We all want our pets to be looking their best since it’s a sign of tip-top health. But sometimes our fur babies’ hair coats can start looking like they’ve seen better days. So if your pet’s locks start looking greasy, flakey, or even non-existent, or if you’ve noticed a bit of a smell from their fur, what can be done?
Causes of hair loss in pets
One of the main causes of hair loss in dogs and cats is fleas or other parasite infestations. If your pet has unwanted guests in their coat the most commonplace that you will notice thinning of the hair or baldness is around the back end and tail base. Look out for the fleas themselves, or other evidence like flea dirt, as this will tell you if fleas are the cause of your pet’s alopecia.
Another cause of hair loss, particularly in dogs, is full or blocked anal glands (also known as anal sacs). The hair loss will often be around your dog’s tail base or either side of their bottom, and you might also notice them scooting or locking around their back end.
Any persistent itchiness or inflammation that causes your pet to scratch can lead to hair loss in dogs and cats. Therefore, we commonly see hair loss associated with allergies like certain foods, pollens, or flea bites. But sometimes the cause of hair loss is not related to itchiness or inflammation – cats can commonly pull their fur out by overgrooming, which mainly occurs as a result of stress or anxiety.
Despite its name, ringworm isn’t actually a worm at all—it’s a type of fungal infection. Both dogs and cats can be affected, showing thinning of their hair coat, round bald patches, or crusty lesions. Beware though, as cats can be carriers without showing any signs.
Demodex is a type of mite which lives in the hair follicles of your dog’s coat. It is present in a healthy dog but in small numbers. If your dog’s immune system is compromised, or your dog is very young or very old, they can be prone to large numbers of the Demodex mite, known as demodicosis.
The presence of the Demodex mites within the follicles will cause bald patches, often around the head and paws. Demodex doesn’t tend to be itchy, but often bacterial infection will develop after, leading to itchiness.
Also known as Hyperadrenocorticism, an overactive adrenal gland can lead to many skin changes including thinning of the hair coat, thinning of the skin itself, development of blackheads, and occasionally build-up of the mineral calcium within the skin. Alongside skin and hair coat changes, you may notice increased thirst, increased appetite, weight gain, and panting.
Causes of greasy or oily fur and skin in pets
The glands in your dog’s skin produce oils that help to maintain the skin barrier and keep the haircoat healthy. However, sometimes these glands can go into overproduction, which can leave your dog with a greasy or oily coat. This is often combined with increased turnover of skin cells and is known as seborrhea or seborrheic dermatitis.
Despite the increased production of oil, the coat is not always greasy. It can sometimes be dry, and there is often flakey skin or scurf present. If your dog has seborrheic dermatitis, you might also notice a smell due to bacteria and yeast thriving in a coat affected by seborrhea.
Some dog breeds are prone to seborrhea, and they may have it from a young age. Other causes can include contact irritations from shampoos or other chemicals, skin allergies, and other causes of inflammation.
If your dog has an overgrowth of yeast (commonly a yeast called Malassezia) on their skin, you will notice a particular smell around them. The overgrowth of yeast doesn’t just cause a smell though, it can cause soreness and inflammation which lead to overproduction of skin oils. It can also make your dog intensely itchy.
Other causes of greasy hair coat
Other less common conditions that can cause greasy and flakey skin include hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone), bacterial skin infections (pyoderma), and certain types of tumors or cancer.
How will my veterinarian diagnose my pet’s skin problem?
There are various techniques that our team might use to find out what is causing your pet’s hair coat to be dry, greasy, scurfy, or balding. Some of these techniques include:
If they suspect fleas may be the cause, one of our veterinarians might brush the coat with a flea comb, collecting the hair and any debris onto a wet cotton wool swab. If there are fleas, the flea dirt will dissolve on the wet cotton wool leaving a red stain.
Just a few strands of your pet’s hair may be enough to determine the cause of their hair coat issue. Sometimes, parasites can be seen on the hair itself, however, sometimes the hair needs to be sent to the laboratory to check for conditions like ringworm.
