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The Skinny on Hairy Health Issues

In This Chapter

Not all problems with your dog’s skin and coat can be fixed with a quick brushing or a bath. If your dog’s coat is dry or brittle, for example, you may be reaching for coat conditioners and bodifiers to fix the problem when the real issue is with his health. Your dog’s bad hair day may be more than skin deep.

In this chapter, I focus on common health problems with symptoms that appear in the skin and hair and how you can cope with them.

Canine Cuteness More Than Just Skin Deep

You’ve probably heard the adage that beauty is only skin deep. Well, that isn’t necessarily true when it comes to dogs. If your dog appears unhealthy outside, the chances are good that she’s also unhealthy inside. Although the skin and coat aren’t the first to show signs that a problem exists, an unhealthy fur coat or skin is probably the first sign that you actually see.

The problem with these kinds of symptoms and conditions is that they develop without your being aware of them. It isn’t as if one day your dog looks fantastic and the next day she looks awful — if that happens, get your dog to the vet immediately! You’re more likely to notice changes that occur over time — your dog’s hair growing dull, thin, or brittle or her weight fluctuating to extremes — and for the most part, you won’t see the problem until a month goes by, and you wonder what happened to your beautiful dog.


Now you can understand why keeping a grooming diary or log is so important (see Chapter What Good Grooming Is All About). The memory of what you saw three weeks ago while brushing your dog may not be very clear, but a notation in a log or diary can help you recall that you took out a bit more fur than usual during your last grooming session, or a lump that you felt was a half-inch smaller a couple of weeks ago.

Whenever you notice a condition growing worse, go back through your grooming diary or log to find out when it started. In most cases, you need to take that kind of information to your dog’s vet, because you want to give the vet an estimate of when your dog began showing signs of a problem.


Whenever you’re unsure about your dog’s symptoms, take her to a veterinarian. Doing so is important because you may not be able to cure or treat many of the conditions that your dog can contract. In fact, in some instances, these conditions can be life-threatening.


Allergies are on the rise in dogs, just as they are in humans. Many allergies manifest themselves as skin and coat issues with dogs. That’s why they’re so important to understand.
Allergies are reactions of a dog’s fur or skin to certain substances either through contact, ingestion, or inhalation. When exposed to an allergen (the substance that causes the allergy), a dog’s body produces an immune-system response to it. Because I deal primarily with problems of the skin and coat in the sections that follow, I talk about allergies and how they relate to skin problems.

Contact allergies

Contact allergies cause a dog’s skin or fur to react in an adverse manner because the dog has touched something to which he’s allergic. The reaction can be hives-like (immediate) or delayed, which involves itching later.


If your dog has hives, his face may swell up, he may have raised bumps, and he may be very itchy — scratching profusely. Dogs can get hives from insect bites or as allergic reactions to vaccinations, certain antibiotics, chemicals, shampoos, or insecticides. Your dog’s reaction may be immediate when exposed to substances to which he’s particularly allergic or susceptible.


If you notice hives symptoms, take your dog to the vet for treatment right away. Hives can be a precursor to anaphylactic shock, which is a serious condition that leads to death if untreated.

Your vet will likely suggest removing the dog from as much exposure to the offending substance as possible and medicating with an antihistamine — usually Benadryl (diphenhydramine). If treated, hives usually disappear within 24 hours.

Atopic dermatitis

A type of contact (and sometimes inhalation) allergy, atopic dermatitis is usually associated with environmental factors such as pollen and grasses. Dogs are itchy and usually scratch or lick their paws when they’re affected. You can see where your dog has licked her paws because of the brown saliva stains on them.
Dogs can experience worse symptoms of atopic dermatitis, such as redness in the skin, hair loss, skin infections, and even ear infections. Although this allergy is common, it’s difficult to diagnose, requiring expensive testing. Most dogs need to be treated either with corticosteroids or antihistamines. Some dogs do well with Omega-3 fish oils.
Omega-3 fish oils are supplements that you can buy at a grocery store, but your dog can overdose on these oils. A better way to give your dog a good balance of Omega-3 fatty acids is to buy dog food that contains the right balance (many dog foods now do).
Your veterinarian can usually prescribe the dosages of these medications and supplements. In the case of coritsteriods or antihistamines, some are over-the-counter; others require a veterinary prescription. Regardless of which treatment you use, talk to your vet about proper administration and dosages first.

Food allergies

Food allergies are a big problem because dogs can be allergic to many things, including chicken, beef, various poultry, corn, rice, wheat, milk, soy, or other foods in their diets.
The tough part about food allergies is that they can show up weeks, months, or even years after the dog has been eating the same food (or food with some of the same ingredients). So your dog may look a mess, but there’s no apparent cause for it.

Technical Stuff

Don’t confuse a food allergy with a food intolerance. With a food allergy, the symptoms tend to manifest themselves in the skin and coat. In a food intolerance, the dog can’t digest the food properly and has diarrhea or vomiting as a result. Think of people who are lactose intolerant (in fact, dogs can be lactose intolerant, too) — they’re not allergic to milk; they just can’t digest the milk sugars.

