We’ve all seen our dogs racing around and playing, then suddenly stop without warning to lift their back leg to their ear and scratch away. Your dog might even lie on the sofa, delicately nibbling at the fur between their paw pads, leaving you wondering what on earth they’re doing. In both cases, your dog is trying to scratch an itch!
While finally scratching an irritating itch is extremely satisfying, and occasional itching is normal in dogs, excessive itching is usually a warning sign something is wrong with your furry friend.
If your dog is itching more than normal, they could have a problem like fleas or a skin infection. But it could also be a sign of eczema!
Yep, your furry friend can get eczema too, and it’s relatively similar to eczema in humans. Eczema in dogs is also pretty common, yet few owners are even aware that their dog can have this itchy, irritating condition.
To help you understand this surprisingly common skin condition, here’s our guide to everything you need to know about eczema in dogs, including what it looks like, how it’s diagnosed, and how to treat and manage it.
Eczema in dogs (and humans) is known by the clinical name of “atopic dermatitis”. Skin conditions are common in dogs and atopic dermatitis is one most frequently seen by vets, and it’s believed to affect between 10-15% of all dogs.
Just like with humans, eczema in dogs affects their skin, causing itching and inflammation. It’s also a long-lasting or “chronic” condition, which means your dog might live with flare-ups throughout their life.
Eczema isn’t a life threatening condition, but is very uncomfortable for your dog and can impact their wellbeing and quality of life. It can also leave them vulnerable to secondary infections which can put their health at risk.
Wet eczema in dogs has a few names as well. The terms “wet eczema” and “moist eczema” are used interchangeably, and your vet is more likely to call it “acute moist dermatitis” or “pyotraumatic dermatitis”.
Despite all these names, wet eczema in dogs is most commonly known as hot spots.
Wet eczema or hot spots are patches of hairless, red, and sore skin that weeps or oozes. These wet patches of bald skin often smell quite bad too.
If your dog’s hot spots are dry and flaky instead of wet and oozy, they will have “dry eczema”, which is usually just referred to as eczema.
Wet eczema in dogs is caused by infections in their skin. These infections could be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungus however they can only infect your dog if their skin’s barrier is already broken.
The skin barrier is your dog’s first line of defence against infection and it works amazingly well at protecting them when they’re healthy and fed a nutritious diet. However, the barrier can be broken by injury, bug bites, or even your dog’s own scratching. And once there’s a break in the barrier, microscopic pathogens can get past it and infect your pooch.
Wet eczema itself is not contagious to other pets or people.
However, whatever caused your dog’s initial irritation could be contagious. For example, fleas can travel between pets and their bites can break the skin barrier but also irritate your pup’s skin, causing scratches with also break the skin barrier.
The pathogens that get under your dog’s skin and cause infection could also be contagious. That’s why it’s always best to keep your other pets separate if one is sick, and always wash your hands after handling your pet. Generally though, it’s quite rare for these infections to be contagious to other pets or people.
Eczema in dogs is often tied together with atopic dermatitis, which is often the result of an allergic reaction. It means that something your dog has eaten or something in the environment in contact with their skin has triggered an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction is overactive immune response, which causes inflammation.
The inflammation in turn is uncomfortable itself, and often causes symptoms like rashes and sore patches of dry skin, which are very itchy!
Your dog then scratches, bites and licks their sore spots hoping to relieve the itching, but this can break the skin and open it up to infection. Infection then makes inflammation and itching worse, and can cause further problems like hot spots.
Food allergies or intolerances
Contact with irritant plants
Exposure to chemicals (house cleaners, pesticides, etc)
Itchy and uncomfortable skin isn’t always a result of allergies though, it can also be caused by very hot or very cold weather. Just like with humans, this extreme weather can dry your dog’s skin out and make it itchy.
Infections are another common cause of eczema, and these could be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus. Sadly, eczema and scratching sore skin can lead to secondary infections, as other nasty pathogens can enter the body through the broken skin.
Genetics also plays a considerable role in the cause of eczema in dogs, because a dog is much more likely to develop eczema if their parents had the condition.
Any dog can get eczema, regardless of their age, breed, or sex. However, genetics does play a part and some dogs will be more likely to get eczema because it’s in their family history.
Equally, certain breeds of dog are more at risk of developing eczema. Labradors and Golden Retrievers are especially prone to the condition, and the UK population of Labs and Goldens have a 50% risk of developing the condition.
Other breeds that are more likely to develop eczema or atopic dermatitis include:
American Cocker Spaniel
However, how likely each of these breeds are to develop the condition varies according to geographical location. For example, dogs born in or living in cities are more likely to develop eczema or atopic dermatitis compared to pups living in rural locations.
It's likely that eczema in dogs has multiple causes, with a mix of genetic and environmental causes that influence an individual dog’s risk factor.
