Seborrhea in Dogs: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment

Seborrhea in Dogs: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment

Unless you have a hairless dog breed, your dog’s skin is often hidden by hair or fur. But for all breeds, skin health is a factor in your dog’s overall well-being. Canine skin disorders like seborrhea, also known as seborrheic dermatitis, can lead to flaking and greasy skin. Learn how to recognize canine seborrhea and how to treat seborrhea in dogs.

What Is Seborrhea in Dogs?

Seborrhea is caused by a defect in skin keratinization (the formation and turnover of skin cells). It happens when the body produces too many skin cells and/or too much sebum (a naturally-occurring, oily substance).

Veterinary dermatologist Dr. Charlie Pye, DVM, DVSc, Diplomate ACVD, says there are two types of seborrhea in dogs. “Seborrhea sicca is characterized by increased scale formation — dandruff. Seborrhea oleosa is characterized by excessive greasiness of the coat and skin. Both types can be found occurring together on the same patient.”

What Causes Seborrhea in Dogs?

Primary Seborrhea

Primary seborrhea is an inherited disorder where the cells in the top layer of skin, known as the epidermis, multiply excessively. Dr. Pye explains that primary seborrhea is often seen in specific dog breeds, including Cocker Spaniels, English Springer Spaniels, West Highland White Terriers, Basset Hounds, Irish Setters, Doberman Pinschers, Chinese Shar-Pei, Dachshunds, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherd Dogs.

“Not all dogs of these breeds will be affected,” Dr. Pye says, “and many of these breeds are predisposed to diseases leading to secondary seborrhea. Therefore, a seborrheic individual of one of these breeds should not just be ‘assumed’ to have primary seborrhea. Secondary causes of seborrhea are far more common.”

Dachshund sitting in the grass.

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Secondary Seborrhea

Secondary seborrhea occurs when a separate disorder, rather than cell multiplication in the epidermis, causes seborrhea in dogs. The secondary disorder could be anything that creates skin inflammation, such as canine allergies, external dog parasites, endocrine disorders, immune-mediated disease (conditions where the immune system may attack the body’s cells), or nutritional deficiencies.

Skin inflammation can lead to increased skin cell turnover, as well as changes to skin fats and fatty compounds called lipids. In particular, lipids within the skin may begin to overproduce. And all that results in a seborrheic appearance to the dog.

Whether the dogs have primary or secondary seborrhea, Dr. Pye says they should “always be examined for secondary bacterial or yeast infections, as these conditions can be found commonly in seborrheic dogs.”

What Are the Signs of Seborrhea in Dogs?

Because secondary seborrhea can be caused by so many different conditions, the signs of the disease can vary. However, the following list of symptoms may help you identify when there’s reason for concern:

  • Increased skin flaking, often seen as dog dandruff in their bedding
  • Increased skin oiliness, meaning the coat and skin may look greasy
  • Foul odors (often associated with seborrhea oleosa and caused by keratin deposits sticking to hair, but they may also be the result of secondary bacterial or yeast infections.)
  • Red or inflamed skin, which may appear in areas with skin folds (such as around the armpits or thighs)
  • Hair loss
  • Bumps or pimples, which can indicate a secondary infection
  • Itching in dogs, which may be caused by a secondary issue such as allergies

Does Puppy Seborrhea Exist?

Primary seborrhea usually begins when a dog is under 2 years of age. So puppies are not immune to seborrhea. In fact, any dog can get secondary seborrhea if they have a separate condition that causes skin inflammation.

Dr. Pye explains, “Certain skin conditions are noted in puppies such as infectious diseases, parasites, and early onset allergies. If a dog was diagnosed with one of these diseases, they could have seborrhea as a clinical manifestation of this disease.”


Is Seborrhea in Dogs Contagious?

Dr. Pye clarifies that seborrhea itself is not contagious. In addition, many of the diseases causing secondary seborrhea, like allergies or endocrine diseases, are also not contagious.

