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Contact Dermatitis in Dogs

What Is Contact Dermatitis in Dogs?

Contact dermatitis in dogs occurs when the skin reacts to prolonged exposure to an allergen, resulting in symptoms such as itching, redness, crusting, and pustules. This condition is triggered by protein molecules that provoke an immune response, including antibody production.

Contact dermatitis is not frequently seen in dogs, largely because their fur coat provides a protective barrier. Consequently, symptoms typically manifest on areas of the dog’s body that directly interact with potential irritants. These areas, often less hairy, include the muzzle, mouth, armpits, pressure points (such as elbows and ankles), belly, groin, scrotum, rear end, and paws. Common triggers for contact dermatitis in dogs encompass various substances such as plants, detergents, mulch, rugs, carpet, fabrics, plastics, concrete, medications, chemicals, and fertilizers.

While localized skin irritation in dogs doesn’t constitute a medical emergency, it warrants examination by a veterinarian. This is because symptoms can worsen over time, secondary infections might develop, and dogs may endure discomfort due to persistent itching and scratching.


Symptoms of contact dermatitis in dogs tend to fluctuate based on the duration and timing of contact with the allergen. The typical symptoms include:

  • Red and inflamed skin
  • Hair loss
  • Hardened scales, flakes, and scabs
  • Darkened skin
  • Pustules or pimples
  • Itching


The cause of contact dermatitis in dogs stems from a hypersensitivity reaction that initiates a localized immune response and inflammation when chemicals, such as allergens, come into contact with the exposed skin of a dog.

Prior sensitization is a prerequisite for this reaction to take place, indicating that the immune system identifies the allergen as a threat and generates antibodies to combat it. This sensitization process typically spans from six months to two years to develop. Once established, subsequent exposure to the same allergen will elicit an allergic reaction.

Contact dermatitis can impact dogs of any breed, gender, and age, provided they are older than six months. Nonetheless, dogs with existing allergies may encounter more severe or frequent flare-ups.


When diagnosing contact dermatitis in dogs, veterinarians typically observe the distribution of skin lesions on contact surfaces such as the face, paws, belly, and rear, which often raises suspicion of the condition.

Patch testing, although challenging to perform and yielding variable responses in dogs, remains the preferred diagnostic method for contact dermatitis. This process usually involves shaving the hair on the dog’s side a few days prior and applying the suspected allergen, like plant material, directly to the skin for about two days. Any ensuing response, characterized by symptoms like those mentioned earlier, is noted within a few days after application.

Alternatively, avoidance of the suspected allergen, typically for about a week, followed by a “rechallenge” where the dog is reintroduced to the environment or in contact with the allergen, can provoke a response, potentially aiding in a presumptive allergy diagnosis.

Since dogs with other types of skin diseases often exhibit similar symptoms, veterinarians may suggest additional tests such as skin impression, skin scraping, or fungal testing (including Wood’s lamp examination, fungal culture, or fungal PCR) to check for evidence of bacterial and/or yeast infections, mites, or ringworm.

In more complex or persistent cases, consultation with a veterinary dermatologist may be necessary. Additionally, a biopsy, involving the surgical removal of a sample of the dog’s skin, may be required to rule out more serious skin conditions like pemphigus or cancer.


Treating contact dermatitis in dogs primarily involves avoiding the triggering substance, although this can be challenging. While there isn’t a single medication or vaccine to completely prevent your dog from reacting to allergens, various therapies can enhance your dog’s quality of life and alleviate discomfort.

In cases where secondary bacterial or yeast infections arise, treatment with antibiotic or antifungal medications is necessary. Common medications include cephalexin, Simplicef®, or Clavamox® in combination with fluconazole or miconazole. Itch relief is achieved through antihistamines, steroids, or newer medications like Apoquel® or Cytopoint®.

Topical therapies such as ointments, shampoos, and conditioners containing antibacterial, antifungal, and/or steroidal properties are often prescribed. Regular bathing under veterinary guidance can reduce symptoms and improve your dog’s comfort levels.

Products enriched with fatty acids like Vetoquinol® Triglyceride Omega, hypoallergenic dog shampoos such as Douxo S3™ CALM, medicated dog shampoos, and supplements like Zesty Paws® Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil for Dogs can help maintain your dog’s skin barrier and reduce inflammation.

Specialized diets like Hill’s® Derm Defense™ are formulated to strengthen the skin barrier, soothe and nourish the skin, and support the immune system, which may be beneficial.

It’s crucial to consult your veterinarian to determine the most suitable topicals, supplements, and diet for your dog, taking into account their specific medical and nutritional requirements.

Living and Management

The outlook for dogs with contact dermatitis is generally positive when the triggering allergen is identified and avoided. In certain instances, dogs may require lifelong medication, such as pentoxifylline or cyclosporine, to decrease their sensitivity.


While it’s not always feasible to completely prevent contact dermatitis in dogs, there are steps you can take to mitigate exposure and lower the likelihood of symptom recurrence in your pet.

Key preventive measures include:

  • Removing carpeted areas or rugs
  • Eliminating plants and weeds
  • Using HEPA filters
  • Changing the type of water or food bowl
  • Maintaining a strict flea control regimen

Barrier methods such as recovery collars or T-shirts, along with more frequent bathing using leave-in shampoos and conditioners, can also be beneficial. Preventing excessive licking and scratching is crucial to avoid future infections. Additionally, monitoring pollen counts and promptly consulting your vet at the first sign of itching can help manage and minimize the impact of contact dermatitis.

Contact dermatitis itself isn’t transmissible to other dogs or humans. However, due to the frequent use of antibiotics in affected dogs, there’s an increased risk of developing multi-resistant skin infections. To address this concern:

  • Prioritize topical therapies as the primary treatment.
  • Conduct regular skin cultures.
  • Immunocompromised individuals should take extra precautions and discuss concerns with both their vet and physician.

Contact Dermatitis in Dogs - FAQs

How long does contact dermatitis last in dogs?

Symptoms typically manifest within 24–48 hours of contact and may resolve in about 7–10 days if the irritant is avoided.

Can you treat a dog’s contact dermatitis at home?

Contact dermatitis can be addressed at home, but depending on the severity of the skin disease and itching, your dog may require prescription-strength medication.

In cases of mild symptoms, simply removing the offending allergen by bathing your dog with a hypoallergenic shampoo can significantly improve their condition.

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