A skin scrape is often used to look for parasites like the Demodex mite or ear mites, and as traumatic as the name sounds, it actually only involves gently removing the surface layers of cells from the skin with a scraping motion.
Often, we can perform this test without sedation or an anesthetic, and most pets don’t mind it too much. Once we have a sample of skin cells on a microscope slide, we can use the microscope to check for parasites.
Your veterinarian might need to take a small sample of skin under anesthetic. This can be looked at in detail by the external laboratory team who will be able to recognize patterns that might suggest a bacterial, hormonal, cancerous, or allergic cause.
How are hair coat issues treated?
What can I do at home?
Always get advice from one of our team before trying to manage your pet’s coat condition at home with shampoos and other topical treatments. Although it can seem obvious to bathe your dog (or cat!) if their skin looks flakey or their hair looks greasy, some shampoo products, or even the act of shampooing, can actually make some conditions worse.
Skin supplements like cod liver oil and other sources of omega 3 and 6 and essential fatty acids can be helpful to maintain the skin barrier, preventing infection. Other specific skin supplements may contain vitamins A, B, D, and E, as well as anti-oxidants. Supplementing your pet may help to improve their skin and coat, so speak to one of our team if you’d like help selecting an appropriate formulation.
Following advice from one of our vets, the best management may be a medicated shampoo. For allergic conditions, a hypoallergenic or mild shampoo would be recommended, whereas for a yeast overgrowth there are antifungal shampoos.
Seborrheic dermatitis can be successfully managed by using specialized shampoos that can loosen the crusts and remove some of the oil without irritating the skin or making it dry and encouraging more oil production. A chat with one of our veterinarians will help you decide the best shampoo for your pet’s condition. Don’t be tempted to wash your pet more frequently than the veterinarian suggests, as this can dry or irritate the skin.
Conditions like ringworm and Demodex can also require topical treatment in the form of a medicated rinse.
I won’t be able to shampoo my pet! What can I do?
If you have a cat, or a dog that isn’t very cooperative at bath time, don’t fret! In some cases, the same shampoo formulation is available as a foam, spray, or wipe alternative.
If your dog or cat has a skin infection, your veterinarian might prescribe a course of antibiotics. Because the skin is made up of many layers, an antibiotic course for skin infections can last several weeks.
Anti-itch and anti-allergy medications
There are medications including steroids and non-steroidal medications that can reduce itching and inflammation of the skin. If your dog has an allergy, or their skin is inflamed and irritated, these medications can be used to break the itch-scratch cycle, giving the skin time to heal. They are often available as injections and tablets, so ask one of our team if you think you might struggle to give your pet tablets.
There are various types of parasite treatment available these days, to make it as easy as possible for you as pet parents. If you find tablets tricky, there are often alternative spot-on treatments that might be easier.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I stop my dog’s hair loss?
The best method of stopping your dog’s hair loss depends on the cause. It would be best to check for signs of fleas or flea dirt, as a simple flea treatment could cause resolution. Similarly, if you’ve noticed other symptoms like scooting or licking around their bottom, it could be their anal glands causing the problem.
Pop your pet into our clinic for an examination and one of our team can decide the right way to help.
How do I prevent dog hair loss?
Prevention depends on the cause but to keep your dog’s skin as healthy as possible, you can use regular parasite treatments and give cod liver oil or skin supplements containing omega 3 and 6, vitamins, and antioxidants.
How urgent is dog hair loss?
Whilst not being an emergency, hair loss in your dog or cat could indicate parasites, which could worsen without treatment. There may also be pain or discomfort associated with certain causes of hair loss, so it is a good idea to get them checked by a veterinarian within a few days.
Where does hair loss begin in a dog with Cushing’s?
In Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism), thinning of the hair normally start on the flanks of your dog’s body. You will usually notice other signs though, such as drinking and urinating excessively.
There are many possible causes of dry, greasy, crusty, hair coats and hair loss. If your pet is up to date with parasite control, or there are no signs of fleas, the best idea is to call our clinic and make an appointment for an examination with one of our veterinary team. Then, hopefully, your pet should soon be back to looking and feeling their best.