Dr. Bob Encinosa
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked as a veterinarian is “Why does my pet have dry, flakey skin and how do I treat it? “
There are multiple answers to this question, but for most pets, it’s a result of itching. The itching (scratching and biting) may be due to flea allergies, environmental allergies, and rarely food allergies. It’s important to realize that the dry, flakey skin is almost always caused by itching; not the other way around.
A common home remedy is to add fat or oil to a pet’s food, such as bacon grease. This will not help with dry skin, and instead may lead to other problems such as pancreatitis. Adding oil to a pet’s food will not enhance the moistness or oiliness of their coat any more than a greasy cheeseburger will give us oily hair. Mammals do not digest and distribute fats in that way.
One exception to the “don’t add oil“ rule, is fish oil, also called omega-3 fatty acids. They can be helpful in many itchy pets, not because they make the skin oilier, but because they have anti-inflammatory properties. Some medical problems make fish oils inappropriate for some pets, so ask your veterinarian.
Ultimately, we have to find the source of the itching and eliminate or treat it. Sometimes it’s possible to avoid the allergens causing the itching. Fleas are a great example. Just a few fleas a week on your pet can drive them crazy, and low levels of infestation with fleas may be beyond your ability to see or find them. Flea allergies produce the most easily recognized pattern of inflamed, dry skin, and they can usually be eliminated with the proper products. Flea allergies cause approximately 70% of allergic skin disease in Florida pets.
Other allergens are not so easy to diagnose or eliminate. Food allergies, although not very common, tend to be year round, whereas allergies to pollens tend to be seasonal. Allergies to indoor sources such as molds and dust are usually year round, and are more common because of the indoor lifestyle of our pets.
The other 10% of pets with dry skin can have a variety of ailments such as primary or secondary seborrhea, thyroid disorders, bacterial or fungal infections and various types of mange. Some of these can be cured and most of them can be controlled with proper treatment.