So, how do you find out whether your dog is allergic to his food? Contact your veterinarian first for help determining what your dog may be allergic to. Your vet will probably suggest that you stop feeding your dog his normal diet and switch to a hypoallergenic diet (that is, a diet that’s unlikely to cause an allergic reaction with your dog) with a novel protein source (a meat your dog hasn’t eaten) and an uncommon carbohydrate source (a grain that your dog hasn’t eaten). On that diet, the dog is fed the new food at normal mealtimes until the symptoms completely disappear (usually six to eight weeks or more). After that, the veterinarian returns the dog to his regular diet, one ingredient at a time, until the problem resurfaces. When you know the culprit (or culprits), you can steer your dog away from food with those ingredients.
Many people feed their dogs lamb-and-rice dog food, thinking that it’s a hypoallergenic diet. The truth: It used to be considered a hypoallergenic diet because it wasn’t routinely fed to dogs; however, because lamb and rice have been introduced into commercial feeds, dogs now are showing allergies to those ingredients.


Many people recommend going to a raw diet when a dog shows symptoms of food allergies. Feeding raw or homemade food does nothing to fix an allergy if you end up using the ingredients to which your dog is allergic. For example, if your dog is allergic to beef and chicken, feeding your dog raw hamburger and chicken backs isn’t going to stop his allergy. In most cases, your dog’s allergy is probably caused by the big ingredients (the protein or carbohydrate sources) in the dog food. Although some dogs are allergic to preservatives, the amounts of preservatives used in dog food are miniscule, and your dog is less likely to show sensitivity to them than he is to the main ingredients in the dog food.

Flea allergy dermatitis

Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is a condition caused by a hypersensitivity to flea bites. A dog with FAD is allergic to flea saliva, so a flea bite becomes sheer torture. Itching is immediate and can last even after you get rid of the fleas. FAD is the number one allergy in dogs.
Preventing FAD is as easy as preventing fleas. (See the “Fleas, Ticks, Lice, and Mites” section later in this chapter.) Get rid of the fleas, and you’ll have a much happier dog. Occasionally, your vet may recommend treating your dog with antibiotics or antihistamines and steroids.

Coat Funk

Coat funk, which is believed to be a hereditary condition and is sometimes called alopecia X, affects a number of breeds, mostly those of Spitz origin, Poodles, and Cocker Spaniels. Affected dogs start out with healthy, beautiful coats, and then sometime during their lives, guard hairs (or top coat) become brittle and break off, leaving only the undercoat.
Dogs with coat funk look awful. Without the protection provided by guard hairs, the undercoat becomes tangled, and the tail thins out. The coat is a nightmare to work on. Nothing you do seems to fix it, either.
Breeders have called this condition coat funk for years. I first heard about it in connection with my own breed — Alaskan Malamutes — but I figured it was just some version of hypothyroidism that’s prevalent within the breed. The Alaskan Malamute Club of America and other Alaskan Malamute breed clubs, however, have financed studies that suggest that coat funk is a separate genetic disease. If you do suspect your dog has coat funk, have her tested for hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, and other problems that can cause her coat to look bad (see the respective sections in this chapter). If no cause is apparent, you may have to consider that coat funk is to blame.
Spaying or neutering causes a dog to shed out the old coat and regrow a new one. This regrowth can improve your dog’s coat for a while (sometimes permanently), but it doesn’t address the underlying cause of coat funk. Some owners have reported having success using various nutritional supplements, but whether they’re truly effective is hard to say.
Experimental treatments for coat funk are available, but in most cases, they’re prohibitively expensive or have a certain amount of risk associated with them. Dogs who suffer from coat funk shouldn’t be bred, making spaying or neutering a viable option.

Collar Rot

Collar rot is a term that I’ve heard used for dogs who have sores under their collars. The dog usually ends up wearing his collar all the time, and the collar rubs off the hair and may produce sores. If the collar is never removed or the hair under the collar is never brushed, that hair can become matted and harbor bacteria, which, in turn, can cause sores and infections.
Collar rot is unusual for pets whose owners usually groom their dogs. But if the dog is a long- or double-coated breed, it can suffer collar rot if the owner hasn’t maintained the coat.
Collar rot requires dogs to have their necks shaved, and the affected area must be cleaned with a 10-percent Betadine antiseptic and water solution, followed by a good antibiotic ointment. In severe cases, you may need to have your veterinarian clean and bandage the neck and perhaps prescribe oral antibiotics. The best way to prevent collar rot is to keep the hair around the neck combed out and to occasionally wash your dog’s collar to keep dirt and bacteria from building up.

Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s disease is a serious condition in which a dog is exposed to corticosteroids for a long period of time either as a result of long-term medications or as a result of a tumor on the adrenal or pituitary glands. (Corticosteroids affect metabolism, responses to inflammation, and reactions to stress.) Dogs who have Cushing’s usually have hair loss, excessive thirst and urination, brittle and dry hair, a tragic-looking expression, a pot-bellied abdomen, weakness, and loss of muscle mass.
If your dog has any of these symptoms, he needs to be taken to the vet as soon as possible. Treatments are available to help suppress the corticosteroid production, and in some cases, surgery may be an option.
I once had a dog with Cushing’s that showed signs of adrenal involvement. At the time, I was able to give him a bit over a year of life with treatment, but he had other complications caused by a damaged immune system. Better treatments are available nowadays for Cushing’s, which is why you must talk with your veterinarian if your dog is symptomatic.


If your dog develops Cushing’s-like symptoms because he’s taking corticosteroids, don’t take him off the medication without first consulting a veterinarian. Your vet needs to check whether your dog has Addison’s disease, a dangerous illness that can cause a dog to go into shock and circulatory collapse when abruptly taken off corticosteroids. Dogs with Addison’s must be taken off them gradually.

