what our dogs’ skin can tell us about their health

Posted by Dr. Kelly Diehl on Dec 15 2016
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The skin is our body’s largest organ, and the same is true for our furry friends! It’s the first line of defense against harm, and protects the other tissues of the body. But skin can also act as a warning system that something isn’t quite right inside our pets.

Skin changes can be caused by nutrition, hormone levels and the overall health of some organs like the liver and kidneys. All of these factors can be difficult to diagnose, but a veterinary dermatologist can help you determine the cause and decide the best treatment for your dog.

Some of the most common diseases associated with skin changes in dogs include:


Many food and environmental allergies in dogs show up in the skin. Allergies typically cause itchy skin and redness. Many dogs can suffer from more than one allergy, and it can be difficult to determine which allergies are present.

Canine hypothyroidism

Thyroid hormones are important in maintaining skin and fur health. Low thyroid levels (or hypothyroidism) can lead to a dull coat, fur loss (alopecia), scaly skin and recurring skin infections.

Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease)

The overproduction of cortisol (a steroid hormone) or Cushing’s disease leads to fur loss, thinning of the skin, recurring skin infections (both by bacteria and parasites) and slow-healing wounds.

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Several internal organ cancers can cause changes in the skin. These conditions are rare, but cancer should be considered when unusual skin changes can’t otherwise be explained.

Zinc deficiency or disturbance in zinc assimilation

Zinc is an important part of healthy skin, and several skin problems can stem from abnormal zinc levels. Many breeds are predisposed to zinc deficiency or assimilation problems, including Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. Typically, affected dogs have crusting, fur loss and redness around their eyes, lips and joints (like the elbow).


Viruses, such as canine distemper virus, fungal infections and blood parasites like leishmania, can cause skin changes. The location and signs associated with these infections vary and depend on the type of organism causing disease.

Many signs of skin-related health problems overlap, and it can be easy to overlook subtle changes that could be an early warning sign of more serious conditions. If you’re unsure about any skin changes in your dog, talk to your vet. Many problems are treatable, and have an excellent long-term prognosis.

Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit that supports veterinary health research, has funded studies on skin diseases in dogs since 1956. The Foundation currently is funding two studies looking for new targets to treat the itch and discomfort associated with allergic skin disease. Find out more about these studies and other Foundation-funded canine health studies and join us in ensuring a healthier tomorrow for our pets!