Causes of Dry or Flaky Skin on Dogs
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith

Scaliness of the skin, which can look like dandruff, may simply be caused by dry skin, however, there are many other causes, some of them serious. Many of the conditions which can cause scaliness are described in the table below. This is a long list, so you can understand why a quick diagnosis may be difficult to make and various diagnostic tests may need to be performed. The most common conditions causing scaling are color-coded gray in the table (some may be more common in certain geographical areas).


Condition Description Symptoms Diagnosis Treatment

Bacterial infection (pyoderma)

See Impetigo

Often occurs as a result of another condition such as a parasite, allergic, or hormonal condition

Black hair follicular dysplasia/ alopecia/ dystrophy Rare hereditary disease in dogs with hair of multiple colors; more common in Bearded Collies, Basset Hounds, Salukis, Beagles, Dachshunds, and Pointers Loss of dark or black hair only; symptoms appear between 3 and 6 weeks of age; sometimes scaling Clinical signs, biopsy Shampoos for scaling, if necessary
Canine distemper (hard pad disease) With vaccinations, canine distemper has become rare in many areas; foot pad lesions are common in this disease Puppies may develop impetigo; thickening of the end of the nose and foot pads; also see other signs of illness associated with distemper History of no vaccination; physical exam; blood tests to detect antibody response to viral infection Supportive treatment; may be fatal or result in permanent problems
Castration responsive dermatosis More common in young unneutered dogs, and in Chows, Samoyeds, Keeshonden, Alaskan Malamutes, Miniature Poodles, and Pomeranians Symmetrical hair loss in genital area and neck; hair loss may progress onto trunk; skin may appear darker; severe scaling; hair color may fade: coat is similar to a 'puppy coat' Physical exam and history; eliminate other causes; blood tests for hormone levels Castration

Cheyletiella (rabbit fur mite) mange

Infection with the Cheyletiella mite

Itching, scaliness; some hair loss, if severe

Skin scraping and microscopic examination - the mite is often very difficult to find

Pyrethrin, Permethrin (Do NOT use permethrin on cats.)

Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism) Caused by an increase in corticosteroids in the body - either due to increased production by the body or as a side effect of high doses or prolonged therapy with corticosteroids Hair loss, thinning of skin, hyperpigmentation, easy bruising, seborrhea, comedones (black heads), may see calcinosis cutis; lethargy, increased thirst and urination, pot-bellied appearance Adrenal gland function tests, urinalysis, chemistry panel, CBC If due to glandular tumors, selegiline, o,p-DDD (Mitotane), or surgical removal of tumor; if due to high steroid doses, withdraw use of steroids slowly

Demodectic mange (red mange, puppy mange)

Infection with the Demodex mite - occurs when the immune system is deficient

Hair loss, scaliness, redness, pustules, ulcers, sometimes itching, darkening of the skin

Skin scraping and microscopic examination

NO Steroids

Amitraz (Mitaban) dips

Dermatomyositis Some breeds predisposed; cause unknown; aggravated by trauma and UV light Redness, scaling, crusting, hair loss, and scarring on face, ears, and tail; atrophy of muscles involved in chewing Skin biopsy Minimize trauma and exposure to UV light; Vitamin E, fatty acids, short-term use of prednisone, oxpentoxifylline; some severe cases do not respond to treatment, and euthanasia may be considered
Epitheliotrophic lymphoma (mycosis fungoides) Rare cancer of T lymphocytes seen in older dogs Can take multiple forms: redness with itching and scale; ulcers and loss of pigment; one or more nodules; oral ulcers Needle or other biopsy Poor response to treatments, which include chemotherapy, surgical removal, retinoids, fatty acids

Flea allergy dermatitis (flea bite hypersensitivity)

Severe reaction by the animal to the saliva of the flea

Intense itching, redness, hair loss, papules, crusts, and scales; sometimes development of infection or hot spots

Presence of fleas; reaction to intradermal testing

Flea control in the environment and on the dog; steroids and antihistamines for the itching

Hypothyroidism Decreased production of thyroid hormone; most common hormonal disease affecting the skin in dogs Hair loss, dry and brittle hair, seborrhea; secondary bacterial and yeast infections; lethargy, obesity, slow heart rate; changes in skin pigmentation may occur Thyroid gland function tests, chemistry panel, CBC Lifetime thyroid supplementation
Ichthyosis (fish scale disease) Very rare Excessive thickening and crusting of skin and foot pads; seborrhea; odor; symptoms start in puppies Biopsy Difficult to treat; intense, lifetime management required; treat seborrhea; retinoids
Impetigo Usually affects puppies less than one year of age; often a Staph infection Localized area of small pustules especially on the abdomen (belly), crusts, circular areas of scaling History and physical exam; bacterial culture; skin scraping Topical hydrogen peroxide; chlorhexidine or benzoyl peroxide shampoos; antibiotics, if serious; puppies usually outgrow it
Leishmaniasis Caused by a parasite of blood cells; can be transmitted to people who develop a very severe disease Hair loss, scaling, ulcers on nose and ears, sometimes nodules; many other nonskin-related signs Identify the organism in blood or biopsy; blood tests Because it causes severe disease in people, and treatment of dogs is not curative, euthanasia may be performed
Lupus erythematosus Autoimmune disease affecting many body systems including joints, kidneys, muscles, and nervous system Skin lesions may include thickening or ulcers of the foot pads, scaling, and recurring bacterial infections with pustules Special blood tests (LE test); biopsy Prednisone and other immunosuppressive drugs; treat underlying infections