Fleas, Ticks, Lice, and Mites

External parasites, such as fleas, ticks, lice, and mites, can make your dog miserable. But they’re more than just pests; they’re health hazards for you and your pet. These bugs can ruin your day, too. Nothing is worse than getting these pests yourself.
In the sections that follow, I tell you about each of these parasites and how to take care of them.


Cats and pets other than dogs also may be affected by fleas, ticks, lice, and mites and therefore need to be treated; however, they need their own types of treatment. Never use any type of dog products on cats or other animals, because they can harm or even kill your other pets.


Fleas are the worst when it comes to dogs. They thrive in virtually all climates, except in extremely cold and extremely dry conditions and at high altitudes. I live in an extremely cold, dry, high-altitude area, but even we have fleas here, and ours tend to carry wonderful diseases like bubonic plague (you remember — the Black Death. Charming, isn’t it?)

Technical Stuff

Some people don’t take fleas seriously. However, a quick surf through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site ( reveals that fleas can spread other diseases besides bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis), including typhus (Rickettsia typhi — an oldie but a goodie), Brazilian Spotted Fever, Rickettsia felis (causes fever, headache, and rash), and Bartonella henselae and Bartonella clarridgeiae (cat scratch disease). Dogs also can get tapeworms from fleas.

As if diseases and parasite transmission aren’t enough, many dogs are allergic to flea saliva, which can cause flea-allergy dermatitis. If your dog has fleas, she’s probably pretty miserable scratching all the time. Check out the previous section on “Flea allergy dermatitis.”
Fleas can transmit other diseases, too, but you’ve probably read enough to know that fleas are more than just an inconvenience. So how can you declare war on the bugs without collateral damage to namely you and your pets? In an earlier time, you had to flea bomb your house, flea dip your dogs, and spray wildly. You don’t have to do that anymore, thankfully, except in the most extreme conditions.

Discovering some amazing flea facts

Here are some exciting (or not-so-exciting) facts about fleas. Keep these in mind whenever you want to impress your friends or win a trivia-based board game.

– Fleas are wingless creatures. They don’t fly; they jump.

– Fleas jump great distances to their targets. They can jump as high as 8 inches and as far as 15 inches.

– An adult flea is only as big as 1⁄25 to 1⁄4 of an inch long.

– The most common species of flea is the cat flea.

– Fleas feed off of birds and mammals, including humans.

– Fleas are dark brown or black.

– An adult flea can live up to 115 days on a dog but dies within one to two days if it can’t find a host.

– Fleas mate within 24 to 48 hours after feeding. A female flea can lay up to 2,000 eggs.

Before you get started with your dog’s flea control, make a note to be extra careful if you also have cats. Flea control products that are meant only for dogs can harm or even kill cats.

Finding the fickle flea

First you need to determine whether your dog has fleas. Fleas love warm areas, so places around your dog’s belly and groin are prime flea stomping grounds. Around the base of the tail is also a place to look for fleas. Of course, if you see an adult flea hopping around, it’s a good bet that fleas are present.
Use a flea comb (see Chapter Training Your Dog for Grooming) to look for fleas. If you see blackish or reddish grains that turn red when wet, you’re looking at flea feces (yes, flea poop), and you can bet fleas are on your dog.

Getting fleas to flee

Fleas don’t go away with only a bath, but bathing your dog may help. If your dog has fleas or if you live in a flea-prone area, talk with your vet about a good systemic flea-control product. These products are so good that they effectively break the flea life cycle, ending the suffering of countless dogs (and their owners). What’s more, using these systemics means that you apply the flea control products (in most cases) only once each month to rid your dog of fleas.
Most of these products are available through your veterinarian. They’re not super cheap, but then neither is using all the older remedies to get rid of fleas. Here are some of the top systemic flea-control products and what they do:

Advantage (imidacloprid): Kills both adult fleas and larvae within 48 hours. It’s a topical, spot-on systemic that works for six weeks and is available through a veterinarian.

Bio Spot (pyrethrins and fenoxycarb): Kills fleas and ticks for one month. I’ve seen it repel flies, too. It contains an insect growth regulator that prevents immature fleas from reproducing. It’s a topical, spot-on systemic and is available at pet supply stores.

Frontline Top Spot (fipronil) and Frontline Plus (fipronil and methoprene): Kill fleas within 24 to 48 hours. Frontline Plus contains an insect growth regulator that keeps immature fleas from reproducing. It’s is a topical, spot-on systemic that works for three months on fleas and one month on ticks and is available through a veterinarian.

K9 Advantix (imidacloprid and permethrin): Kills fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes and prevents them from biting within one to two hours of application. It’s a topical, spot-on systemic that you apply once a month. It’s also effective when your dog gets wet or even after a once-a-month bath. It’s available through a veterinarian.

Program (lufenuron): An insect growth inhibitor that prevents eggs from hatching and immature fleas from maturing into adults. Administered once a month in pill form, it’s available through a veterinarian.

Most of these flea medications are available only through a veterinarian or supply chain (with the exception of Bio Spot). It’s important to note that with the exception of Program and K9 Advantix, spot-on topicals tend to wash off, so you need to reapply them after bathing your dog.


