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Canine seborrhoea: Why is my dog’s coat oily and smelly?

Canine seborrhoea or seborrhoeic dermatitis is a common skin condition that affects dogs and relates to the sebaceous glands in their skin. The sebaceous glands are associated with the hair follicles and produce an oily secretion called sebum. This sebum makes the hairs waterproof and keeps the skin supple. However, overactivity of these sebaceous glands leads to the production of excess sebum, which can lead to the skin becoming red, itchy, oily, scaly/flaky and/or smelly. There are two common types of seborrhoea: seborrhoea oleosa (oily seborrhoea) and seborrhoea sicca (dry seborrhoea). Often these two types can occur simultaneously. Read all about it in this article.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet


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Causes: Why is my dog’s coat oily and smelly?

Seborrhoea can be a primary or secondary condition. Primary seborrhoea is a genetic condition that can occur in any dog breed but is frequently seen in the West Highland White Terrier, American Cocker Spaniel, English Springer Spaniel, Basset Hound, Dachshund, Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, German Shepherd, Doberman and Shar-Pei. It usually affects the dog by the time they reach two years of age and then progresses as they get older.

Secondary seborrhoea usually occurs as a result of another disease affecting the skin. Examples include:

  • Allergies - usually in younger dogs

  • Obesity

  • Parasites

  • Endocrine (hormonal) diseases - such as thyroid disease or Cushing’s disease, which usually affect middle aged or older dogs

  • Dietary deficiencies - diets containing low levels of omega-3 fatty acids

  • Malabsorption disorders

  • Autoimmune disorders

  • Environmental factors (temperature, humidity)

  • Musculoskeletal disease or pain - leading to inadequate grooming

Signs: What does seborrhoea in dogs look like?

The excess sebum produced by the sebaceous glands in the skin accumulates in certain places, such as along the back, the abdomen or areas with folds (armpits, thighs, feet, neck and ears). Given its oily nature, the excess sebum leaves a distinctive smell on the coat and skin. It may leave an oily feel when you stroke your dog, or you may find that the skin looks dry and flaky (appearance of dandruff). The skin may appear red and inflamed. Some dogs feel very itchy: if your dog starts scratching these areas, it could lead to bleeding, crusting, hair loss and secondary infections of the traumatised skin (papules or pimples).

Diagnosis: How do I know if my dog has seborrhoea?

A diagnosis of primary seborrhoea can only be made once secondary seborrhoea and all other possible causes have been ruled out. For this, your vet will likely recommend the following diagnostic procedures:

  • Physical examination

  • Skin scrapings and hair pluckings - to check for skin parasites

  • Skin cytology, as well as fungal and bacterial cultures of the skin and hair

  • Faecal analysis - to check for parasites

  • Urinanalysis and blood tests (complete blood count, biochemistry panel and more specific screening tests) - to rule out allergies, endocrine diseases, and dietary/digestive abnormalities

  • Skin biopsy

Treatment: How can I treat my dog's seborrhoea at home?

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause, as well as control of the excess sebum and treatment of any secondary skin infections. In cases of primary seborrhoea there is no specific treatment so the condition must be managed to prevent secondary skin infections.

Control of the excess sebum and management of the condition mainly includes the use of antiseborrheic shampoos and dietary supplements. These shampoos soothe the itchiness and clean the skin to remove excess scale and sebum. They generally contain a combination of the following ingredients:

  • Antifungal and antibacterial agents to control any secondary skin infections

  • Keratolytic products to remove excess dead skin cells - removes the scaling and makes the skin feel softer

  • Keratoplastic products to reduce scale formation

  • Emollients to reduce water loss from the skin - if not included in the shampoo, these can be applied after shampooing

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements can be very beneficial and easily added to your dog’s food. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, in the correct balance, are very good for maintaining a healthy skin barrier and they may also help to reduce the itchiness. YuDerm offer two products: Itching Dog and Moulting Dog.

When to see your vet

  • Redness of the skin and/or pimples

  • Hair loss

  • Scaly or flaky skin (dandruff)

  • Oily coat

  • Thickened or rough skin with crusts or scabs

  • Bad smell from the skin and coat, or ears

  • Itchiness or pain

Further reading

Skin allergies and itching in dogs

Hair loss or bald patches in dogs

Skin allergies and itching in dogs

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