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Is your dog prone to skin issues? Does it have frequent episodes of itchiness and dandruff formation? And does your dog suddenly smell weird or even repulsive? 

If you answered yes, chances are your dog has seborrhea – a specific and rather challenging form of skin inflammation.

In this article, we will discuss what seborrhea is and what causes dogs with this condition to have oily and smelly skin. We will also describe its typical smell and then go into depth on how the condition is diagnosed and treated at the vet's office.

A Closer Insight into Seborrhea

Seborrhea (also known as seborrheic dermatitis) is a specific skin inflammation in which the sebaceous glands overproduce sebum (an oily, waxy substance), resulting in scaling, flakiness, itchiness, and reddening of the skin.

However, seborrhea issues include one more aspect – cornification disorder affecting the skin's outer layer, the hair follicles, and sometimes the nails. Due to the abnormal keratinization, the skin cells are constantly shed.

The combination of the two seborrhea components alters the skin's normal barrier making it an excellent breeding ground for bacteria.

 Therefore, dogs with seborrhea are at a higher than average risk of developing secondary bacterial and yeast infections, complicating an already difficult situation.

Interestingly, seborrhea has a specific spreading pattern, and it usually affects the face, back, and flanks. The condition is much worse in the skin folds of the mentioned areas.

The Different Types of Seborrhea 

Based on which seborrheic component is dominant – the sebum production or keratinization, there are basically two different types of seborrhea: 

  • Dry seborrhea, also known as seborrhea sicca
  • Oily seborrhea, also known as seborrhea oleosa

This classification is theoretical as, in practice, most dogs diagnosed with seborrhea develop a combination of the two types with signs of both dry and oily dermatitis. 

This mixed type of seborrhea makes both the clinical manifestation and the treatment more complex.

Based on causes, there are also two different forms of seborrhea:

  •  Primary or hereditary seborrhea
  • Secondary or acquired seborrhea

Primary Seborrhea in Dogs 

Primary seborrhea is a genetic condition widespread among several dog breeds such as: cocker spaniels, West Highland terriers, basset hounds, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Shar-Pei, Doberman pinchers, English springer spaniels, German shepherds and dachshunds.

For a dog to be born with primary seborrhea, both parents need to be affected by the condition. After birth, the seborrheic disorders are not visible. Usually, the first clinical signs become apparent after the age of two.

Secondary Seborrhea in Dogs 

On the other hand, secondary seborrhea can occur in any dog regardless of breed and age. Secondary seborrhea is caused by an underlying issue disrupting normal skin function. Common causes of secondary seborrhea in dogs are:

  • Heavy infestations with external parasites (fleas and mites)
  • Hormonal imbalances (hypothyroidism and Cushing's disease)
  •  Food and environmental allergies (atopic dermatitis)
  •  Recurrent bacterial infections
  • Recurrent fungal infections
  • Poor dietary choices and nutritional deficiencies
  • Infestations with internal parasites
  • Inability to groom due to musculoskeletal issues or obesity
  • Rapid changes in the ambient temperature and/or humidity
  • Prolonged or frequent exposure to stress

Is Dog Seborrhea Contagious?

As a skin inflammation, seborrheic dermatitis is not a contagious condition on its own. However, some of the underlying causes of secondary seborrhea can be transmitted from one dog to another.

For example, fleas and intestinal parasites are contagious, meaning they can be transmitted from one dog to another and even to humans.

 Nevertheless, the transmission of fleas from a seborrheic dog to a healthy dog does not necessarily mean the other dog will develop seborrhea.

Dogs with seborrhea are itchy and smelly

Dogs with seborrhea are itchy and smelly

Signs of Seborrhea in Dogs 

Simply put, the two telltale signs of seborrheic dermatitis are stinky and itchy skin. To be more precise, here is a shortlist of all signs and symptoms:

  • Dry and excessively flaky skin covered with dandruff
  • Presence of thick, greasy, repulsive smelling, and almost wax-like oil
  • Development of pimples, bumps, and other skin lesions
  • Itchiness accompanied by scratching, licking, and biting
  • Bleeding, crusting, hair loss, and other self-inflicted sores
  •  Skin color changes varying from red to dark or even black
  •  Signs of secondary bacterial or fungal infections
  • Ear inflammation. Dogs with seborrhea are very likely to present signs of otitis – ear inflammation. The ears are red, itchy, and covered with discharge. Although otitis can accompany both seborrhea types, it is usually more common in dogs with oily seborrheic dermatitis.

In dogs with secondary seborrhea, there will be additional signs and symptoms arising from the initial cause. Those are less specific but usually can be seen much before the actual skin issues begin. Common signs indicating your dog has an underlying issue include:

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  •  Appetite changes
  • Weight loss or gain
  •  Increased or decreased thirst
  •  Frequent urination
  •  Lethargy
  •  Disinterest in everyday activities
  • Heat-seeking behavior
  • Heat abnormalities in intact females.

