Looking after your dog's skin

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It’s the first line of defence for our dogs so look after it carefully, advises Dr Jacqueline Boyd.

Your dog’s skin is an amazing feat of biology.

In fact, did you know that your dog’s skin is his largest organ? Skin forms a first line of defence for our dogs,  by providing protection from injury, disease, and ultraviolet (UV) light.
It also helps to limit the impact of weather and environmental extremes on our dogs, minimises their risk of dehydration, allows them to sense the environment, and is critical in helping to regulate our dogs’ body temperatures. Let’s get under our dogs’ skin and find out more.

Check your dog’s coat and skin regularly.

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The science of skin

Skin is made up of different layers. The skin changes in form and texture over a dog’s body surface — think about the differences between their body, lips, paw pads, and ears for example. The amount and type of hair growing from their skin differs too; some dogs are even hairless or have restricted areas of hair growth like the Chinese Crested breed.

At the surface

The top layer of skin is called the epidermis. The top layer of the epidermis consists of cells rich in keratin, a type of protein that is strong and fibrous. Nails, hooves, and horns are all rich in keratin too. The surface cells of the epidermis are shed almost continually, so the skin is in a state of constant growth and renewal.
At the bottom of the epidermis is the basal layer and this is where new epidermal cells start growing and move towards the skin surface, almost like a conveyer belt. The epidermis has no blood vessels but does contain specialised immune system cells that are a critical first-defence mechanism against possible invaders. However, these cells can sometimes become overstimulated, resulting in irritation and itching — a common sign of allergies and  other skin problems.
Under the skin
Below the epidermis is the dermis, the region making up most of the skin’s thickness. In the dermis are the hair follicles, receptors that detect touch, pain, and temperature, as well as various glands and blood vessels. Hair grows out of the dermis, and this is why skin and coat health are so closely linked. The dermis also contains some sweat glands, but these are few compared to other species like horses, and dogs have a very limited ability to cool through sweating. Other glands are responsible for the production of various secretions to maintain the overall health of the skin.
The hypodermis is found below the dermis. It is mostly a layer of fat that creates a protective, shock-absorbing, and insulating layer for dogs.

A healthy skin will be soft and pliable to the touch.

Healthy skin, healthy dog

The health of a dog’s skin and coat is often a direct reflection of their overall health and welfare. A healthy skin is free from sores, wounds, or injury; skin should be soft and pliable to touch, without areas of thickening, hardening, or unusual hair loss. A shine on your dog’s coat (if he has the type of coat that can shine!) is always a good indication of skin health.

How do I know if my dog has a skin problem?

If your dog has an excessively dry, oily, coarse, or even a smelly and unkempt skin and coat condition, it may suggest there is a problem that needs attention. Excess scratching, hair loss, or changes to the colour or texture of the skin and coat, indicate that you should seek veterinary advice to determine possible causes. Even lumps and bumps in or on your dog’s skin should be checked, and if anything appears or changes rapidly, speak to your vet for guidance.

Common skin problems

Because skin is at the body surface, it has to deal with lots of challenges. Common skin problems experienced by dogs are often caused by parasites such as fleas, mites, and ticks. These are small creatures that live on, or in, our dogs’ skin and can cause significant irritation, as well as potentially carrying other diseases that can make dogs ill. Ticks are common if your dog walks in countryside areas where there are sheep or deer, and are small spider-like creatures that embed their heads into a dog’s skin and feed. Unfortunately, ticks can spread Lyme disease, which can be quite nasty, so it is good practice to check your dog carefully and remove any ticks found using a specialised
tick-removing tool. Similarly, flea combs are a good way of removing fleas from your dog’s coat. Chemical treatments for skin parasites are also available and it is worth chatting to your vet about the best option for your dog.

Constant scratching could suggest a flea problem.

Itchy & scratchy

Allergies can also cause skin and coat problems; if your dog is persistently itchy or chews at his paws, he may have an allergy to something. Environmental causes of allergies are common, and many are seasonal, so dogs only react at certain times of the year; grass pollen is a common one in spring and summer. Diagnosing allergies can be tricky, and often need periods of eliminating certain substances to see if there is a change. It is definitely worth seeking professional help if you suspect your dog may have an allergy, as early management can reduce distress and potential skin damage.

If your dog walks in the countryside, particularly where there are sheep or deer, he may be more at risk of picking up ticks.

What can I do to help keep my dog's skin healthy?

Regularly grooming your dog is a good way to monitor skin and coat health, as well as helping to bond with your dog. You can quickly note any injuries or changes and seek further advice if needed. Bathing is an option and should be done as required; some dogs need bathing more often than others (hello, fox-poo rollers)! If your dog lives inside, frequent bathing should not be too much of a problem for coat condition, but do use a gentle shampoo that is designed for dog use.

Chewing at his paws could mean your dog has an allergy.

Can nutrition help my dog's skin and coat healthy?

A dog’s skin is always renewing itself, usually taking four to six weeks to replace all cells. This means that changes or treatments can take time for results to be seen. What we feed our dogs can help or hinder the process of skin renewal. If your dog is fed a nutritionally complete diet, then supplementation should not be needed. However, sometimes additional help is beneficial. A diet that doesn’t provide adequate levels of key nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, protein, zinc, vitamin E, and biotin, might result in poor skin and coat condition, so supplementation with such nutrients might be useful. Indeed, omega 3 supplements are an easy way to help support overall skin and coat health in your dog — feeding oily fish as an occasional treat, salmon oil supplementation, or some plant oils are good sources of these nutrients. Some herbs are thought to help support skin and coat health too by supplying essential micronutrients, although it is best to seek advice on how much to feed to your dog. It is important to get a proper diagnosis of any skin problems before any supplement use, so speak to your vet first.

The skin and coat of our dogs is the first thing we and others see. By promoting skin and coat health, we can help support our dogs’ overall health and well-being. Support from inside and out helps to keep our dogs shining.