Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.
How to Recognize What Is Bothering Your Dog's Skin
Taking care of your dog's dandruff at home is fairly easy. You do not need to take your dog to the vet for a formal diagnosis in order to get rid of this problem. In most instances, you can use supplies that you have around your house to resolve typical dog dandruff. You can also find many inexpensive remedies in your local shops and do not necessarily need to go to the vet for conventional treatment.
However, you do need to figure out what kind of dandruff your dog is suffering from. I've provided steps below to help you identify the type of dandruff that your dog has so that you know how to treat it and get rid of it quickly.
The 4 Types of Dandruff in Dogs
1. Dry Skin
This is what most people think of when it comes to dog dandruff. The symptoms that appear are usually associated with dry skin, and it is a type of dandruff that most dogs, including your own, may be affected by in their lifetime. It is easy to diagnose, especially if it does not fit the profile of one of the other issues listed below. This type looks similar to the flakiness that you see on people. Your dog will likely have flakes of dead, white skin and their back and belly and their underarms will all look dry.
2. Greasy Skin
Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherd dogs are some of the common breeds that suffer from this greasy type of dandruff. A lot of other breeds like westies, doxies, dobies, and Cocker Spaniels are also affected. Instead of being dry, the skin will look greasy, waxy, and thick. Some dogs will have a yeasty smell; this type tends to look similar to the dandruff that develops on a person that never washes their hair.
3. Walking Dandruff
This is a form of mange that usually affects puppies or dogs that are forced to live in dirty conditions. The skin will have dry, flaky dandruff, but when you look at it very closely, you will see that the white flakes actually move. That is because the dandruff is actually a mite infestation. These dogs do not usually itch and scratch, but some of them will develop an allergy to the mite and be miserable.
4. Crusty Skin Secondary to Infection
This type is not actually dandruff, but it may look like it at a glance. These dogs have infected skin that develops pimple-like lumps which tend to burst open and resemble greasy dandruff.
Treatments for Dry-Skin Dandruff
Dry skin is the most common type of dandruff most of us see in dogs, and although treatment can take some time, it is relatively straightforward. Simply put, you need to improve your dog's skin quality by implementing dietary changes and by offering regular shampooing and moisturizing.
Step 1: Change Your Dog's Diet
A healthy diet is the first way to resolve dog dandruff secondary to dry skin. I am not talking about just switching from one store-bought dog food brand to another. (Around 40% of dry dog food diets tested by the AVMA contained things that were not even listed on the ingredients. A dry dog food brand that makes claims that it resolves dry skin and dandruff may just be the same product you have been buying all along.)
Instead, consider putting your dog on a diet that will begin to provide the nutrients he or she needs for moist and healthy skin. This type of diet focuses on raw, meaty bones, and if you would like more details on how you can improve your dog's coat through proper feeding, read more about dry skin.
Step 2: Shampoo
Shampoo your dog to remove all of the dandruff. You want to moisturize your dog's skin to control the condition, but in order to treat it effectively, you need to use a medicated shampoo that will remove the layer of dead skin. You can use a lot of different brands, but the most effective is a colloidal oatmeal shampoo which will remove the dead skin and allow the secondary treatments to reach the healthy skin underneath. Here's how to use it:
- Make sure the bath water is lukewarm (not hot!).
- Wet down your dog's skin.
- After applying the shampoo, leave it on for about 10 minutes. If that seems like too long to wait around with a wet dog, then take him or her out for a short walk while they are covered in shampoo if the weather is nice.
- Rinse and towel-dry.
Please remember though that all shampoos remove some of the oils from the skin. Even colloidal oatmeal should not be overused; only use it when the dog has a lot of dandruff and really needs to be cleaned up. If he or she has only a little dandruff and you really want to clean it up, use a brush. Brushes help to go against the way the coat lies and will clean the skin; brushing will not remove any oils.
Step 3: Apply Moisturizer
With dry-skin dandruff, there are several alternatives to resolving it. Some vets recommend using organic apple cider vinegar since it contains healthy bacteria that can combat dry skin. In some cases, it can aggravate dandruff, so in such a case, use coconut oil. Coconut oil has high levels of vitamins and antioxidants, so besides moisturizing the skin superficially, it also works on the deeper layers.
The nice thing about using coconut oil to moisturize your dog's skin is that if he or she licks it off it, is actually good for them. If you do not like the oily skin, however, and want to use some other moisturizer, you can use a 50:50 oatmeal paste and water mixture. Saponins in the oatmeal paste will further clean your dog's skin, and it only has to be left on for about 15 minutes before removing it with water.
