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Seborrhea is a general term used to describe skin and hair that is excessively flaky or greasy. While primary seborrhea is a rare inherited disease, most cases of seborrhea occur secondary to other conditions, such as allergies, parasites, infections, and glandular or immune system diseases. Treatment for the underlying issue will often help resolve cases of secondary seborrhea but primary seborrhea is more difficult. It requires lifelong management with diet, supplements, and antibiotics for infection.
Seborrhea is a general term used to describe skin and hair that has excessive amounts of flakes (like dandruff) and/or grease. In most cases, the term describes the clinical signs and not a disease itself. This is what veterinary dermatologists often term, secondary seborrhea.
The exception is primary seborrhea, which is a relatively rare inherited disease in breeds such as Cocker Spaniels and Persian and Himalayan cats. Pets with primary seborrhea do not produce and shed/replace skin cells normally, or they may have a defect in the function of the glands in their skin. This seborrhea may be limited to one area of the body or may be more generalized. Primary seborrhea is also known as idiopathic seborrhea, meaning the exact cause is not known. Because it occurs more commonly in certain breeds, genetics is thought to play a role.
Secondary seborrhea is usually caused by an underlying disease process, such as allergies, bacterial or yeast infections, external parasites, hypothyroidism (low amounts of thyroid hormone), Cushing’s disease (too much of one particular adrenal hormone), or one of several immune system diseases.
In most pets, seborrhea describes the clinical signs that are secondary to an underlying disease process. The term seborrhea sicca is used to describe dry, flaky skin, and seborrhea oleosa is used for greasy, oily (and often smelly) skin that exfoliates in large flakes.
Your veterinarian will begin by taking a complete medical history of your pet. She or he will also perform a thorough physical examination.
Most diagnostic tests help determine the underlying disease condition that results in the signs of seborrhea. Your veterinarian may perform a skin scraping to search for parasites, bacteria, and fungi. This involves gently scraping areas of affected skin with a scalpel blade until they bleed slightly. Several skin scrapings are usually done at different affected locations, and the resulting samples of skin cells and debris are examined under a microscope.
Your veterinarian may also recommend blood tests to check for underlying diseases, such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease. In addition, skin cultures or skin biopsies (tissue samples) may be required to pin down a definite diagnosis.
Primary seborrhea can affect Cocker Spaniels and Persian and Himalayan cats, among others.
Unfortunately, primary seborrhea usually can’t be cured, but it can be managed. Treatment may involve a combination of a hypoallergenic diet, vitamin or fatty acid supplements, and antibiotic or anti-fungal medications to manage secondary skin infections. Medicated shampoos, and moisturizers may also be recommended.
Treatment of secondary seborrhea varies depending on the underlying condition. Once the underlying condition (such as allergies or hypothyroidism) is controlled, the seborrhea may resolve. Medicated shampoos can also be helpful in some cases.
To prevent passing on the disease, pets with primary seborrhea should not be bred.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.
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