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All You Need to Know about Seborrhea in Dogs

Every dog owner knows all too well that their furbaby scratches and smells from time to time. Usually, the causes are typical, and residue from puddle jumping, frolicking on the grass, disrupting a pile of leaves, or a dunk in the water, and can be quickly washed off in a bath at home.
However, you may also notice some alarming symptoms that will get you concerned over your pup's well-being. If their skin and hair are oily, and you see whitish flakes shedding, your dog scratches excessively and has an unpleasant smell lingering around - chances are that they suffer from seborrhea. Seborrhea in dogs is, by no means, a pleasant condition to deal with. Fortunately, it's a well-documented disorder with many treatment options available. If you want to learn more about canine seborrhea, keep on reading!

What Is Seborrhea in Dogs?

Seborrhea, or seborrheic dermatitis, is a skin condition in dogs that manifests itself by excessive dandruff-like flakes and red, itchy, scaly skin. Because the sebaceous glands of the dog's skin produce more sebum (skin oil) than needed, the hair and skin are greasy. It's the oil buildup that gives off the unpleasant smell. The Pampered Pup experts agree it's a common disorder that can lead to secondary skin infections and other health-related issues if left untreated.

Symptoms and Types

There are two types of seborrhea: seborrhea oleosa (oily seborrhea) and seborrhea sicca (dry seborrhea). Most dogs have a combination of both dry and oily seborrhea. All the affected animals will share similar problem areas that are rich in sebaceous glands, including the front of the neck and chest, elbows, the hocks, armpits, the back, feet, belly, the ears, and the hair that borders the ears, as well as the insides of pouches and skin folds. Oily seborrhea can also accumulate in the ear canals. The affected areas can be itchy and inflamed, causing the dogs to scratch themselves. This, in turn, may lead to hair loss, crusting, bleeding, and secondary skin infections.

If you suspect your dog may suffer from seborrhea, look for these symptoms:

  • dry, flaky skin
  • accumulation of whitish scales and yellowish or grayish crusty plaques
  • excessive scratching
  • distinctive odor due to sebum (oil) excretion, yeast, or bacteria
  • bacterial and fungal infections due to skin damage
  • bleeding
  • crusting
  • hair loss
  • excessively oily skin

Secondary Seborrhea in Dogs

Canine secondary seborrhea is not an inherited condition, but it's a sign of an underlying disorder that causes similar clinical symptoms. It can be triggered by other diseases, such as scabies, canine atopy, dermatitis, flea allergies, hypothyroidism, hormone disorders, demodectic mange, and others.
The treatment of secondary seborrhea is the same as in the case of the primary version of the disease. However, the symptoms will most likely disappear as soon as the underlying condition is diagnosed and treated. Still, some dogs suffer from a form of secondary seborrhea called idiopathic seborrhea, which means the primary cause is unknown. As such, a vet will help you manage your pup's symptoms without treating the primary cause.

Causes of Seborrhea

Primary seborrhea in dogs is inherited, which means it's caused by genetic predispositions passed down by the parents. However, secondary seborrhea can develop in dogs regardless of their age and breed, indicating an underlying medical or environmental problem.
Below, you'll find possible causes of secondary seborrhea in dogs:

  • fleas, ticks, or mites
  • internal parasites
  • hormonal conditions
  • fungal or bacterial skin infections
  • yeast infections
  • flea, food, or environmental allergies
  • unhealthy diet
  • stress
  • significant changes in temperature or humidity
  • inability to groom properly due to musculoskeletal disorders, obesity, pain, or injuries

At-Risk Breeds

Some dog breeds are more likely to suffer from seborrhea than others, mainly because they have different types of fur and hair. Canine primary seborrhea is an inherited, genetic condition passed down from parents to offspring. It usually manifests itself before the animal reaches 2 years of age and progresses as it gets older.
The following breeds are the most commonly afflicted with primary seborrhea:

  • West Highland White Terriers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • German Shepherds
  • English Springer Spaniels
  • American Cocker Spaniels
  • Irish Setters
  • Basset Hounds
  • Dachshunds
  • Shar-Peis
  • Dobermans

When to Seek Veterinary Care

Dogs scratch themselves for many reasons, some of which may not be alarming at all. However, their scratching might be caused by more severe issues, such as food allergies, fleas, ticks, or mites. If you prefer to use home remedies rather than prescribed meds, going to the vet might not be your first choice whenever you notice your dog's unusual behavior. Nevertheless, some warning signs should prompt you to go with your pup to a veterinarian. Seborrhea is different from other skin irritants because it results in flaky, dandruff-like skin that can be either oily or dry. Also, an offensive odor is hard to overlook. If you notice such symptoms and see that your dog is in discomfort, consider asking for professional help.


If you take your dog to the vet, they'll be subject to a number of tests aiming to rule out the primary cause of this condition. These may include:

  • physical examination
  • fecal examination
  • hormonal examination, testing for Cushing's disease, thyroid disease, and other hormonal imbalances
  • skin biopsy and skin cytology, looking for bacterial, yeast, and fungal infections, as well as cells inflammation and abnormalities
  • skin scrapings and hair pluckings for parasites, fungal, and bacterial cultures
  • complete blood cell count (CBC) and chemistry panel, looking for underlying conditions and hidden imbalances.
Once all other causes have been ruled out, the vet will make a diagnosis of either primary seborrhea or idiopathic seborrhea.

Canine Seborrhea Treatment

Unfortunately, primary and idiopathic seborrhea are untreatable. All you can do is manage the symptoms to alleviate your dog's discomfort. However, if your dog has seborrhea of the secondary type, the treatment will involve determining and curing the underlying causes. Your veterinarian can prescribe antibiotics or antifungals for bacterial and fungal infections. Allergy medications, vitamin supplements, and omega-3 fatty acids may also help alleviate the symptoms and reduce inflammation. Your pup may also be prescribed retinoids, oral cyclosporine, or corticosteroids if skin infections are severe. Sometimes a newer therapy may be recommended. It involves Accutane (isotretinoin) or Soriatane (acitretin), used for human acne.
Additionally, your vet might recommend topical therapy, which includes shampooing. We recommend using Duoxo shampoo for treatment. A moisturizing shampoo or rinse should help control scale formation and rehydrate the skin. In cases of more severe flaking, you'll need a shampoo with sulfur or salicylic acid. For oiliness, shampoos with benzoyl peroxide and coal tar may be required.

The Bottom Line

If you suspect your dog has seborrhea or you're already aware of your pup's diagnosis, remember about staying in touch with your vet. It's a condition you can manage with the help of a professional, so there's no need to worry.
While it's impossible to prevent the onset of primary seborrhea due to its hereditary nature, you can still provide your four-legged friend with everything they need to stay in good shape. Make sure your dog's diet includes products rich in omega-3 fatty acids and consider introducing fish oil supplements. Your pup should also have constant access to drinking water in order to stay hydrated. Additionally, wash and groom your dog regularly to keep their coat healthy and lustrous. Ultimately, don't forget about scheduling regular check-ups and follow-up exams with your vet. Provide your pup with care and attention, and they'll be as healthy as can be!
Julia Łysakowska is a freelance writer and co-author of several pet blogs all around the globe, like petfoodreviews.online. When she’s not writing, she enjoys playing with her cat and dog, Noodle and Twinkles. She’s an animal lover and a traveler, helping other pet owners to discover what’s best for their fluffy friends.