shutterstock_112320443_webOur first blog starts at the very beginning, what actually is a skin disorder?….. expertly written by Dr Claire Miller BVetMed CertAVP MRCVS.

Your skin is often referred to as the largest organ of the human body and the same is true for our furry friends. With a myriad of functions, the skin is always working hard to protect our pets from wear and tear, to help regulate body temperature and to prevent invasion by micro-organisms.

Skin has a fairly complex structure consisting of three main layers:

1. The epidermis: the outermost layer of skin, provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone. It is continuously renewed by cells in deeper layers dividing and migrating to the surface. It can be further divided into 5 sub-layers of strata:

    • Stratum corneum
    • Stratum lucidum
    • Stratum granulosum
    • Stratum spinosum
    • Stratum germinativum (also known as stratum basale)

2. The dermis: beneath the epidermis, contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles and sweat glands.

3. The hypodermis (deeper subcutaneous tissue) is made of fat and connective tissue. Its purpose is to connect the skin to underlying bone and muscle as well as supplying it with blood vessels and nerves.

Skin supports its own ecosystem of micro-organisms which help keep one another in check. In the event of a disturbance of this balance, an overgrowth can occur leading to clinical signs as described below. The skin covering different areas of the body often hosts a different population of micro-organisms due to the differing environmental conditions. For example, the skin lining the ear canal will differ to that between the toes or under the chin or even on the foot pads. Similarly dogs with skin folds can experience problems as the folds can create a different environment which can disrupt the normal balance of micro-organisms.  Therefore, skin conditions may be isolated to specific regions of the body depending on the cause.

Commonly seen symptoms related to skin issues:

  • Itching/scratching/nibbling/licking
  • Ear infections – discharge, redness, odorous
  • Hair loss/alopecia
  • Redness and inflammation
  • Sores and ulcers
  • Yeasty smell
  • Lumps and bumps
  • Dry or flaky skin
  • Pimples and pustules
  • Rashes
  • Poor coat condition
  • Staining of coat – such as tear staining
  • Skin gland problems – such as anal sacs
  • Nail problems

Unfortunately, there is never a quick fix and dermatology demands both logical and thorough investigations, as well as a great deal of patience. Even once a diagnosis has been made, consideration must be given as to whether this is the primary problem if you are going to achieve success in long-term management. For example an ear infection could be just secondary to an underlying food intolerance or even a polyp.

To illustrate the complexity of diagnosing skin conditions, here are some possible causes with examples (in no particular order):

  • Allergic causes – food intolerances, pollens, parasites
  • Nutritional causes – incorrectly balanced diets, obesity leasing to skin folds
  • Parasitic causes – fleas, mange (sarcoptic and demodectic),
  • Infectious causes – bacterial, fungal and yeast infections
  • Environmental causes – contact dermatitis, chemical irritants, burns, insect sting/bite
  • Endocrine causes – thyroid disease, cushings disease
  • Cancerous causes – carcinoma, sarcoma, mast cell tumour
  • Autoimmune causes (rare) – lupus, pemphigus

What can be done to combat skin issues?

Unsurprisingly, surveys suggest skin disorders are the most common reason for patients to visit their vet and as much as 25% of activity in a small animal veterinary practice is taken up with diagnosing and treating skin and hair disorders.

Certainly a trip to the vet should be the first step in managing any skin condition so a history can be taken and a full physical examination can be performed, along with any necessary diagnostic tests such as those shown below:

  • Skin scrapes
  • Hair plucks
  • Biopsies
  • Cultures
  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Review of current parasite prevention
  • Exclusion diet / diet trial

This article was written by Natures Menu vet Dr Claire Millar BVetMed CertAVP MRCVS.

The next few articles will focus on our 4 Step Plan for managing a skin disorder, this covers from looking at your dog’s environment through to nutrition and grooming and all written by experts in the field! Don’t let your dog become #hotunderthecollar