Usually follows some other underlying disease

Itching, redness, hair loss, greasy scales; if chronic, develop hyperpigmentation

Skin scraping/smear and microscopic examination, culture

Treat underlying disease; oral ketoconazole; miconazole shampoos

Nasal solar dermatitis

See solar dermatitis

Nasodigital hyperkeratosis Thickening of nose and footpads may be due to underlying diseases such as lupus, distemper, or zinc responsive dermatosis; in other cases, cause unknown End of nose becomes thickened, dry, and rough; foot pads thicken and crack making it painful to walk History, physical exam, biopsy, look for underlying disease Treat any underlying disease; remove excess thickening, soak areas and apply Retin-A

Pelodera dermatitis

Accidental infection with larvae from a non-parasitic worm that lives in straw and other organic material

Affects areas of skin touching ground; intense itching, redness, hair loss, papules, crusts, and scales

Skin scraping and microscopic examination

Remove bedding; mild antibacterial shampoo; steroids if necessary to control itching

Pituitary dwarfism Hereditary condition in which the pituitary gland does not produce the necessary hormones Young puppies fail to grow; dogs retain puppy coat and condition progresses to hair loss over much of the body; thin skin, scale and secondary infections Special blood testing for the presence of certain hormones Hormone replacement therapy

See Impetigo



Infection with several types of fungus

Hair loss, scaliness, crusty areas, pustules, vesicles, some itching; can develop a draining nodule called a 'kerion'


Miconazole, lime sulfur dips; oral griseofulvin or itraconazole

Sarcoptic mange

Infection with the Sarcoptes mite

Intense itching and self-trauma, hair loss, papules, crusts, and scales

Skin scraping and microscopic examination - the mite is often very difficult to find

Amitraz (Mitaban) dips (off-label use*); ivermectin (off-label use*)

Sebaceous adenitis Sebaceous glands are destroyed, cause unknown; certain breeds more susceptible Short-haired breeds: Circular areas of hair loss with fine scale; Long-haired breeds: More widespread hair loss and scale, hair mats easily; may see itching in all breeds Clinical signs, breed, skin biopsy Antiseborrheic shampoos, fatty acid supplements; in more severe cases, steroids, retinoids
Seborrhea Can be primary (inherited) or secondary (resulting from other disease processes such as allergies, hypothyroidism) Scales; depending upon the type, may have a dry or oily coat; odor; some scratching; may see hair loss Blood tests, skin scrapings, etc., to find underlying cause Treat underlying cause if present; antiseborrheic shampoos; fatty acid supplements
Solar dermatosis Skin reaction to sunlight, especially unpigmented skin; most common on the noses of Collies, Shelties, and similar breeds Redness, hair loss, and scaling on nose and ears, later crusts and ulcers History, breed, physical exam, skin biopsy Must avoid further sun exposure, especially 9 am - 3 pm; sunblock, steroids; tattoo nose or apply black ink
Testosterone responsive dermatosis (hypoandrogenism) More common in old neutered dogs, and in Afghans Dull, scaly, dry coat; seborrhea; hair loss in genital and anal areas progressing onto trunk Physical exam and history; eliminate other causes; response to therapy Testosterone replacement therapy
Vitamin A responsive dermatosis May not be due to an actual deficiency of Vitamin A, but does respond to increased levels of Vitamin A in the diet; more common in Cocker Spaniels Seborrhea; odor; hair pulls out easily; pads of feet thickened; thick scales on chest and abdomen, especially around nipples Clinical signs, breed, skin biopsy Lifetime treatment with Vitamin A
Zinc responsive dermatosis Three types: I in Huskies and Malamutes; II in rapidly growing puppies of large breeds; III in English Bull Terriers Crusting and scaling, redness, hair loss, sometimes oily skin, secondary bacterial infections common History, breed, physical exam, skin biopsy Correct any dietary deficiency, medicated shampoos, treat secondary infections

* off-label use: medication used to treat a condition for which it was not developed (or licensed). A large number of medications fall under this category. Research has almost always been performed to determine the effectiveness and safety of the product, but the manufacturer has not undertaken the lengthy process required for licensure.

References and Further Reading

Birchard, SJ; Sherding RG (eds.) Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1994.

Greene, CE (ed.) Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1998.

Griffin, C; Kwochka, K; Macdonald, J. Current Veterinary Dermatology. Mosby Publications. Linn, MO; 1993.

McKeever, PJ; Harvey, RG. Skin Diseases of the Dog and Cat. Iowa State University Press. Ames, Iowa; 1998.

Paterson, S. Skin Diseases of the Cat. Blackwell Science Ltd. London, England; 2000.

Paterson, S. Skin Diseases of the Dog. Blackwell Science Ltd. London, England; 1998.

Scott, D; Miller, W; Griffin, C. Muller and Kirk's Small Animal Dermatology. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1995.

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