Eczema in dogs is not contagious to people or other pets. Allergic dermatitis and even skin infections are generally not contagious either.
However, parasites that can cause skin irritation or increase risk of infection are contagious, and both people and other pets can catch them. Some of these contagious parasites include:
Sometimes you might not be able to see what eczema in dogs looks like because your dog’s thick fur can cover up any sore spots.
You might first notice eczema on your dog if their skin becomes red and inflamed from frequent licking and scratching, or you might simply notice your dog is scratching more than usual, and they’re licking or chewing their paws a lot.
Eczema can affect any area of your dog’s body, but some places are more susceptible to the condition. The areas of the body most often affected by eczema in dogs include:
If your dog has pale fur, you might notice rust-red staining in areas where their saliva has stained their fur where they were licking or nibbling an itch.
Otherwise, eczema becomes visible when a dog develops hot spots. These are patches of skin where their fur has fallen out, and the skin looks red, sore, and moist. These bald spots can sometimes have a gross smell, and a scab might form over the top of them.
Hot spots aren’t always a sign of eczema though. If your dog has had a small injury such as a cut or a bite, it can become infected after they scratch, lick, or nibble the skin to try and itch it. This infection can then turn it into a hot spot.
Many allergies can also cause dermatitis and hot spots, mimicking the symptoms of eczema in dogs. This is why it’s important for your vet to examine your dog, to check there’s no other illness causing their symptoms.
Although many skin conditions can cause similar symptoms, they aren’t all treated in the same way so diagnosis is a vital step in making sure your dog gets the treatment they need.
The signs and symptoms of eczema in dogs are similar to human symptoms, and the most obvious indicator is excess itching as well as sore, red spots of skin.
However, these signs can be hard to spot because of your pup’s fur, and the symptoms your dog has can vary depending on the severity of their condition.
Paw licking or chewing
Dry, flaky skin
Hot spots (Hairless patches of red, moist, sore skin)
If you can see that your dog has developed any sore patches of skin you must call your vet. You should also try to prevent your dog from scratching or licking the sore patches to prevent further irritation and possible infection.
You can protect your pup’s skin and stop their scratching by putting an old t-shirt on your dog to cover them. (If the shirt is loose, try tying it or gather the loose material and use a hairband to keep it held together.) If you own a protective body suit, Elizabethan collar, or a buster collar, you can put one of these one your dog to prevent them scratching and biting their sore spots.
Good hygiene is a vital part of preventing eczema in dogs. You should wash and groom your dog regularly to keep their skin and coat clean and free of dirt and possible sources infection.
Grooming your dog regularly also gives you the opportunity to examine your pooch’s coat and skin, looking for any nasties that shouldn’t be there, like fleas. It’s also a chance to identify hot spots or other problems early on.
You should also give your dog regular flea and tick treatment to prevent parasites and bug bites which could cause irritation and infection.
Making sure your pooch eats healthy and complete dog food can help to prevent skin problems, as it will provide the nutrients their body needs to grow healthy skin and fur.
Amino acids and fatty acids are especially important for promoting new growth, strengthening the skin’s barrier, and reducing inflammation. We’ll talk about the importance of food in more detail below.
If you notice your dog is itching and licking their skin more than usual, you must take them to the vet for a check up.
Because many of the symptoms of eczema in dogs are similar to symptoms of other skin conditions, your vet must eliminate other possible illnesses such as folliculitis, pyoderma, demodex or parasites before diagnosing eczema.
First your vet will give your dog a thorough physical examination and comb their fur to assess the condition of their skin and coat and to examine it for any signs of parasites like fleas. Physical examination also gives your vet the opportunity to look for any lesions or infections in your pup’s skin.
Your vet might also take a tape sample or skin scraping to remove a few skin particles which they examine under a microscope to look for parasites like mites. They might also pluck a few of your dog’s hair to examine under a microscope for signs of parasites or fungal infection. Finally, they might look at your dog under a UV lamp to check for ringworm.
After ruling out any parasites and infections that could be causing your dog’s itchy skin, your vet will want to rule out possible allergies. Allergic reactions in dogs can mimic dermatitis.
Your vet may conduct a blood test to check for allergies, but it is more likely that they will ask you to try an elimination diet because this is the only way to effectively rule out the possibility of a food allergy.
Once all other possibilities are ruled out, and after considering your dog’s symptoms, your vet will diagnose them with eczema.
The treatment for eczema in dogs isn’t a world away from treating eczema in humans, and current treatments are effective for most dogs.
Treating eczema in dogs is often a combination of topical creams to clean and protect your dog’s sore skin, and oral anti-inflammatories and antibiotics to reduce inflammation and infection.
