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Seborrhea in Dogs

What Is Seborrhea in Dogs?

Seborrhea in dogs is a skin condition characterized by abnormal keratin production. Keratin, a protein responsible for skin and hair structure, is either overproduced or underproduced in canine seborrhea. Consequently, dogs may exhibit dry and dull coats or greasy fur. Veterinarians classify seborrhea in dogs as either “primary” or “secondary” based on its origins.

Primary Seborrhea in Dogs

Primary seborrhea in dogs is a genetic disorder characterized by consistently abnormal keratin production. While breeds such as American Cocker Spaniels, West Highland White Terriers, English Springer Spaniels, and Basset Hounds are most commonly affected, any dog can develop this condition.

Secondary Seborrhea in Dogs

Secondary seborrhea in dogs occurs when an underlying problem triggers abnormal keratin production. Health issues responsible for secondary seborrhea may include hormonal imbalances, allergies, vitamin deficiencies, and immune-mediated diseases like lupus and lymphoma of the skin.


  • A very dry and lackluster coat
  • Presence of dandruff
  • Greasy, oily skin with a foul odor
  • Crusted, plaque-like lesions on the skin that feel rough and scaly
  • Itching varying from mild to severe
  • Excessive earwax and ear debris

Typically, seborrhea affects all areas of the skin, but certain regions such as the skin folds between the toes, armpits, belly, perineum (area under a dog’s tail), and the base of the neck are often more severely impacted. Breeds with numerous skin folds, like Basset Hounds, may experience more pronounced seborrhea in these areas.


The cause of seborrhea in dogs varies depending on whether it is primary or secondary.

Causes of Primary Seborrhea in Dogs

Primary seborrhea in dogs is a congenital and genetic condition that usually manifests at a young age and worsens as the dog ages. The breeds most commonly affected include West Highland White Terriers, Basset Hounds, American Cocker Spaniels, and English Springer Spaniels.

Causes of Secondary Seborrhea in Dogs

Conditions and diseases that can lead to secondary seborrhea in dogs include:

  • Skin allergies triggered by fleas, food, or environmental factors
  • Hypothyroidism, resulting from an underactive thyroid gland
  • Cushing’s disease, arising from an overactive adrenal gland
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Infestation with mites and lice
  • Autoimmune disorders such as pemphigus foliaceus, sebaceous adenitis, and lupus erythematosus
  • Cutaneous epitheliotropic lymphoma, a form of cancer affecting the skin
  • Deficiencies in vitamins like zinc-responsive dermatosis and vitamin A-responsive dermatosis


To diagnose seborrhea in dogs, veterinarians typically begin with a thorough physical examination to assess the dog’s skin and identify any accompanying symptoms. During the examination, owners may be asked about the duration of the condition, the presence of scratching behavior, and any changes in the dog’s food and water consumption.

The veterinarian may conduct various tests to pinpoint the cause of the dog’s skin condition. These tests may include:

  • Skin scraping to detect mites and lice
  • Impression cytology (sample collection) of skin and ear debris to identify yeast or bacterial infections resembling seborrhea, such as Malassezia yeast
  • Blood chemistry panel to screen for conditions like diabetes or Cushing’s disease (further tests may be required to confirm the diagnosis before treatment begins)
  • Blood test to assess thyroid hormone levels and detect hypothyroidism
  • Biopsy to investigate the presence of autoimmune diseases or cancer


Upon reviewing the test results, your veterinarian will gain insights into the underlying cause of your dog’s seborrhea. Treating any root conditions is paramount in seborrhea management.

Treating the Underlying Cause

  • Hypothyroidism: Hormone replacement therapy with levothyroxine is administered for life.
  • Cushing’s disease: Vetoryl is prescribed for lifelong management.
  • Diabetes: Daily insulin injections are necessary for diabetes treatment.
  • Cancer or autoimmune disease: Medication management or referral to a specialist may be initiated based on biopsy results.
  • Lice or mites: Medication to eliminate parasites is prescribed upon detection.
  • Fleas: Monthly flea preventatives help manage flea allergies contributing to seborrhea.
  • Vitamin deficiency: Additional vitamins may be recommended by the veterinarian for conditions like vitamin A-responsive dermatitis or zinc-responsive dermatitis.
  • Food allergy: A hypoallergenic food trial may be advised if a primary food allergy is suspected.
  • Infection: Oral antibiotics and/or antifungals are administered for three to four weeks to treat infections resulting from seborrhea.

Treating the Seborrhea Itself

  • Regular baths with anti-seborrheic shampoos, typically every 2 or 3 days initially. These shampoos contain coal tar and salicylic acid.
  • Continuation of frequent bathing for 2-3 weeks or longer until the skin condition improves, aiming to remove excess keratin. Depending on the dog’s response to treatment, bathing frequency may decrease to every 1 to 2 weeks or remain at every 2 to 3 days.
  • Cleaning the dog’s ears with a medicated ear cleaner every 2 to 3 days. In case of ear infections, the veterinarian will prescribe appropriate ear medication.
  • Administration of prednisone to reduce inflammation and debris buildup.
  • Regular veterinary rechecks, typically scheduled every one to three weeks, to monitor the dog’s response to treatment.

Recovery and Management

Recovery and management of seborrhea hinge upon identifying its cause. Addressing the primary disease is crucial for effective management. Resolving the signs of seborrhea may take several weeks, and ongoing management of the underlying condition is necessary for life.

It’s important to recognize that once seborrhea develops, abnormal keratin placement in the skin persists. Following a veterinarian-recommended schedule for using anti-seborrheic shampoos and ear cleaners throughout your dog’s life helps reduce keratin buildup and prevent infections.

If your dog experiences increased itching or develops skin lesions, prompt veterinary attention is essential. Managing seborrhea often involves a lifelong regimen of bathing and ear cleaning. With consistent treatment, your dog can maintain a good quality of life.

Seborrhea in Dogs FAQs

How can I manage my dog's seborrhea at home?

Upon confirmation of your dog’s diagnosis by a veterinarian, you can address seborrhea at home by utilizing an anti-seborrheic shampoo containing coal tar and salicylic acid. Home treatment also involves bathing your dog every 2 to 7 days based on your vet’s guidance. Additionally, you’ll need to clean your dog’s ears with a medicated ear cleaner every 2 to 3 days. If an underlying health issue is the cause of your dog’s seborrhea, adherence to all treatment protocols for that condition is essential to effectively manage the seborrhea. If your dog’s condition does not improve, seek veterinary attention as they may have developed bacterial and yeast infections requiring prescription medication.

Does seborrhea in dogs lead to hair loss?

Yes, seborrhea can result in hair loss.

What does seborrhea smell like on dogs?

Seborrhea can emit a strong odor resembling grease, corn chips, or a distinct doggy scent.

Is seborrhea in dogs contagious?

No, seborrhea is not transmissible to other dogs or humans.

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