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Small yellow dog laying down in bed and biting his back

If they won't stop biting, it might be atopic dermatitis

When talking about eczema, note that this term is the human equivalent to what is known as atopic dermatitis in dogs. Atopic dermatitis is the all-encompassing term that means irritated, red, itchy, skin due to any number of reasons, though usually some sort of allergy, whether it is seasonal, food, flea, or dust mites. Whether calling the problem hot spots, canine eczema, or atopic dermatitis, the discussion surrounds itchy, irritated, and inflamed skin on dogs.

No matter the cause, this discomfort typically leads dogs to lick, chew, and scratch their skin, which typically exacerbates the problem and leads to even worse symptoms.

No one likes to see their canine companion uncomfortable, so whether they are suffering from wet eczema or dry eczema, it’s important to address the root of the itchiness with a treatment plan that will have them feeling better as soon as possible.

Canine atopic dermatitis (aka eczema) in dogs, explained

First, it’s important to understand what eczema actually means, before diving into the difference between the two typical presentations of eczema: wet and dry. Eczema is a skin condition in which the skin becomes chronically inflamed for any number of reasons discussed later on in this article. The affected skin is always itchy, making it really difficult for dogs to leave it alone, and because of their fur, irritants can remain trapped.

Eczema can occur without contact being made from an irritant, as is the case with allergic reactions. Though often brought on by environmental allergens, dog food can often be the culprit as well. Then there are eczema cases that happen due to direct contact with the skin from a myriad of sources, from dust mites to flea bites.

Dermatological cases can be very tough to identify and define, which is why it’s important to understand the exact symptoms affecting the dog. As mentioned before, when it comes to eczema, vets are on the lookout for two prominent presentations: Wet eczema presents as red and scaly, often producing a wet discharge. If that didn’t sound bad enough, dry eczema can look gray and flaky.

While both kinds of eczema (whether atopic or topical), are caused by skin irritants and present similar symptoms, they are treated differently, so getting to the root of the problem is the fastest route towards a happy, healthy pup.

Dogs of any age can fall victim to this uncomfortable condition, so it’s always important to keep an eye out for potential cases.

👉 Check out this video for a visual guide on dogs with itchy skin

Symptoms of eczema in dogs

When it comes to eczema, the skin is going to be telling the first part of the story. Skin affected by eczema will most commonly look red and swollen, rashy, with hair loss (alopecia) and skin lesions or blisters. These are often referred to as hot spots.

Some or all of these symptoms may be visible, with varying degrees of severity. Other symptoms to watch out for include discharge, dandruff, yeasty or foul smell, matted hair, flaky skin, and skin discoloration.

Your dog’s behavior is also important to knowing whether or not they are suffering from eczema. It’s very likely they will be scratching and licking the affected area, or even rubbing against solid objects to alleviate the discomfort.

Any of these symptoms on their own are not enough to determine whether a dog has eczema, so be sure to keep track of which ones arise in order to help your veterinarian make a more accurate diagnosis. And remember that as symptoms progress, dogs licking and chewing affected areas will make things worse, not better.

Knowing where to look is another weapon in the battle against eczema, which can sometimes first appear between a dog’s toes when they lick a wound or abrasion and end up getting the area wet, leading to infection. However, eczema also frequently appears on dogs’ legs, back, armpits, and tail. Often, dogs get itchy, inflamed skin first, then scratch and lick at it because it is itchy.

Causes of eczema in dogs

Eczema has a nearly endless number of underlying causes, but knowing which breeds are more prone to the condition is a good place to start. Dogs with wrinkled skin are the most prone, as the folds tend to trap heat and moisture, leading to rubbing skin and ultimately itchy rashes. Breeds in this category include Chinese Shar Peis, boxers, American bulldogs, Boston terriers, and Shih Tzus.

Other breeds that tend to get eczema include the following:

👉 Even mutts don’t escape eczema’s grip!