Where you purchase your flea-control products is important. Some veterinarian-only supplied flea products have been sold through pet supply catalogs and some have been counterfeited. If you want to be sure that you get the right medication, see your veterinarian.

Fighting fleas around the house

When you have one pet with fleas, you pretty much guarantee that all your pets have fleas, so you need to treat them all at the same time. Otherwise, leaving one or more pets untreated gives fleas a safe haven to go to when other pets are treated. Spend the money and make sure all your pets are treated.


Don’t use flea products intended for dogs on any other species in your house. That includes cats, rabbits, birds, ferrets, and rodents. A flea product intended for a dog can kill other animals.

Be careful not to get the topicals on you when you first apply them, and be mindful of where they are until they dry. Although I’ve suffered no ill effects from getting the treatment on my hands, some people have experienced bad reactions to it. When in doubt, wear rubber or latex gloves when applying the treatment and wait for it to dry before petting your dog along her back. If you’ve experienced an adverse reaction to the treatment in the past, ask your vet about flea treatments that come in pill form (such as Program).


Flea dips and insecticides can react with some canine medications, other flea products, and dewormers, so make sure that what you’re using won’t interact with other pesticides or medications. Ask your veterinarian or poison control center before mixing any such products.

When cleaning your house, you need to vacuum all the carpets, furniture, and drapes and wash all the sheets and blankets. When you’re done vacuuming, get rid of the vacuum cleaner bag or empty the container in a dumpster pronto! Otherwise, fleas can find their way back into your house and onto your dog.
Some pet owners slip a piece of flea collar into a vacuum cleaner bag to kill any fleas sucked up by the vacuum, but that’s about the only good use I can find for them. Flea collars are mostly ineffective and contain poisons that can make your dog sick if chewed and swallowed.
When making your house flea-free, avoid using insecticides whenever possible, because they’re poisons that can harm your pets if used improperly. Ask your veterinarian what insecticides are safe to use around the house and the lawn with your current flea products.
Keeping a well-maintained lawn helps limit the number of hiding places for fleas. Although it won’t eliminate flea nesting places entirely, it does help reduce them. Likewise, reducing the amount of vegetation also helps. After all, fleas don’t live on rock or paving stones.


Ticks are nasty, bloodsucking relatives of the spider. I’ve known a few people who were so used to having ticks around that they didn’t think twice about seeing a tick or two on their dogs. However, ticks carry dangerous diseases that are contagious to humans and dogs.

If you find a tick on you or your dog, you need to remove the tick immediately. The longer that a tick is on you or your dog, the longer it has to transmit diseases.

Tick-borne diseases

You or your dog can get numerous diseases from ticks, and more potential illnesses are being discovered every year. You can find out more about tick-borne diseases through the CDC’s Web site ( by searching for “tick-borne diseases.”
Major dangerous tick-borne diseases that can infect both humans and dogs include

Babesiosis: This disease, which can be fatal, is caused by a parasite that’s transmitted through the bite of a tick. Babesiosis may be asymptomatic (without apparent symptoms), or it may include symptoms such as fever, chills, muscle pain, fatigue, and sweating. It also may result in hemolytic anemia (the lack of blood cells) and enlargement of the liver and spleen.

Ehrlichiosis: This illness is caused by several types of bacterial species called Ehrlichia, which are transmitted through tick bites. Early symptoms may include fever, malaise, headache, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, rash, cough, and joint pains. As the disease progresses, it affects the blood, lowering white blood cell and platelet counts and elevating liver enzymes. In severe cases, it results in prolonged fever, meningoen-cephalitis (brain and spinal cord swelling), uncontrolled bleeding, coma, respiratory distress, and even death.

Lyme disease: A highly publicized disease since its outbreak in the 1970s, Lyme disease is transmitted through tick bites. It’s caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Symptoms usually (but don’t always) start with a circular rash and may proceed to fever, chills, fatigue, headaches, swollen lymph nodes, and muscle and joint aches. Left untreated, it can cause shooting pains, loss of muscle tone in the face, arthritis, joint swelling, meningitis, and other neurological problems.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF): This disease is caused by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii and is one of the most severe diseases transmitted through a tick bite. Contrary to what its name implies, RMSF has been reported in every state except Alaska, Maine, Vermont, and Hawaii. Initial symptoms are fever, rash, headache, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, and a lack of appetite. The disease, which can be fatal, lowers the white blood cell count and reduces the amount of sodium in the blood. As it progresses, the rash takes on the characteristic mottled rash from which the disease gets its name. It can affect the kidneys, lungs, nervous system, or gastrointestinal system.

As you can see, ticks are no fun. They can also transmit a number of other diseases, including typhus.

Removing ticks

Knowing how to remove a tick is important. Do it wrong, and you can leave part of the tick embedded in your dog and cause a serious infection. When I was a kid growing up in Virginia, I had a tick on my back that didn’t come completely out. The site was infected for weeks, and it finally took a shot of something from a second doctor (the first doctor was worthless) to cure me of the inflammation.


You may have heard of dousing a tick in alcohol or nail polish or of using a match or a lit cigarette on the tick to get it to retract. Don’t do it. You can either injure your dog or cause the tick to burrow deeper. And believe me, you don’t want an unnecessary vet bill associated with tick removal.

