Dog Seborrhea Symptoms, Treatment, & Cost


Seborrhea is often used as a general term for dry, flaky skin, often referred to as dandruff. In a strictly medical sense, however, seborrhea in dogs is a chronic inflammatory disease of the skin characterized by the accumulation of flakes, scales, and yellowish or grayish crusty plaques. Greasiness, itchiness, and secondary infections may be a factor as well. Dogs are most commonly affected.

The canine skin secretes oil and sweat, but it should never appear greasy or oily. In normal dog skin, some flakiness is common, but the exfoliated cells that cause this flakiness should be hard to find under a microscope and seldom (if ever) adhered to the skin or the hair shafts.

In the case of canine seborrhea, the skin produces too many of its superficial epidermal cells (it renews every week instead of every three weeks). This acceleration in the rate of cell production, the primary feature of seborrhea, also leads to an increase in the sebaceous gland turnover rate.

Any dog can acquire a dry form of seborrhea called seborrhea sicca. These dogs will have scaly skin over their trunk and possibly in their axillae (armpits). They may have itchy, inflamed, and infected skin.

However, the American Cocker Spaniel has been predisposed to canine seborrhea called seborrhea oleosa. This form, also known as primary seborrhea in the Cocker Spaniel, leads to oily, smelly, itchy, inflamed, and infected skin.

But, as with seborrhea sicca, any dog can suffer seborrhea oleosa secondary to other skin conditions, including allergic skin disease, hypothyroidism, and Cushing's disease, among others. Collectively, any non-primary forms of dog seborrhea are referred to as secondary seborrhea.

Dogs affected by primary seborrhea can develop secondary skin infections. The main microbes involved with seborrhea include Staphylococcus and Malassezia on the skin and in the ear canal, which can increase the signs of itchiness and unpleasant odor.

Symptoms and Identification of Dog Seborrhea

Seborrhea in canines is characterized by the signs described above, and can be diagnosed via the following techniques:

  • Cytology: Microscopic evaluation of the skin may be achieved by pressing a glass slide onto its surface (referred to as an impression smear). The loose cells, scales, microbes, and even hair shafts will adhere to the slide, thereby facilitating the diagnosis of seborrhea.

  • Biopsy: Diagnosis can be difficult to achieve in the case of the primary seborrhea afflicting American Cocker Spaniels. That's because seborrhea is more commonly seen secondary to other causes -- even in the Cocker. That's why the best diagnostic tool is a skin biopsy. A rapid anesthetic procedure is typically required.

Affected Breeds

As described above, dog seborrhea may affect all breeds, but the American Cocker Spaniel is predisposed to a form called primary seborrhea. The mode of inheritance is not yet known.

Treatment of Seborrhea in Dogs

Seborrhea in dogsis considered a highly treatable (if frustrating) dermatological condition. Treating any underlying diseases is the standard approach for non-hereditary forms of the disease. Still, we have to treat the symptoms along the way if we're to achieve comfort as rapidly as possible. In cases of primary seborrhea, a symptomatic approach is the mainstay of treatment.

Treatment of the symptoms typically involves antibiotics for bacterial skin infections and anti-fungal medication for the yeast microbes. Oral and topical medications are required if skin infections are severe.

Topical therapy includes shampooing (usually every three days to five days). Soap-free shampoos containing sulfur-based compounds and salicylic acid are recommended. In cases where oiliness is present, benzoyl peroxide or tar-based shampoos may be necessary. Moisturizing, dog skin-specific formulas are recommended.

Oral therapy is sometimes needed for severe cases. These may include oral fatty-acid supplements your veterinarian can recommend. Oral retinoic acid (or high Vitamin A) may also be recommended. Accutane (isotretinoin), used for human acne, is a newer therapy that may be appropriate. Another acne medication, Soriatane (acitretin), may be appropriate as well. In some cases, corticosteroids or cyclosporine may be recommended to help mitigate inflammation.

Veterinary Cost of Dog Seborrhea

The veterinary cost of canine seborrhea is largely relegated to the abovementioned diagnostics and treatments. These are not insubstantial. Diagnosis can cost up to $1,500 if a dermatologist is employed -- and even more in cases where several illnesses are potentially in play (such as allergic skin disease).

Treatment with topical shampoos and oral medications can add up as well, especially for larger dogs. Monthly, these treatments may reach into the low hundreds for some afflicted patients, particularly if generic medications are unavailable.

Prevention of Dog Seborrhea

There is no known means of prevention for canine seborrhea except for careful breeding of lines of dogs with a known genetic predisposition to primary seborrhea.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dog Seborrhea

What Does Seborrhea Look Like On a Dog?

Seborrhea in dogs appears as a dull, dry coat of fur with dandruff and greasy and oily skin. Your dog’s skin may also have an odor, plaque-like, crusty feel, or skin lesions.

How Often Should You Bathe a Dog With Seborrhea?

To aid with seborrhea in dogs, you should bathe your dog with anti-seborrheic shampoo every two to three days to start. Progressively, bathing continues for two to three weeks until the skin improves or signs of symptoms decrease.

What Causes Canine Seborrhea?

Seborrhea in dogs may be caused by various things, including vitamin deficiencies, skin allergies, hormonal imbalances, immune-mediated diseases, skin cancers, bacterial or yeast infections, and parasites.

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Campbell, K.L. 1997. Diagnosis and management of keratinization disorders in dogs. ACVIM - Proceedings of the 15th Annual Vet. Medical Forum. pp 220-222.

Merck Veterinary Manual:

Power, H.T., Ihrke, P.J. 1995. The use of synthetic retinoids in veterinary medicine. In J.D. Bonagura and R.W. Kirk (eds.) Kirk's Current Veterinary Therapy XII Small Animal Practice. p585-590. W.B. Saunders Co., Toronto.

Scott, D.W., Miller, W.H., Griffin, C.E. 1995. Muller and Kirk's Small Animal Dermatology. pp 737-743 W.B. Saunders Co., Toronto. This has a practical and detailed section on clinical management.