Without being paranoid, there is a long list of causes for eczema, from environmental allergens to coming into contact with irritating objects. Here are the most common causes for eczema in dogs:

  • Seasonal allergy to various pollens that can be in the air
  • Environmental allergy to grass and trees, or even dust mites and human skin cells
  • Parasites, mites, or fungal infections
  • Allergy to food, almost always to the protein source in the food
  • Wounds that leads to licking
  • Exposure to irritants, like plants or chemicals
  • Bacterial infection
  • Impacted anal glands
  • Flea allergy
  • Ear infections

Eczema is preventable if you anticipate the underlying causes above, especially when you own a breed prone to it. However, sometimes you are only given the opportunity to react, rather than prevent.

👉 Differential diagnosis from a veterinarian is your best shot at determining the exact cause.

How to diagnose doggie eczema

Eczema is a tricky condition to diagnose, as no tests currently exist that can specifically diagnose it. Instead, a veterinarian will conduct a comprehensive physical exam, including getting stool and blood samples, skin scraping for mites, and swabbing the skin to look for bacteria or yeast, as well as get as much information from you, the dog owner, to construct a thorough medical history. In some cases allergy testing may be performed, but most standard veterinary offices do not have this type of testing on hand. Your dog may need to be referred to a Veterinary Behaviorist for allergy testing to look into food allergies or skin allergies.

More often than not, diagnosis is performed over a long period of time in which the most common causes of atopic dermatitis are removed from the dog’s environment. Many times an official diagnosis is never found, and your dog’s symptoms are just treated as they arise.

That could be anything from switching household cleaners for a month to see if the symptoms go away, or switching proteins in the diet for a minimum of six to eight weeks to determine if allergic reaction to food is the culprit. No matter which route the veterinarian advises, it’s important to fully stick to the plan so variables can be ruled out, otherwise starting over will be necessary.

How to treat your pup’s dermatitis

Treating eczema requires a multi-faceted approach. While performing the long-term experimentation to determine the root cause, direct treatment to the existing wounds will be necessary. This involves curbing exacerbating behavior, as well. If licking and scratching can be properly stopped, it’s possible that veterinary intervention won’t be necessary. It’s time to visit the vet when your dog’s quality of life is being affected, either because their behavior is becoming focused on the pursuit of itching and licking, or because the infection itself is becoming unmanageable.

👉 Because determining the cause can take a long time or never even determined, relieving itchiness has to be the priority.

Start with these treatment steps

  • The first step is finding and getting rid of the root cause of the problem. Then, avoiding the discovered trigger is your dog’s best chance for recovery, but in the meantime, address the wounds as you find them.
  • Next, clean irritated skin, and gently clip fur that may be getting matted into it.
  • Then, apply flea control if not currently being administered. When dogs lick their fur, it can trap moisture and make the infection fester.
  • Finally, check to see if any foreign bodies (like thorns) might be causing the irritation, and then dry everything off carefully, so as not to rub the tender skin.
  • Note that anti-itch sprays are generally effective at helping with scratching, which will reduce the amount of intervention needed to actively stop a dog from itching itself.

Try these at-home remedies

👉 Even if you are using holistic at-home remedies, please get a vet’s input before applying them.

Some popular at-home topical remedies are geared towards stopping itchiness (since this will prevent exacerbating licking), and include diluted Calendula essence and wound balm for wet wounds. Covering wounds with Musher’s Secret or other protective balms before dogs go outside is advised so dirt and other irritants aren’t able to make matters worse.

Antihistamines can also help with itchiness symptoms, as can psorinoheel drops for wet eczema, and dermisol drops for the dry kind. Easy changes to make around the house that could help include using stainless steel food bowls, non-rubber toys, and introducing supplements such as Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E to your dog’s diet because of their anti-inflammatory properties. It can also be helpful to boost their immune system through healthy food.

Your vet can help

If your dog’s itchiness, red skin, or hot spots are not improved with at-home remedies after 3-5 days, you need to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can prescribe safe, fast-acting medications to help curb your pet’s itchiness and get any infection under control. The most important goal is to cease skin irritations, prevent secondary skin infections, and get your dog back to feeling their best.

Since canine atopic dermatitis is usually due to underlying allergies, be aware that your dog will most likely have flare-ups of the condition their entire life. Sometimes this may be once or twice a year, every other year, or even throughout the year.

Rest assured, there are safe medications that can be prescribed by your veterinarian to be given to your dog long-term, or when their flare-ups are at their worst.