To properly remove a tick, you need a forceps (tweezers), a jar with rubbing alcohol and a lid, latex gloves, and a powder specifically made for killing fleas/ticks that’s safe to use with dogs (available at a pet supply store). After gathering your equipment, follow these steps:
1. Wearing the latex gloves, sprinkle some flea/tick powder on the tick.

Let the powder sit for a few minutes to work on the tick. It should at least make the tick loosen its grip if not actually kill it.

2. Using the forceps, grasp the tick as close to the dog’s skin as possible, and try to remove it by pulling it straight out to ensure you don’t leave behind its head or legs.

If the tick doesn’t easily release, wait a moment for the powder to do its work, and try again. Don’t squeeze the tick, and pull steadily.

3. After you remove the tick, drop it into the jar of rubbing alcohol to kill it.

Wait an hour to make sure the tick is dead, and then dispose if it by flushing it and the alcohol down the toilet. Or you can save the tick and take it to the vet for identification.

4. Thoroughly wash the affected area of your dog’s skin, and watch for signs of an infection or rash.

If you see signs such as reddened or oozing skin or skin that looks swollen, take your dog to the veterinarian immediately.

5. Thoroughly clean your forceps with soap and water followed by rubbing alcohol.

Never handle ticks or anything that comes into contact with one with your bare hands. And don’t crush a tick! They can transmit diseases to you.

Understanding Lyme disease

Lyme disease was discovered in 1975 in Lyme, Connecticut. The bacterium Borrelia burgdor-feri causes Lyme disease, and it’s carried by ticks and transmitted through an infected tick’s
bite. The deer tick (Ixodes dammini) is the most notable of the ticks that carry Lyme disease, but the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and the western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus) also carry the bacterium.
Unlike the common dog tick, the deer tick and its relations are small. A normal-sized adult deer tick is not much bigger than the head of a straight pin. Deer tick larvae and nymphs are
much smaller than the ticks in their adult stage and can carry Lyme disease to their hosts. Sixty
percent of Lyme disease sufferers were not aware of their deer tick bites.
Lyme disease affects humans, dogs, cattle, horses, and wild animals, and it may start with a noticeable red rash around the bite. Many sufferers, however, never develop the rash. In dogs, the most common signs are arthritis, anorexia, lethargy, and weight loss. Lyme disease
can usually be treated with a combination of multispectrum antibiotics.
Left untreated, Lyme disease can affect nerves, joints, and heart tissue, and in some cases may be accompanied by post-Lyme disease syndrome, which includes arthritis-like symptoms. As of 2003, every state in the United States with the exception of Montana has reported some incidence of Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Take precautions against picking up any ticks. A vaccine against Lyme disease is available for dogs, but it may not provide full protection for your pet. Avoid tick-infested areas, such as heavy brush, woods, or tall grasses. Use tick repellents, and brush your dog whenever she enters tick habitats. Remove any ticks you find, and put them in a glass jar for identification by your vet.
For more information about Lyme disease, visit the CDC’s Lyme disease Web page at, the Lyme Disease Association’s Web page at, or the Lyme Disease Foundation’s Web site at


Although pretty unusual for dogs, lice infestations can happen. They usually occur in dogs who come from bad situations, such as living in rundown puppy mills or experiencing abandonment or neglect. As a result, dogs who have lice are usually physically run-down. So after you get the lice under control, having your vet check the dog over for other problems is probably a good idea.

Lice are light-colored insects that don’t fly (they’re wingless) and are only 2 or 3 millimeters long. You can identify them visually by seeing either the lice on the dog or the eggs, which are known as nits.

A good flea dip usually kills lice and their eggs. (Use the same precautions you’d use with any insecticides.) You can also try Nix, which is the human version of anti-lice soap. Keeping some on hand may not be a bad idea, because humans can get lice from a dog and you may have to treat yourself.


If your dog has lice, you must bag and throw away all bedding and any material your dog has slept in. Other pets that have come into contact with the affected dog also need to be treated. You need to wash and disinfect all areas where the dog has been and any place your other pets have been.

Mites (or mite not) 

“A mite is a very small spider,” or so the joke goes. Actually, the joke isn’t far off; mites are related to spiders, and they can cause a host of problems. Several types of mites can infect your dog — none of them is pleasant!
Some mites cause a condition known as mange, which is characterized by intense itching, lesions and scabs, and hair loss. (Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it?) When people say “mangy dog,” they’re really talking about a mite-infested dog, even if they don’t know it.
Mites like cheyletiella mites and chiggers usually don’t show up if you’ve been treating your dog faithfully to prevent fleas, even if you’re in a flea area. The mites don’t like systemic flea control, so it’s less likely your dog is going to get them.
I describe five types of mites and four types of mange they can cause in the sections that follow.

Cheyletiella mange

Cheyletiella mange, or walking dandruff, usually affects puppies. (Dog dandruff is white and flaky just like human dandruff.) Although this type of mange is contagious, it’s also fairly rare, typically affecting dogs in large breeding kennels or pet shops. It’s caused by a red mite that can infect humans. You usually see these mites along the back with a considerable amount of dandruff.

If you suspect your dog has cheyletiella mites, take him to the veterinarian. Your vet will need to make a diagnosis by examining the dandruff for mites or eggs. He or she can then recommend an appropriate treatment (usually a flea shampoo). Other pets in your household also need to be treated, and you have to disinfect areas where your dog routinely lounges. You may also want to wash or throw out any bedding.