What Does Seborrhea Smell Like on Dogs?

As mentioned, the most popular red flag indicating seborrhea is stinky skin. The truth is stinky is generally an understatement. 

Dogs with seborrhea have a disgusting and repulsive foul-like smell. Simply put, it is hard to stand next to a dog with more advanced seborrhea.

Diagnosis of Seborrhea in Dogs 

For an experienced vet, the characteristic smell of the skin can be enough to set the suspicion for seborrhea. However, when a dog presents with stinky skin, the veterinarian must follow the basic protocol and start by taking the dog's history and performing a complete body examination.

The vet is likely to ask questions like:

  • When did you first notice skin changes in your dog
  • Are the skin lesions always as intense, or do they change
  • Have you tried to self-treat at home
  • And if so, what did you use, and was there an improvement
  • Does your dog have any chronic condition
  • Is your dog currently on long term medications
  • What do you use against external and internal parasites
  • Is your dog up-to-date on such preventives?

Once the vet gathers the basic information based on your answers and initial findings from the physical examination, he/she will proceed with more specific tests. Generally speaking, the vet will probably order the following exams:

  • Complete blood count to evaluate the overall health
  • Biochemistry blood panels and blood sugar levels
  • Chemistry panels to test the kidney, pancreas, and liver function
  • Urinalysis
  • Skin scraping and hair plucking to rule out external parasites
  • Skin cytology and biopsy to look for pathogens and abnormal cells
  • Fecal exam to check for intestinal worms
  • Fungal and bacterial cultures
  • Thyroid tests to examine the thyroid gland function and rule out hypothyroidism
  • Cortisol test to assess the adrenal glands and rule out Cushing's disease.

If the vet determines the presence of an underlying cause, the diagnosis will be secondary or acquired seborrheic dermatitis. 

On the other hand, diagnosing primary seborrhea is more challenging. Namely, to diagnose primary or hereditary seborrheic dermatitis, the vet will have to rule out all possible underlying conditions and consider the dog's breed.

Treatment Options For Seborrhea in Dogs

The treatment strategy for dogs with seborrhea depends on the type of seborrhea. Generally speaking, the first objective would be to address the underlying issue causing the seborrhea problem.

Dogs with primary and non-treatable seborrhea need to be managed. By managed, we mean regularly bathed with special shampoos that will correct the skin imbalance and offer temporary relief.

Because of the mixed nature of seborrhea, usually, you will have to use two or more different shampoos or topical products. For example, zinc-based shampoos help manage the excess oiliness of the skin, while oatmeal-based shampoos relieve the itchiness.

Finally, dogs with seborrhea benefit from omega-3 supplementation. This fatty acid boosts overall skin health and may lead to faster and better improvement in seborrheic dogs. This might be due to omega-3's natural anti-inflammatory properties.

The exact omega-3 dosing frequency and supplementation form should be discussed with your vet. Generally speaking, the best source of fatty acids is fish oil from wild-caught, cold-water fish like salmon or mackerel.

Prognosis for Dogs With Seborrhea

The prognosis for dogs with seborrhea depends on various factors. The prognosis is good for dogs with primary seborrhea as long as efficient management approaches are regularly practiced.

For dogs with secondary seborrhea, the prognosis varies from guarded to excellent. Namely, if the underlying cause is identified and resolved, the prognosis will be excellent.

 On the other hand, if the underlying condition cannot be identified or is non-treatable, the prognosis will be guarded as the dog will depend on regular baths, topicals, and medication for symptom management.

Cost of Treating Dogs With Seborrhea 

The exact cost of managing seborrhea depends on the condition's advancement, the presence of an underlying cause, and the dog's size. Namely, based on where you live, visiting a dermatologist for a definitive diagnosis can cost up to $1500.

If your dog turns out to have an underlying issue, the expenses for managing or treating the primary disease can be much more than the initial specialist diagnosis.

For dogs with primary seborrhea, the management costs will depend on the dog's size as obviously, you will need more significant amounts of shampoos for larger dogs.

 The monthly expenses for shampoos and topicals are lower, but they will quickly add up considering the long-lasting nature of the condition.

Concluding Thoughts

Although not life-threatening, seborrhea is an uncomfortable and challenging condition. Some of the clinical signs and symptoms are unique, while others do not directly point to seborrheic dermatitis.

To ensure the best outcome, it is critical to seek veterinary attention as soon as you notice something wrong is going on with your dog.

 It is also important to practice responsible breeding and not include dogs with primary seborrhea in breeding programs to prevent this condition. 

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