. However, dogs with skin and coat issues can develop a repugnant odor.
In such cases, frequent bathing can make things even worse. Instead of managing the smell, you need to focus on eliminating the underlying cause.
Causes of a Brittle Coat in Dogs
As mentioned, there are many reasons for brittle coat in dogs. For better illustration, they can be classified as normal (physiological) and abnormal (pathological).
The abnormal or pathological causes of brittle coat are classified in two additional groups – skin issues and systemic issues.
Normal, Physiological Causes of a Brittle Coat in Dogs
These are the rather normal causes of brittle coats in dogs (all dogs go through these, although it may be more pronounced in some dogs than others.)
Shedding is a normal process that occurs because of the hair’s predetermined life cycle. All hairs grow until reaching their full length then pause and finally fall.
Shedding occurs in all dogs. However, in some dogs it is more and in some it is less pronounced.
During shedding seasons, it is normal for the hairs to become dull and brittle. This quality decline is temporary and will pass as soon as the new hair grows.
Lactating dogs are also likely to have brittle coat and increased hair falling. This is because lactating dogs spend all nutrients on the production of milk thus leaving the skin and coat without proper nutrition.
Brittle Coat and Skin Health Issues
The skin and coat health are mutually linked. If the skin suffers certain damage the hair quality will soon decline too.
All external parasites have the power to cause brittle coats in dogs. Common external parasite infestations include fleas, ticks, lice, and mange.
These pesky little creatures are particularly dangerous because, in addition to their ability to compromise the skin and coat health, they can transmit some potentially life-threatening blood-borne infectious diseases.
Allergies in humans usually manifest with sneezing, watery eyes, and runny nose. However, dogs are a bit different – in dogs, most allergies manifest with excessive skin itchiness.
Over time, as the itchiness progresses and the dog keeps scratching, it is very likely to trigger severe skin irritations and secondary infections. As a result, the coat becomes dull and brittle.
Bacterial skin infections
Dogs are particularly prone to bacterial skin infections. Some bacterial infections are primary while others are secondary to other skin issues accompanied by excessive scratching.
Bacterial skin infections progress quickly and can be challenging when it comes to proper management. If left untreated, all bacterial infections can cause a brittle coat.
Certain dog breeds are predisposed to some forms of bacterial skin infections. For example, Golden and Labrador Retrievers are prone to developing hot spots.
Brittle Coat and Systemic Health Issues
When the dog’s overall health is compromised, the skin and coat are likely to endure quality declines. There are many reasons why seemingly non-related, systemic health conditions affect the skin and coat.
First of all, the skin is the largest organ in the body. Consequently, it requires substantial amounts of nutrients to maintain health and quality.
Secondly, when there is a health concern, the body focuses on protecting the vital organs – heart, brain, lungs while neglecting the less important – skin and coat.
Finally, if the nutrient resources are scarce, the body will redirect to where they are needed, depriving the non-vital organs (coat and skin) of nutrients.
When it comes to nutritional deficiencies it is not just the amount of food that matters, but also its nutritional value.
Many dog food manufacturers claim to use complete and nutritionally balanced formulas while lacking essential ingredients.
Dogs with Cushing’s disease (increased production of adrenal gland hormones) develop a unique clinical manifestation that often includes blackening of the skin and lowered coat quality.
Dogs with hypothyroidism (abnormally low production of thyroid hormones) show an array of clinical signs and symptoms including skin issues, and low quality, brittle coats. Here is a read: skin issues in dogs with low thyroid levels.
Dogs with diabetes experience unusual skin thinning. When the skin becomes too thin, the hair follicles damage and eventually this leads to increased hair loss, formation of bald patches, and decreased quality of the remaining hair.
This may sound unusual, but dogs with arthritis are prone to developing brittle coats. Namely, arthritis causes a low-grade, but continuous pain and the pain can prevent the dog from grooming itself.
Dogs with intestinal parasites are prone to eye infections and brittle coat development.
This is because the nutrients the dog receives via its food are not utilized by the dog’s body. Instead of feeding itself when a dog has worms it is actually feeding the worms.
How to Manage a Dog's Brittle Coat
Some causes of brittle coat cannot be prevented or predicted. However, promoting healthy skin and coat is of paramount importance.
As mentioned, the skin is the largest organ thus requiring significant nutrient amounts to stay healthy. Dogs fed nutritionally rich and well-balanced foods are less likely to develop skin and coat problems than dogs fed un-supplemented homemade diets and cheap commercially available kibble.
The number one skin and coat health supplement for dogs are the omega 3 fatty acids. They promote silky coats and prevent skin drying and flaking. When it comes to dogs, the best source of omega 3 fatty acids is fish oil.
Because of the adequate omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids ratio, it is best advised to use fish oils sourced from wild-caught and cold-water fish (salmon or mackerel).
To promote skin and coat health, you can also supplement your dog with zinc and vitamin E because these nutrients increase the omega 3 fatty acids availability.
Vitamin C and B-complex vitamins act as powerful antioxidants protecting the skin from free radicals. When used together, they enhance the skin immune function and promote collagen synthesis.
Regular and Proper Grooming
Dogs need regular grooming sessions. What the term regular means depends on the breed – some dog breeds need more frequent grooming than others.
It should be well-noted that grooming is an umbrella term including several activities. As far the coat quality is concerned, brushing and bathing are the most important.
Regular brushing will remove the dead hairs and massage the skin thus promoting blood flow and new hair growth.
Bathing will keep the coat clean and fresh. It is vital to choose the right grooming products as human shampoos and conditioners can damage the dog’s sensitive skin and coat.
Based on the breed, it might be helpful to use a de-shedding tool or have your dog regularly clipped, hand-stripped, or trimmed.