Chiggers are a type of mite called the trombiculid mite. These mites are really nasty creatures that cause itching. They live in high grasses in very warm areas. I remember camping out in Texas and getting chiggers. They itch like the dickens. And yes, you can get them, too, although you’re not likely to get them from your dog but rather from grasses in which you’ve been stomping around.
The chiggers you and your dog get are actually mite larvae. They love to start munching as soon as you come into contact with them. They’re red or orange and burrow under the skin, making little red or orange bumps under the skin. After you’ve had a chigger infestation, you won’t soon forget it.
The best way to treat chiggers is to avoid getting them in the first place. That means not allowing your dog to roam through high grasses and keeping him on a good systemic flea control product.
If those efforts fail and your dog is infested by chiggers, use a good flea shampoo that’s recommended by your veterinarian. Make sure that it doesn’t interact with anything your dog is already using for flea control. In severe cases of chiggers, your veterinarian may prescribe corticosteroids to control the itching.
If you have chiggers on you, take a hot bath or shower with lots of soap, and follow it up with an antiseptic. That’s the consensus of Phillip J. Hamman, area extension entomologist for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service of Texas A&M University (, and William F. Lyon, professor of entomology at Ohio State University ( After that, you need to use some sort of anti-itch medication with a mild anesthetic, like benzocaine. You also need to wash your clothes in hot, soapy water for a half an hour or more to kill any chiggers on them and to prevent them from rein-festing you or your dog.


Never use benzocaine on a dog. It’s extremely poisonous to them.


Another way to treat chiggers that get on you (but not your dog): Try the old standby of painting over the chiggers with clear nail polish on your skin. I used this method when I was a kid, and it seemed to be pretty effective. You’ll probably want to use some anti-itch cream while you wait for it to work.

Demodectic mange

Yet another skin mite infestation is demodectic mange, which is caused by Demodex canis. This mite normally exists on a dog’s skin and presents no problems, unless something goes awry with the dog’s immune system and the mange mites take over. Two types of demodectic mange are

Localized demodectic mange: This infestation occurs in puppies under a year old. It’s usually localized (hence the name) and may occur around the face or legs. In 90 percent of the cases, the dog’s immune system kicks in, and eventually the mange clears up. Your veterinarian also can provide a topical ointment to treat this type of mange.

Generalized demodectic mange: This mange usually occurs in dogs who have compromised immune systems. The mange is widespread, much more difficult to clear up, and requires veterinary intervention.

In all cases of demodectic mange, you need to have your veterinarian diagnose it and treat it (most likely with prescription medication). It can’t be treated with any over-the-counter remedies.

Otodectic mange (ear mites)

If your dog scratches or shakes his head incessantly and has dark brown, waxy, coffee-ground–like stuff in his ears, he probably has ear mites. Ear mites can easily spread from dogs to cats and other pets, so if you have one pet with ear mites, be sure to check them all.
Although plenty of over-the-counter remedies are available for ear mites, most ear mite infections are accompanied by a secondary bacterial infection that needs to be treated by a veterinarian. Your vet can recommend an over-the-counter mitacide or (more likely) a prescription mitacide that contains a topical antibiotic and/or something to relieve the itching.

Sarcoptic mange (scabies)

A particularly nasty form of mange, sarcoptic mange is caused by the Sarcoptes scabiei canis, an itchy mite that can make your dog miserable. Sarcoptic mange is highly contagious and can transfer from dog to dog or even through contact with contaminated grooming equipment. These mites love the ears, face, elbows, hocks, and belly. What’s more, this mange is contagious to humans, too.
Scabies, another name for sarcoptic mange, causes hair loss and crusty, itchy skin. If you suspect scabies, take your dog to a vet immediately. Your vet will prescribe a specialized dip for scabies and perhaps an oral medication.


Don’t use over-the-counter products to treat scabies unless your vet recommends them. Scabies mites have become resistant to a number of dips, including many over-the-counter brands.

Cooling Down Those Hot Spots

Hot spots are a form of moist dermatitis that’s red and can be extremely painful. The symptoms are reddening and oozing skin and hair loss. Hot spots can occur because of allergies, mats (one more reason to keep your dog combed out and clean!), external parasites, and anything that can cause moisture and dirt to get trapped near the skin.
If hot spots aren’t too painful, you can use a guarded clipper to clip around the hot spot, but you need to be extremely careful to not nick the tender area. Then you can clean the hot spot with a 10-percent mixture of Betadine antiseptic and water twice daily. If the hot spot is too painful, your vet will have to anesthetize your dog, clip away the hair, clean the hot spot, and prescribe corticosteroids and antibiotics.

Hypothyroidism and Hyperthyroidism

Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are conditions of the thyroid, a gland that controls the metabolism. Hypothyroidism is a deficiency in the functioning of the thyroid, while hyperthyroidism is excessive functioning of that gland. These conditions can affect a dog’s coat and grooming.


By far, hypothyroidism is the most common thyroid disease in dogs. It occurs when the thyroid gland produces too little thyroxine, or thyroid hormone. Certain breeds of dogs tend to have a predisposition to hypothyroidism, and in some breeds, the condition may have a genetic component.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism include hair loss, poor haircoat, obesity, excessive shedding, intolerance to cold, aggression, and energy loss. A reliable signal of hypothyroidism is poor hair growth after your dog has been clipped.