Before your pooch leaves the veterinary practice, your vet might shave the area around your dog’s hot spots or lesions. Removing the fur around the sore spots allows air to reach the skin so it can “breathe”. Your vet might also clean the sores and apply the first dose of topical ointment.
After this, your dog’s treatment will continue at home. A dog won’t be hospitalised with eczema unless there are complications that require observation or more hands-on care. Usually, your dog will be prescribed some medication and sent home, where they may require special baths.
In most cases of eczema in dogs, your vet will prescribe your dog with a short course of glucocorticoids (steroids) to reduce the inflammation on their skin.
These steroids could be a topical cream you have to rub on your dog’s skin, or a tablet. Humans with eczema are treated similarly, but you should never use any human medicines on your dog because human formulations will be too strong to be safe for your furry friend.
In addition to steroids, your vet might prescribe some topical or oral antibiotic treatments for your pooch. These antibiotics will be used to fight off any skin infections that could be causing their eczema, or to prevent or fight off any secondary infections that have entered their skin where they have been scratching.
Steroids aren’t the only medicine available though. Some dogs may be given oral cyclosporine (sometimes sold as Atopica and Optimmune) as an effective, alternative treatment.
Cyclosporine works by suppressing your dog’s immune system. This is because the sore, itchy swellings on your dog’s skin are caused by an overreaction of their immune system. Suppressing their immune system for a short time will improve your dog’s symptoms and give their skin the opportunity to heal.
Your dog might also be given tablets of oclacitinib (also called Apoquel) which helps to control itching, and it can relieve itchiness within a few hours of taking the medicine.
In cases of severe and unremitting eczema, your vet may use injectable recombinant interferons, if they are available. Studies in humans have shown this medication is effective in improving the condition of patients with severe eczema, but further studies are needed to understand why it works on dogs.
Another key part of treating eczema in dogs is keeping your dog clean. Your vet will recommend that you clean your dog’s hot spots and sores every day with a solution of warm water and salt, which will help to clean the wound and prevent infection. They might also give you a topical cream to apply to the affected areas of skin every day.
Otherwise, your vet might recommend washing your dog with a medicated dog shampoo for eczema. If you’re using a medicated shampoo, you will have to bathe your dog much more regularly than normal, sometimes every day, until their condition improves. Don’t worry, your vet will tell you how often you should bathe your pup and how long the treatment should go on for!
As your dog is healing, you will need to try and stop them from itching, biting, or licking their skin because this will irritate the skin and prevent it from healing.
That means your dog might have to wear a buster collar for a little while, which will stop them from being able to lick or bite their sores. An Elizabethan collar (or the “cone of shame”) can be used for the same purpose.
Your dog might also be given a protective bodysuit, which looks like a onesie. This suit will cover their skin and stop them from scratching or nibbling the skin directly. If you don’t have a bodysuit, you could put an old t-shirt on your dog instead.
While your dog is healing, you will still need to supervise them as best as you can, so if they try to interfere with their sore spots you can stop them. If you notice your dog is about to start scratching, or is already itching away, try redirecting their attention with a game or some training.
Another important aspect of treating eczema in dogs is to identify the cause of your dog’s eczema. This could be an underlying health condition, parasites, a food allergy, or allergens in the environment around your dog.
Preventing future flare ups is an important process in the treatment and management of eczema in dogs. By finding out what irritates your dog’s skin and avoiding contact with it, you can minimise your dog’s chances of another flare up.
Triggers that cause eczema or dermatitis in dogs are often ingredients in their diet. However, it could include almost anything your dog comes into contact with including different kinds of pollen, certain plants, dust mites, or even a cleaner you’ve used in the house.
Similarly, maintaining proper grooming and hygiene with your dog should improve their condition. You should wash your dog regularly with a gentle shampoo, or a medicated shampoo as suggested by your vet. You might have to wash your dog more often than normal if they suffer from eczema to prevent irritation and flare-ups.
Finally, you should make sure your dog is eating a healthy diet, which includes all the nutrients they need to grow strong, healthy skin and fur. Correct nutrition will also help to strengthen the skin’s barrier and to improve the health of your pup’s skin and fur, making a flare up less likely.
The wrong food can make your dog’s skin crawl, but the right nutrition can help to heal their sore skin.
If your dog has suffered from itchy skin, making sure they’re eating a healthy diet with a high-quality whole protein can help to stop their scratching.
Poor quality proteins like meat meals or derivatives often found in kibble don’t provide the amino acids your dog needs to build new proteins and tissues for healthy growth. Extreme food-processing like extrusion, which is used to make kibble, has also been proven to destroy amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and a vital part of your dog’s diet because your dog needs them in their diet to be able to grow new proteins in their own body, like healthy skin, fur, or muscle.
Whole protein like fresh cuts of real meat are the gold-standard source of protein and amino acids. This is because whole meat is more digestible so your dog can digest the food easier and absorb more of the nutrients, and none of the nutrition is destroyed by harsh processing.
