A-Z of dog wellbeing: Coat and skin

Komondor dog

Your dog’s general coat appearance is a good indicator of their general health. A healthy coat should be shiny and smooth, not brittle or coarse, and healthy skin should be supple and clear, not greasy, flaky or bumpy.   What options are there to help improve your dog’s coat?

Why is the coat and skin so important?

The skin is the largest organ of your dog’s body and it does an amazing job:

  • It provides a waterproof barrier, protecting their inner organs from the elements and variations in temperature, and helps provide protection from bacteria, viruses, infection and other unwanted substances.
  • It regulates their body temperature and peripheral circulation so it’s full of blood vessels.
  • It contains an extensive network of nerve cells that detect and relay changes in the environment, with separate receptors for heat, cold, pressure, pain and contact.

Because they’re also the first to encounter damage, the outer layer of skin cells are constantly renewing themselves, with dead skin cells falling off by the tens of thousands each minute. The vast majority of the dust in your house is actually dead skin cells!

This skin is almost completely covered with hair (unless you’re a Mexican Hairless dog!) which is either being shed and re-grown regularly or, is growing constantly in the non-shedding breeds (including the increasingly popular Labradoodle, or the Komondor pictured here) and all this activity uses up to 30% of the protein your dog consumes goes into maintaining their skin and coat every day.

What can affect coat condition?

Some of the problems you might see with your dog’s skin are itching, flaking, dandruff, scaling (big dandruff), shedding (all over or in bald patches), scabs, redness (a sign of inflammation), infection or odour. These can be caused by one or more factors including:

Nutrition is one of the key factors for a shiny, healthy coat. Subtle changes in its nutrient supply can have a marked effect on skin and coat condition and a dog whose diet is inadequate to meet its needs will have a dull, dry hair coat and will often shed excessively.   Dogs need a biologically appropriate diet that features a high-quality protein, good fats, and some veggies.  They aren’t designed to eat rice or grains which can make up around 50% of many big-brand dog foods  – rice, corn and grains like wheat are just fillers to make the product cheaper to produce, but offer no nutritional value and can cause irritation to the gut and skin.

Sensitivities to certain products can often manifest as itchy skin as dogs can develop intolerances to things that they have been fine with previously. This can include a certain protein in their food e.g. chicken) or a household cleaner or dog shampoo. Try switching your dog to a different product for four weeks and see if their coat condition improves. If it does, try switching back to the old product and you’ll notice within a few days if the itchiness has returned, so you’ll know what to avoid.

If you are testing food sensitivities, try switching to a food that uses a single source of protein (e.g. just lamb) and avoid chicken and beef completely as these are common triggers for sensitivity due to the hormones and treatments given to the animals prior to slaughter.  If the itching stops, then try a different protein (e.g. beef) and see if they stay itch-free.

Parasites such as ticks, mites and fleas love to make home in dog’s coat and make them itchy as a result.  If you are concerned about the effects of using strong pesticides on your dog, which is what flea treatments are made of, then there are lots of natural alternatives such as ‘Billy No Mates’ – a natural flea, mite and tick repellent – that builds up its effectiveness over about 6 weeks, so start now for spring protection!

Allergies are a common problem that can make your dog very itchy.  They can be sensitive to allergens in the environment such as pollen, grass sap, or dust mites. Classic signs are that these dogs often lick their paws or chew their legs. Avoiding the allergen altogether often isn’t possible, so drugs may be needed at certain times of the year to control that irritating itch.

Seasonal changes in the weather can present as changes in their coat. They may have flaky, dry skin in cold-weather months, or moist eczema when it’s rainy if they spend a lot of time in the water.

Over-bathing can lead to dry skin as the shampoo can strip all the oils out of your dog’s coat.  Be sure to only use a shampoo designed for dogs too, and human ones (even the baby ones) are too strong for your dog’s thin skin. Ideally, bathe your dog no more than once a month, unless they’ve rolled in something nasty which necessitates an extra bath.  If they are generally very stinky, then speak to your vet about possible underlying conditions, and consider changing their diet to something more natural.

Stress, especially if it is chronic or long-standing, can affect the appearance of your pet’s coat, particularly its lustre and texture, and many dogs will shed excessively or get dandruff when they are under stress, however the causes of stress may not be what you expect… Read my previous post on anxiety in dogs.

Localised infections, often known as ‘hot spots’ are sticky patches that tend to occur in thick coated breeds and in part are caused by poor air circulation over the skin.  If your dog gets a hot spot, they may need either antibiotic tablets or cream. You can help the patch to dry up by using dog clippers to remove the hair from the surrounding area and using a salt water solution as a mild disinfectant.

Dry skin can begin to smell in the presence of a bacterial or yeast infection. If you ignore dry skin when it is just flaking and scaling, it can lead to a more serious problem that causes odour.

Underlying illnesses can sometimes be identified in the early stages by poor coat condition. If your dog’s coat is thinning, or doesn’t regrow properly after clipping, then there can be some underlying medical issues such as hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease or alopecia, or it may be due to your dog scratching too much in one place through stress-induced self-trauma or being overly itchy and scratching too much in that area.  Hormone imbalances can also change the quality of your dog’s coat. Illnesses such as arthritis, cancer or obesity can cause skin problems such as dandruff or matting if the dog is unable to groom itself properly.

It’s best to speak to your vet if you are concerned to make sure any underlying issues are identified and managed as a dog with a long-term health problem like this may not absorb vital nutrients, leading to low grade nutritional deficiencies and a poor coat. The general health of the skin and the quality of the hair often improve quite quickly when the necessary changes are made, or treatment is given.

How can you improve your dog’s coat condition?

Change your dog’s diet to something more natural, and less processed is often the most beneficial step towards improving their skin and coat condition. Dogs need the right balance of protein, Omega fatty acids, fats, vitamins and minerals to be able to maintain a healthy coat and skin.  My next blog post will be on the subject of diet and digestion, so watch this space for more thoughts here!

Daily grooming helps distribute the natural oils in your dog’s coat.  As dogs don’t groom themselves as obsessively as cats do, they need a little help spreading those natural oils around. It will help them looks shiny and fabulous and prevent any greasy build-up and avoid mats that are painful to remove. The more hair you can get off of your dog with a brush, the less hair will be floating around your house, on the furniture, and all over your clothes!

Repel pests with a natural, herbal insect repellent instead of the ‘spot-on’ pesticides. When you expose your animal to toxic chemicals, including vaccines, drugs and flea and tick products, his liver and immune system are compromised, making him more likely to host parasites once those flea and tick products wear off.  Dogs and cats on the kind of ‘junk’ foods that are still widely sold are far more prone to fleas and other parasitic and infectious health problems than those who are on a wholesome, ideally organic, nutritionally complete diet.

Herbal self-selection allows our dogs to source the nutrients they need to improve their coat that may be missing from their diet, including Omega 3 fatty oils that contribute to a shiny coat. Our animals can self-medicate from the healing properties of plants, guided by how they taste and smell, however they rarely have access to the medicinal compounds found in leaves, flowers, berries and roots that they need to get back in balance.   Find out more about Herbal self-selection for animals.