If you suspect your dog is suffering from hypothyroidism, have your veterinarian test your dog for the disease. If your dog has hypothyroidism, your vet can prescribe thyroid pills.


A rather unusual condition in dogs, hyperthyroidism is the opposite of hypothyroidism; namely, the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone. Thyroid cancer is the usual cause of hyperthyroidism in dogs.
Symptoms include a greasy haircoat, weight loss, hyperactivity, increased thirst, increased urination, and occasionally, vomiting and diarrhea. You also may see lethargy and depression.
You must have your veterinarian diagnose and treat hyperthyroidism. If your dog has it, your vet will have to address the cancer or (if not cancer) the overproduction of thyroid hormones either with radioactive iodine (which destroys thyroid tissue) or antithyroid medications.

Internal Parasites

You may be surprised to find something about internal parasites in a grooming book, but internal parasites can ruin a dog’s skin and hair. The reason’s quite simple: A dog can’t be beautiful outside if something inside is ruining his health.
Internal parasites often result in a hair-coat that becomes dingy and lackluster, especially when there’s a worm infestation. Roundworms most often are the culprit, but I’ve seen hookworms and tapeworms take their toll on a dog’s coat, too. Mishka, a dog I adopted, had tapeworms when she was taken in by the shelter. The shelter dewormed her, but as a result of her parasites, she had a horrible coat and was terribly thin. (She may have had more parasites other than just tapeworms.) After being worm-free for a while and on a diet of good food, Mishka shed out her old, sickly coat, and a beautiful new coat grew back in its place. She gained weight, too, looking much better than she did when I adopted her.


Some worm infestations can actually kill a dog. Whipworms and hookworms, for example, can cause severe anemia. Roundworms can take away enough nutrition to actually kill a puppy.


Worms aren’t a health hazard only for your dog. Certain worms, like roundworms, hookworms, and even tapeworms can be transmitted to people (especially children) who come into contact with infected soil or feces and don’t wash their hands before eating.

In all cases of worms, take your dog to the veterinarian. Don’t try to treat your dog with over-the-counter dewormers — many don’t work on all worms. Many dewormers are poisonous, especially when used improperly. Your vet can diagnose what kind of infestation your dog has and prescribe the best method of treating it.
Some heartworm medications now contain dewormers that control various internal parasites (see the upcoming section about “Heartworms”). Ask your veterinarian about them.
In the sections that follow, I discuss the different types of worm infestations that can affect dogs.


Hookworms (Ancylostoma caninum) feed off of blood in the small intestine of your dog. These thin worms are 1⁄4- to 1⁄2-inch long. Infestations of these worms come from a mother’s milk or from worms that penetrate the skin. Because these worms drink blood, think of them as vampire worms that can be a terrible health hazard for your dog.
Your dog may show no outward signs of a hookworm infestation, but these worms can cause weight loss, bloody diarrhea, anemia, and weakness.


Roundworms (Toxocara canis) are the most common form of worm infestation in dogs. Infestations usually occur in the intestines, but these worms can live in the lungs, stomach, and intestines, and they can migrate among those organs. Roundworms can grow to several inches in length, and they love to live off the vital nutrients your dog needs to live.
During a roundworm infestation, you’re feeding the roundworms but not necessarily your dog. Puppies often get roundworms even before they’re born, because if the mother has had an infestation at any time during her life, the roundworms lie dormant and then migrate to the unborn puppies or travel through her milk to the nursing puppies. Roundworms also can be picked up through the soil. Roundworm eggs can live for years in the soil and thus can be transmitted through virtually anything a dog eats off the ground.

Symptoms of severe roundworm infestations, especially in puppies, can include a poor hair-coat, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, a potbelly, and sometimes a garlic odor on the dog’s breath. Dogs sometimes pass roundworms either by vomiting or through their stool. I always suspect roundworms whenever a dog of mine loses weight or doesn’t gain weight even with more food.


Tapeworms (Dipylidium caninum) live in your dog’s intestines and may grow from a few inches to several feet in length. The common method of infestation is through fleas. The dog bites at a flea and swallows it along with the tapeworm. Other types of tapeworms can be found in dogs who eat rodents or raw game meat.
You can usually tell whether your dog has tapeworms by seeing body segments (of the worm) crawling near your dog’s anus. They sometimes look like grains of rice. Although tapeworms don’t usually cause many health problems, they still can result in a bigger appetite, weight loss, poor coat, diarrhea, and other symptoms.


Whipworms (Trichuris vulpis) are 2 to 3 inches long and reside in a dog’s intestines. They latch onto the intestine and feed off the blood. Whipworm infestations can be tough to diagnose, because light infections seldom show symptoms and the worms don’t always produce eggs in fecal matter. Dogs become infested with whipworms by eating something off of soil that’s contaminated with whipworm eggs.
Symptoms of whipworms include bloody diarrhea, weight loss, dull coat, and anemia. Whipworm infestations can be quite serious.