Whole animal protein will also contain a good dose of fatty acids, like omega-3 and 6. These are really important for protecting your pup’s skin, and we’ll talk about them in more detail below.
Here at Pure we always use fresh, whole meat that’s carefully air-dried. Air-drying is even gentler than home cooking and removes the moisture which keeps the food fresh, concentrates the nutrients, and removes harmful bacteria. We also only use single-source protein, which makes it easy to avoid allergens.
It might benefit your dog to include more fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 in their diet, as this has been proven to improve the condition of dogs with atopic dermatitis and allergies.
This is because fatty acids, specifically omega-3, have anti-inflammatory properties. This can reduce inflammation in your dog’s skin and help to relieve their discomfort.
Omega-3 can also act as an immune modulator, meaning it can help to prevent an overactive immune response. (Which is what eczema is!) This will help to soothe your dog’s symptoms and to control flare-ups.
Fatty acids are also thought to help strengthen the skin barrier, which is your dog’s first line of defence against infections.
If your vet suspects your dog's eczema is a result of an allergy, your dog might require a 8-12 week elimination diet to identify any food allergies that could be causing their itchy skin. (Skin problems are the most common symptom of an allergy.)
Common food allergies in dogs include beef, chicken, milk, eggs, corn, wheat, and soy. Artificial additives are also a common irritant for canines.
Switching to a hypoallergenic dog food will help to avoid any triggering allergens and prevent future flare-ups of itchy skin. Pure is tailored to your dog so you can always avoid any annoying allergens or ingredients you know your dog dislikes. Pure is also all natural and has no artificial additives, flavours, or preservatives which are known to cause irritation and inflammation in some dogs.
Our recipes also use single-source protein, which makes it super easy to avoid common meat allergies. (Unlike kibble, which often blends together loads of animal proteins and makes it hard to avoid allergens!)
Many of the home remedies for eczema are complementary therapies, which can help to improve your dog’s condition and soothe symptoms, but cannot treat the cause of eczema in dogs.
Home remedies for eczema in dogs could also interact with any medication or supplements your dog is taking, so you should always talk to your vet about any holistic or home remedies you want to try, and they can tell you about how effective and safe they may be for your individual dog.
But what are these possible home remedies for eczema in dogs?
The first home remedy is feeding your dog probiotic yoghurt.
Probiotics have been linked to slight improvements in skin lesions on atopic dogs. However, they don't remedy the cause of your dog’s irritations and hot spots, and they don't cause significant improvements. But, yoghurt is a safe and tasty treat for your dog, so giving them a spoonful of a natural, probiotic yoghurt alongside the medication given by your vet could aid their recovery. (It’s also a good way of hiding their tablet!)
Another great home remedy for itchy skin is coconut oil. Coconut oil is highly moisturising and has some mild antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, which can protect your pup’s skin as it heals. However, it won't work in every case of eczema in dogs, and studies into the oil’s efficacy are limited. In any case, coconut oil could help to manage your dog’s symptoms and soothe their skin, but it won’t treat the cause of their eczema or prevent another flare up.
Even if coconut oil or yoghurt improves your dog’s skin condition, you must still work with your vet to identify the underlying problem and treat that.
Other home remedies available are to do with diet, which we discussed in the section above. This advice will also be given to you by your vet, and it will usually involve avoiding allergens and artificial additives in your dog’s food, feeding them a high-quality single-source protein, and potentially increasing their omega-3 intake.
While we love a home remedy and a natural treatment option, it’s important to remember they don’t always work for every condition or for every dog.
These natural remedies are a great complementary therapy to help soothe your pup’s symptoms and make your dog feel more comfortable, but they aren’t an effective treatment on their own. You must still follow your vet's advice and work towards identifying and avoiding the triggers that have caused your dog’s eczema to avoid future flare-ups.
If your dog is diagnosed with eczema, the outlook is pretty good. Eczema in dogs isn't life threatening, and it shouldn’t shorten their lifespan.
Although it isn’t life-threatening, eczema in dogs is uncomfortable and can impact your pup’s quality of life, so it is still important to treat the condition with the help of your vet. This will also prevent secondary infection and protect your dog’s health.
Most dogs improve quickly with treatment and some may never be bothered by eczema again. However, just like with humans, some cases of eczema can be persistent, and it is considered a chronic illness.
If your dog has a more persistent case, they may need to be on medication for a bit longer. They could also benefit from some lifestyle changes such as more regular bathing and grooming, and a switch to a hypoallergenic dog food full of high-quality protein and fatty acids.
You will also need to try and identify and avoid any allergens in your dog’s food and environment to prevent future flare-ups.
But on the whole, dogs with eczema can still live normal, long, and happy lives provided they receive treatment to manage their condition.
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.