How often to apply the moisturizer varies from dog to dog. If the skin looks dry, go ahead and apply more coconut oil. If the dandruff is already present, think about how long it has been and apply the oil before the problem even starts.
How to Make a Colloidal Oatmeal Shampoo for Your Dog
Blend the following ingredients into a shampoo:
- 1 cup of oatmeal (blend it as fine as possible in your blender or food processor while still dry)
- 1 vitamin E capsule
- 4 drops eucalyptus essential oil (optional). (It has anti-inflammatory properties, so it can help with the itching and will make the shampoo smell great.)
- 1 cup of water
Vitamin E: The vitamin E capsules that you add to the shampoo contain an antioxidant that helps reverse damage to the skin that has been caused by free radicals.
Eucalyptus essential oil: Eucalyptus essential oil is still controversial, and the dose I have provided is low since it can cause more skin problems if used in excess. (It is a good idea to apply this shampoo blend to one spot on your dog's leg the day before you are going to bathe him. If their skin is inflamed at that spot, do not use the essential oil.)
Treatments for Greasy-Skin Dandruff
Greasy skin is seen more often in certain dog breeds than others and is an inherited problem. Improving your dog's diet will help, but it won't make this condition go away, so the most important thing to do for these dogs is to consistently remove the oily skin that is leading to the dandruff. For patients with greasy coats and skin, multiple rounds of shampooing may be required as the grease will keep the shampoo from lathering up.
Step 1: Shampoo
Use any cheap shampoo that you have available to bathe your dog and remove the flaky skin. (Yes, cheap human shampoos are more acidic than canine skin and can cause your dog's skin to dry out. This is not a problem for a dog with greasy skin.) Here's what to do:
- Apply the shampoo and lather.
- After rinsing with lukewarm water, use a degreasing shampoo (like benzoyl peroxide) to remove the dead skin in order to clean the dog of excess oils so that the next part of the treatment will be more effective.
- Apply the degreasing shampoo and leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes; rinse it off completely before going on to the next step.
- After shampooing, you will need to kill any built-up bacteria and yeast on the skin. The best product to use for this is organic apple cider vinegar (ACV). I add my ACV to a spray bottle with the “mother” that contains lactobacillus and apply it to the dog's back and all other areas that are prone to dandruff.
Step 2: Moisturize
Moisturizing at this step may or may not be needed, depending on how the dog's skin looks. Think about your own hair. If you bathed your scalp and it still looked kind of greasy, would you apply a moisturizer? Probably not.
Treatments for Walking Dandruff
This condition is pretty uncommon nowadays but it is still a good idea to examine a new puppy's dandruff closely and figure out if walking dandruff is the problem. If the puppy was bought from an ethical breeder, walking dandruff probably isn't the culprit. However, if you found your puppy through a backyard breeder or bought them from a parking lot (puppy mill) or through the internet (which is how most puppy mills operate now), your dog is more likely to have this type of mange. Diagnosis is fairly easy to confirm visually since the dandruff will move as you are looking at it.
Step 1: Shampoo
Shampoo the dog to remove all of the mange mites. Dogs only need to be bathed once to remove scaly dandruff.
Step 2: Use a Topical
Apply a spot-on flea treatment to kill any remaining mites. You can use products like selamectin, fipronil, or moxidectin. Vets will sell these products for your dog over-the-counter (without an exam) for flea control. Natural treatments are not the best option here. If the puppy is still very young and you do not want to use a spot-on treatment, then you can bathe them in selenium sulfide shampoo once a week for three weeks.
Step 3: Clean the Environment
Clean up the environment to prevent reinfestation, which is your biggest concern. Take any blankets that your puppy has been sleeping on and throw them out, clean up and disinfect the environment, and destroy any cloth toys. If a blanket or toy has not been used for a couple of weeks, there is almost no risk of a reinfestation since the mites do not live more than 10 days when away from the dog (the host).
Treatments for Crusty-Skin Dandruff
Although this is not really dandruff, crusty skin will look the same as other types of dandruff at first glance but the treatment is different and not difficult. If you look at the skin very closely, you will notice some swellings (like pimples) on the surface. As they swell and break open, they leave a white crust that can sometimes be confused for dandruff.
Step 1: Shampoo
Shampoo with a medicated shampoo. ChlorhexiDerm is most effective in these cases since it will kill the bacteria that is causing the infection on the skin's surface.
Step 2: Use an Antibacterial
Apply an antibacterial. The problem with applying an antibiotic, of course, is that the dog is going to lick it off and might develop diarrhea. The most effective antibacterials, in this case, are natural products. Aloe vera has a pH of less than 5 (normal dog skin is close to neutral, almost 7), so it can be kind of irritating to some dogs and is also mildly toxic if ingested. A much less effective antibacterial is coconut oil, and if your dog licks it off, there are no side effects. I apply virgin coconut oil to all of the affected areas of the dog's skin.