Heartworm infestations are more difficult to detect because they don’t always affect your dog’s coat; however, they are life-threatening. Unlike other internal parasites described in this chapter, your dog doesn’t ingest heartworms; they’re spread by the bite of an infected mosquito.
Mosquitoes transmit heartworm after feeding on an infected dog. The mosquito picks up the microfilariae, or heartworm larvae, which then incubate in the mosquito for several days. When the mosquito feeds on another dog, the microfilariae infect that dog. Heartworm larvae eventually move into the dog’s heart, lungs, and even the veins in the liver. Left untreated, the dog will die from heartworm.
Preventive and treatment measures have been developed for heartworm, but treating it is somewhat risky and very expensive. The safer, more cost-effective, and certainly healthier route is heartworm prevention prescribed by your vet. Almost every state has some incidence of heartworm, and the latest guideline suggests that dogs need to stay on heartworm preventives year-round and be tested annually.
Several preventive heartworm medications are available, including

Heartgard and Heartgard Plus (ivermectin): These heartworm medicines are extremely effective at preventing heartworm, but on rare occasions, some dogs can be sensitive to them and should not be put on either one. Heartgard Plus also controls roundworms and hookworms.

Interceptor (milnemycin): Milnemycin is effective at controlling heartworm and can be used as an alternative to ivermectin. Interceptor also controls roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms.

Sentinel (Milbemycin and Lufenuron): Like Interceptor, Sentinel controls not only heartworm but also fleas.

Revolution (selamectin): Selamectin is a monthly systemic heartworm control product that prevents heartworms and fleas.

Lick Granulomas

Lick granulomas are open sores that a dog continuously licks. They usually start out as an irritation from allergies, mange mites, or other infections. If your dog has lick granulomas, you need to take her to the vet for treatment of the sore and the underlying cause.

Sebaceous Adentitis

A hereditary skin disease, sabaceous adentitis destroys the sebaceous (oil) glands in the skin, especially in Standard Poodles. It can also appear in Akitas and Samoyeds. Dogs who have this disease lose hair symmetrically, along both sides of the face, ears, neck, body, and tail. The dog’s skin becomes flaky with seborrhea (see later section by the same name).Your veterinarian needs to test your dog for sebaceous adentitis and can treat it with various medications, including corticosteroids, antiseborrhea medications and shampoos, and Accutane (isotretinoin).


Ringworm isn’t a worm at all; rather, it’s a fungal infection that causes hair loss and gets its name from the red rings it causes on people. This same fungus leaves round, hairless, scaly patches of skin on your dog. Ringworm is contagious to other animals and to humans, especially children and cats, so be sure to use latex gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after treating it. Most adults (people and animals) have adequate immune systems to fight off ringworm, but if your immune system has been compromised (cancer, HIV, diabetes), you definitely need to use latex gloves or have someone else treat your dog to avoid infection yourself.
You can treat localized ringworm with a 10-percent Betadine antiseptic and water solution. Rinse the area several times each day. Antifungal shampoos and soaps containing iodine also work.


If you have a cat or kitten with ringworm, take her to the vet. Don’t use iodine, or you may risk iodine poisoning.

Dogs can get ringworm from physical contact with other infected animals or from the soil, and that makes it difficult to eradicate. Your veterinarian can prescribe oral medicine or topical creams for chronic or widespread ringworm.


Seborrhea is a disease of the sebaceous glands where there are oily or dry flakes of skin. The two types of seborrhea are

Primary: Primary seborrhea seems to have a genetic component; it affects many breeds, including American Cocker Spaniels, English Springer Spaniels, Basset Hounds, Chinese Shar-Pei, West Highland White Terriers, Dachshunds, Labrador and Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. It causes oily or flaky skin, or a combination of both, all over the body. Primary seborrhea can be controlled with antiseborrhea shampoos and rinses. Consult your vet for the one that works best for your dog.

Secondary: Secondary seborrhea is the result of another disease that causes hair loss and inflamed skin. You first need to have your vet examine your dog to diagnose the underlying cause of the seborrhea, and then treat that disease accordingly. You can then treat the symptoms of seborrhea the same way primary seborrhea is treated.

Tumors and Cysts

A dog can get a tumor or cyst just about any time during his life, but the likelihood increases with age. If you feel a lump or bump on your dog, check the opposite side to see whether the bump is bilateral, meaning that you find the same bump in the same location on both sides of the dog. If it is, the bump’s probably normal. If it isn’t, you need to have your veterinarian examine it immediately.
If you still aren’t sure whether the bump is normal (that is, part of the dog’s anatomy), go ahead and take your dog to the vet for a quick check. Better to be safe than sorry.
In most cases, the vet will want to remove the tumor and do a biopsy on it to make sure that it isn’t malignant. That means shaving around the area, surgically removing all or part of the tumor, performing a lab test, and giving the dog sutures. Although not aesthetically pleasing, the procedure’s certainly better than the alternative (possible death).
If the tumor is benign (and many of them are), you then have a choice whether to have the tumor removed. If you decide not to have it removed, you must remember to be careful when grooming around it. Tumors tend to bleed profusely when nicked with a comb or clipper, and if they continue to grow, you may want to have it removed for aesthetic reasons or for the comfort of your dog.

Zinc Responsive Dermatosis

Zinc responsive dermatosis is a hereditary disease in which a dog fails to adequately absorb enough zinc in his diet. The result is a scaly and crusty nose, paw pads, and belly. This condition may be mistaken for other autoimmune diseases, like Collie nose (an autoimmune disease that looks like a sunburnt nose, common to Collies), so it needs to be diagnosed through a skin biopsy in which the vet removes and tests a small piece of the nose.

Zinc responsive dermatosis is prevalent among northern breeds such as Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies, Malamutes, and Samoyeds. Dogs that have this condition need zinc supplements included in their diets.

by Margaret H.Bonham

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