Petting a dog

Does a shiny coat really mean that your pooch is in prime condition?

Good-looking hair and skin can be a sign of good general health — just as hair and skin problems can offer clues about underlying problems.

Dermatology professor Dr. Stephen D. White, DVM, of the School of Veterinary Medicine University of California, Davis, shares what to look for — and when it’s time to visit the veterinarian.

Why does my dog scratch so much?

A. Dr. White: "About 99 percent of the time, scratching is due to either allergies, infections or skin parasites (or some combination thereof). Treatment depends on the specific cause, but most symptoms and conditions are controllable. Rarely, tumors, either of the skin or within the body, can cause scratching."

What other skin or hair conditions do veterinarians tend to see most often?

A. "Besides flea allergies, ear infections are common. Symptoms include head shaking, scratching or pawing at the ears, pain when the ears are touched and an unpleasant smell originating from the dog’s ears. Ear infections are usually caused by either a foreign body, like a foxtail or seed grass, or a concurrent allergy.

Less commonly, a middle ear infection or a tumor (in older animals) can be an underlying cause of ear trouble. Dogs with recurrent ear infections should undergo a medical examination in order to rule out serious causes.

Cleaning the ears with a mild veterinary product once or twice a week may be helpful as a preventive. Discuss the best technique with your vet — it is very important to learn how to clean your dog’s ears properly, so you don’t harm delicate ear structures."

Why are some dogs bothered by fleas, while others don’t seem to react to them?

A. "The more allergic the pet is to fleas, the fewer number of fleas are necessary to perpetuate itchy inflammation of the skin (dermatitis). Some dogs develop an allergy to proteins in the flea’s saliva, which the flea injects into the pet when it takes its blood meal. While the adult flea stays on the pet, the eggs roll off the pet and stay in the environment, where they hatch, grow and eventually jump on a pet."

What can I do to keep my dog flea-free?

A. "Flea control revolves around treating all the pets in a household, because they’re all being bitten by fleas — even if they aren’t having allergic reactions to the bites. There are both spot-on and oral medications that are effective against fleas. Ask your veterinarian which ones she recommends for your dog."

Are there any skin or hair conditions that owners of senior pets should know about?

A. "In older dogs, crusting or splitting of the footpads can indicate internal disease. It’s a rare condition, but footpad problems — along with limping or lameness — can be a sign that a dog has a disease of the liver or the pancreas."

How can I keep my dog’s skin and hair healthy?

A. "Feed your dog a balanced diet, in consultation with your veterinarian. And bathe her as necessary — when she gets dirty — with a mild veterinary shampoo."

When should an owner bring her dog to see a veterinary dermatologist?

A. "It depends, but basically anytime routine treatments do not help the pet, a referral for a second opinion is a good idea. Referrals from a general practitioner are not necessary, but it’s always wise to loop in everyone involved in a pet’s health care. Your veterinarian is also a great place to look for additional information about skin and hair care."

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