However, other causes of seborrhea (like certain parasites or fungal infections, including ringworm in dogs) can be contagious. If your pet is diagnosed with a contagious disease that leads to seborrhea, your vet may recommend treating other dogs in the house for that underlying condition. They may also recommend that you avoid taking your dogs to public places until the disease has been treated. If your dog has a contagious disease, use good hygiene practices to keep yourself safe, including wearing disposable gloves while handling them and washing hands thoroughly afterwards.

How Is Seborrhea in Dogs Diagnosed?

Depending on your dog’s clinical signs of seborrhea, your vet might recommend a range of tests. These could include:

  • Cytology (examining skin cells) to check for infection
  • Skin scrapings to identify the presence of certain parasites
  • Trials of parasitical medications (Some parasites are difficult to identify with scrapings, so medication trials can help rule them out as causes.)
  • Blood work to rule out systemic disease in dogs (conditions that affect multiple systems or the whole body) and endocrine disease
  • Food trials to rule out food allergies
  • Skin biopsies to determine whether your dog has an immune-mediated disease or canine skin cancer

How Is Seborrhea in Dogs Treated?

The main treatment for secondary seborrhea involves addressing the underlying disease. Once this is treated, the seborrhea should resolve within a few months.

However, Dr. Pye says, “If a patient truly has primary seborrhea, symptomatic treatment will be instituted.” In the initial stages of treating secondary seborrhea, your vet may recommend treating the symptoms, as well.

Golden Retriever getting comforted while lying on a table at the vet.

alexsokolov/Getty Images Plus

According to Dr. Pye, your vet may recommend several potential seborrhea in dogs. These include:

  1. Bathing: Your vet will recommend either an antimicrobial shampoo or a dog shampoo aimed at removing excess sebum. Be sure to follow your vet’s instructions about how often to wash your dog and how long to leave the seborrhea dog shampoo on for. In the beginning, they may instruct you to bathe your dog one to two times a week. It’s a good idea to avoid using very hot water, which can further dry out the skin. Also, shampoos will often need a contact time of five to 10 minutes on the skin to work best. If a dog is very greasy, your vet may recommend two dog shampoos, one to degrease the dog and another to moisturize the skin.
  2. Spot-on anti-seborrheic products: Spot-on anti-seborrheic products are small pipettes containing a liquid that can be applied directly to the skin once a week. They help to regulate skin turnover and the production of lipids.
  3. Omega fatty acids and other vitamins and supplements: Always talk to your vet before giving your dog any supplements, but they may recommend adding omega fatty acid supplements to your dog’s diet, as these can decrease inflammation (in certain cases of secondary seborrhea) and moisturize the skin barrier (in cases of seborrhea sicca). Fish oils for dogs may also be helpful.

How to Treat Seborrhea in Dogs at Home

Always consult your veterinarian before starting any at-home treatments for seborrhea. Dr. Pye says, “They can recommend the best possible approach for your dog, as no two cases of seborrhea are identical, and underlying disease could be present. Your veterinarian will help manage any skin disease.

“If your dog’s skin disease is not resolving, your veterinarian can refer you to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist who will be able to help address your dog’s skin condition effectively. Board-certified dermatologists have had years of training in skin conditions and are equivalent to a human dermatologist and allergist.”

Boston Terrier getting a bath in a tub outdoors.

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With your vet’s approval, you can try some at-home seborrhea dog treatments, such as using medicated anti-seborrheic shampoo. A once-a-week bath for your dog with lukewarm water can also help reduce the signs. However, Dr. Pye warns that secondary seborrhea will return (even with at-home treatment) unless the underlying disease is addressed. Plus, your dog could potentially develop other clinical signs in the meanwhile.

Can Seborrhea in Dogs Be Cured?

Primary seborrhea is genetic and lifelong, and many of the diseases that lead to secondary seborrhea do not have a cure. Instead, they are chronic conditions, like allergies or endocrine disease, that require lifelong management. Therefore, in most cases, your vet may place emphasis on controlling the secondary disease so you no longer see any of the clinical signs of seborrhea. However, if the secondary seborrhea is caused by a curable condition (like the presence of parasites), your dog should be fully healed once treatment is complete.

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