Step 3: Try Other Topicals
Other topical treatments can be attempted. You can soak some tea bags and when they are cool, apply them to the skin. (Do not wipe the tea off.) Black tea contains tannic acid which inhibits the growth of bacteria. It is not a cure, but it can keep the crusty skin from getting worse.
Step 4: See Your Vet
If you have tried shampoos and topical treatments but your dog is still developing crusty skin that looks like dandruff, you do need to consult with your veterinarian. Your dog might need to have the skin scraped for mites and will probably also need to be put on an oral or topical antibiotic.
What If the Dandruff Doesn't Go Away?
Some cases may actually need medical attention. Though not an emergency, first try the treatments for dry-skin dandruff and follow the steps I have outlined above. Wait and see how your dog responds. Use your best judgment to decide how things are going, but if the symptoms do not clear up in a month, help may be needed.
A dog with greasy dandruff may need further workup from your vet. Chronic cases can develop into a secondary infection. These cases, unfortunately, will only clear up with antibiotics.
Walking dandruff almost always clears up at first, but if the environment is not improved, it can become a chronic problem. Walking dandruff that does not respond to common flea-control agents (like fipronil, usually sold as Frontline) will need to be treated by your vet, as there may be another condition (like demodectic mange) that is not allowing it to clear up.
Dogs with crusty skin may have an underlying bacterial infection. If this has been going on for a while, they are a lot less likely to respond to shampoos and topical treatments and may need oral antibiotics that can only be prescribed by your vet.
How Can I Prevent It From Coming Back?
- Moisturize the skin periodically: There are a lot of ways you can improve your dog's coat, but the best thing you can do for them is to provide a moisturizer. Dogs that are susceptible to this problem usually get worse at certain times of the year, so be proactive and treat the skin with coconut oil before a problem develops.
- Improve your dog's diet: Take a look at the dry dog food that you are feeding your dog each day; it has had the moisture and oils removed for a reason (so that it will sit on the shelf without spoiling). Your dog is more likely to develop a skin problem while eating a food like this.
- Humidify your environment: If your dog is in a heated or air-conditioned house all day, then his or her environment is part of the problem. Look into buying a humidifier to keep their environment more normal.
Please remember that dandruff and similar skin problems are never an emergency. You can treat them according to the instructions above, but if you need help, just make an appointment with your regular veterinarian. You do not need to go to the extra expense of taking your dog into an emergency clinic for this problem.
References and Links
- Athiban. Evaluation of antimicrobial efficacy of Aloe vera and its effectiveness in decontaminating gutta percha cones. Journal of Conservative Dentistry, 2012 Jul-Sep; 15(3): 246-248. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3410334/
- Keen MA, Hassan I. "Vitamin E in dermatology." Indian Dermatology Online Journal. 2016 Jul.
- Kurtz. Colloidal oatmeal: history, chemistry and clinical properties. Journal of Drugs for Dermatology, 2007 Feb; 6(2): 167-70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17373175
- Moriello KA. "Cheyletiollosis." Current Veterinary Dermatology: The Science and Art of Therapy. St. Louis. Mosby, 1993.
- Yeap SK, Beh BK, Ali NM, Yusof HM, Ho WY, Koh SP, Alitheen NB, Long K. "Antistress and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil." Exp Ther Med. 2015 Jan; 9(1): 39-42.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on June 09, 2020:
Susan--if it is really hard to bathe them, try using a moisturizer like coconut oil. They can lick it off, which as you know cats like to do, and as long as you do not use a large amount will not cause them to have loose stools.
Susan Ng Yu on June 05, 2020:
I don't have dogs but I have two cats with tiny bumps on their skin that turn into dandruff-like flakes when brushed. It really does sound similar to the condition you described in dogs. Looks like I'm going to have to find a way to bathe them if I can't bring them to the groomer because of community quarantine. I don't look forward to it.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 22, 2019:
Thanks Penny. I appreciate your stopping by and taking the time to read and comment.
Penny Leigh Sebring from Fort Collins on November 19, 2019:
What a fantastic rundown of doggie dandruff types and how to fix them!
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 16, 2019:
Hi Liz thanks for reading. Even in my situation I almost always see dry skin dandruff, which is pretty easy to take care of with a little work. Thanks for taking the time to read/comment.
Liz Westwood from UK on November 16, 2019:
Interesting and informative article. I had not come across greasy skin dandruff before. You give useful treatment suggestions and advice.