All Pets Veterinary Clinic


The skin and hair coat are the most visible signs of a pet’s health status. An animal that
is healthy will often have a shiny, bright, smooth coat that is free of unpleasant
odors. (That is, unless you are the lucky owner of a pet that likes to roll in dead
things!) An animal that is ill or malnourished will often have a subpar skin and hair
coat. The remainder of this article will focus on six of the most common signs of a
skin problem and the things that can cause unhealthy skin and hair in dogs and cats.

1. Greasy/oily skin. The hair coat should be smooth and even textured. It
should not leave a greasy residue that can be rolled off of your finger tips after
petting an animal. An excessively greasy coat can be a sign of many conditions
including superficial or deep bacterial infection, fungal infection, or endocrine
(hormonal imbalance) disease.

2. Stinky skin. Animals should have a normal, healthy, mild dog or cat smell.
Unfortunately, hair can trap many odors including cigarette smoke, musty house, and
skunk spray. Animals that smell like these things are not necessarily unhealthy—they
were just exposed to unpleasant smells. Additionally, other areas of the body can
cause a pet to have a foul odor such as the mouth or anal glands. A dog or cat with
severe dental disease and dental infection can have a very foul smell that is more
noticeable when the pet is eating or panting. Dogs and cats can empty their anal
glands if they become scared, excited, or agitated. Anal glands have a strong
fishy odor that can also linger on a pet’s fur.
Skin that actually smells unpleasant and cannot be explained by the above situations
is most often malodorous because of a yeast or bacterial infection. The infection
can be primary (the main cause) or secondary (i.e. due to something else). Many of
the conditions listed elsewhere in this article can cause a secondary skin infection
that results in a foul smelling pet.

3. Itchy skin. Pets that itch and scratch excessively at themselves can have a
multitude of problems. The most common cause of itching is fleas. However, other
parasites such as mites and lice can cause itching as well. A second common cause
arm pits, flank, and abdomen. Animals can have allergies to a multitude of things
including certain foods, pollens, molds, grasses, weeds, trees, and mites. Endocrine
disease such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease, some types of skin cancer, and
some forms of autoimmune disease can also cause itching. Less commonly, some animals
can lick or gnaw at themselves if they are bored or stressed.

4. Blotchy skin/skin sores. Many things can cause the skin to have a blotchy
appearance including chronic itching, bacterial infection, trauma (self induced or
from another animal or object), allergic reaction, and hemorrhage or bruising.
Skin sores, scabs, or blisters can be the result of bacterial infection, fungal
infection, trauma, cancer, burns, etc.

5. Bald skin/hair loss. Hair loss is one of the most obvious signs of a
skin problem. Hair can thin or fall out completely from conditions including
endocrine disease (Cushing’s disease, hypothyroidism, seasonal flank alopecia),
self trauma from itching, allergies, parasites, fungal infections (ringworm),
bacterial infection, autoimmune disease, and congenital disease, among others.

6. Scaly/flaky skin . Flakes or scales seen along the hair coat are most
often due to one of three things—dry skin, bacterial infection, or a mite called
Cheyletiella. Winter months are notorious for causing animals, and people, to have
dry skin. The combination of low indoor humidity and frequent running furnaces can
cause the skin to become dry and flake. However, a bacterial infection that results
in skin that blisters and peels and a mite called Cheyletiella or walking dandruff
can mimic flaky dry skin as well.

Since many of the above signs can be a result of many of the same conditions,
proper diagnosis are necessary to identify the exact cause and initiate treatment.
A thorough diagnostic workup for the above signs may include skin scraping,
superficial cytology, fungal culture, bacterial culture and sensitivity testing,
biopsies, and bloodwork. Once a diagnosis has been made, the appropriate
treatment can be started. Proper treatment of the above conditions will
allow your pet to restore its normal, healthy skin and hair coat.

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not
intended to take the place of your regular veterinarian. Please do not hesitate
to contact your regular veterinarian if you have questions regarding your pet.

Karen Blakeley, DVM, MPH
11 February 2007