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A Guide to Healthy Skin and Coats for Dogs

Has your doggo been clamoring for a fresh blowout at the salon? We know how terribly popular shampoo baths are among our furry companions. But while “look good, feel good” might not be quite the truism marketers would like you believe, dogs’ coat health is often a good indicator of their overall health. In fact, one of the main body systems that veterinarians assess to evaluate the comprehensive health of patients is the integumentary system, which includes skin, coat, and nails.

Dogs with a dry, flaky, or unkempt coat may be suffering from underlying conditions such as thyroid disease, hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing's disease), hormonal imbalances, renal or hepatic disease, nutritional disorders, ectoparasites, or allergies. Obesity and osteoarthritis may also play a role by inhibiting an animal’s ability to properly groom. If your dog’s skin or coat abnormalities are caused by an underlying medical condition, the health of their skin and the quality of their coat will often improve dramatically with treatment of the illness.

What do I need to know about my dog’s skin and coat?

Dogs are like us in that the skin and coat comprise their largest organ, accounting for 10-15% of their total body weight. The skin is composed of three layers, the details of which we’ll leave you to look up if you have a special interest in anatomy. The coat consists of thousands of hairs produced in hair follicles. Because hairs are under constant environmental stress, they are continuously shed and replaced. Seasonal shedding, which replaces the entire coat, is triggered by outdoor climate and duration of daylight.

Selective breeding has produced a variety of coat characteristics in dogs. Some long-haired breeds do not shed seasonally and therefore require regular trips to the groomer for a shampoo and basic cut. Breeds with both an outer coat of guard hairs and an insulating undercoat of fine hairs may require more extensive maintenance. These breeds often go through two heavy seasonal shedding cycles per year, once in late spring and again in late fall, during which much of the undercoat falls out in large clumps. Many short-haired breeds lack a distinctive undercoat and shed at low levels year-round.

How do the skin and coat affect my dog’s overall health?

The skin and coat have several basic functions:

  • Protection. They are barriers protecting your dog from contaminants and environmental stressors.
  • Immunity. The skin shields the body from pathogens.
  • Thermoregulation. A healthy coat serves as an insulating layer and regulates body temperature by moving hair follicles. Hairs can be brought together to conserve heat or separated to permit airflow.
  • Hydration. The skin retains water. Dogs do not have sweat glands, and excess water loss through the skin poses a health risk.
  • Nutrient Storage. The skin also serves as a storage unit for several nutrients including proteins, amino acids, collagen, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.

How can I keep my dog’s skin and coat healthy?

Diet, diet, diet! A properly balanced diet of fats (including omega-3 fatty acids), digestible proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals plays an essential role in maintaining skin and coat health. An ideal diet should be adjusted to suit your dog’s stage of life, state of health, and daily energy requirements.

Recent research has shown that adding omega-3 fatty acids, linoleic acid, and zinc in combination can improve coat gloss and reduce dander.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids protect the skin and coat and promote a lustrous glow. Eicosapentaenoic acid in particular reduces inflammation. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish oil, algal oil, and flaxseed.
  • Linoleic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid found in corn, soy, flaxseed, and many nuts. Dandruff, dry skin, thin or discolored, increased shedding, and poor healing are all associated with low linoleic acid levels in the skin and diet.
  • Zinc reduces water loss through the skin. It is especially important because of high cellular turnover rate caused by constant shedding. Pets with a zinc deficiency suffer from hair loss, skin infections, and a dull appearance.
  • Biotin and B vitamins play important roles as cofactors in many of the body’s metabolic processes, including fat metabolism. This is important in the skin because biotin and B vitamins are involved in aiding linoleic acid function in the epidermis and dermis.

What role does grooming play in the appearance of my pet’s skin and coat?

All dogs benefit from regular grooming to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells, to keep the coat free of dirt, debris, and parasites, and to distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts. Dogs with long, silky, or curly coats require daily brushing to keep their hair from becoming tangled or matted, especially around the ears, in the armpits, in the groin, and along the backs of the legs. Dogs with short coats may require less frequent brushing. However, daily brushing of any dog that sheds will cut down dramatically on the amount of loose hair and dander floating around your home.

Regardless of your dog’s coat type, you should inspect their coat regularly to ensure that no matts have developed. Following a romp outdoors, it’s always a good idea to search for burrs, twigs, and other foreign objects that may have become trapped in the coat and could potentially cause a secondary skin infection.

Regularly checking your dog’s coat and skin improves your chances of detecting any unusual lumps or bumps, ectoparasites such as fleas and ticks, or areas of sensitivity.

How often should I bathe my dog?

This depends on your dog’s type of coat, age, lifestyle, and overall health. Aside from puppies not yet house-trained, most dogs require bathing on an occasional basis when the coat becomes dirty or develops that characteristic doggy odor. Non-shedding breeds with no underlying medical condition typically benefit from a bath every four to eight weeks. Dogs with a heavy undercoat should receive a bath in the spring or fall during seasonal shedding. Some dogs with an underlying skin disease may benefit from more frequent bathing or from the use of a medicated shampoo or topical preparation as directed by your veterinarian.

You might also consider using waterless shampoo products or dog-friendly wipes for cleaning between baths. Wipes are good for cleaning paws and bums, and especially good for cleaning between the folds of our wrinkly-faced companions. (We’re looking at you, Frenchies!)

Dogs should be bathed only with a shampoo formulated for canine use. Human and canine skin differs not only in obvious respects, but also in terms of physiologic skin pH. Human skin is acidic with a pH below 5, whereas canine skin has a pH close to 7, which is neutral. Shampoos designed for human skin, including baby shampoos, will irritate your dog’s skin. For routine bathing, a moisturizing, hypoallergenic shampoo free from perfumes and fragrances is the best choice. Colloidal oatmeal-based shampoos are another great choice for most healthy pups. For optimal results, a conditioning product may also be applied afterward to restore moisture and minimize the development of dandruff following the bath.

For non-infected skin, our doctors recommend CeraVe moisturizing lotion to aid in repairing the skin’s natural barrier.

Preserving a healthy skin barrier is crucial to the therapy and long-term maintenance of many of our patients suffering from atopic dermatitis or environmental allergies. There are several other multimodal therapy measures such as skin support diets, weekly medicated baths, application of topical formulations (gosh, do we love mousse preparations), or consideration of allergy testing and desensitization to identify and treat the cause of the allergies. However, allergies open up a whole new can of worms. We will be opening that can of worms in a separate post soon.  

Contributors: Tammy Hunter, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH