A common cause of hair loss in dogs is infestation with parasites such as ticks, lice and fleas. Fleas are the most likely culprit, especially if your dog loses hair on his neck or tail. These tiny parasites can quickly infect your dog and irritate its skin, causing severe scratching and hair loss.
Shedding is normal, but hair loss is not. Hair loss, known in the veterinary world as alopecia, indicates an underlying health problem. Everything from scabies and food allergies to fleas and fungal infections can cause alopecia. Environmental factors like temperature, nutrition, and stress can also affect canine coat loss.
But while some loose hair occurs routinely during a dog’s hair growth cycles, thinning hair with mild to severe scratching and bald patches, also known as Alopecia, is not.
If you’re concerned your dog’s shedding is excessive or abnormal, you may want to look into if they have this condition.
What is Alopecia in Dogs?
Alopecia, otherwise known as abnormal hair loss or baldness, refers to either thinning hair or spots of hair loss (bald spots) in areas where they are generally present. It occurs when the body attacks its hair follicles, resulting in hair falling out.
There’s typically a pattern to the baldness, which will either spread out or appear symmetrical. Alopecia is a medical condition that affects both humans and dogs.
Partial or complete alopecia (or hair loss) is a relatively common problem seen in dogs and is different from shedding, which is a normal part of your dog’s hair growth cycle and depends on the dog’s breed.
Various conditions, including skin infections, allergies, and endocrine disorders, can cause Alopecia. Dogs of any age or breed can experience hair loss. The underlying cause can range from mild to serious, so it is crucial to report hair loss to a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Symptoms of Hair Loss (Alopecia) in Dogs
Dog hair loss is typically an apparent condition and can occur at any age, in any breed, and anywhere on the body. A variety of patterns and symptoms may develop depending on the underlying cause:
- Overall thinning of the hair
- Hair loss around the eyes and mouth
- Patches of complete hair loss
- Symmetrical patterns of hair loss in the same place on both sides of the body
- Foul odour
- Black or dark grey skin under hair loss
- Dry, scaly skin around the area of hair loss
- Red, inflamed skin around the area of hair loss
- Red spots on the skin with or without hives or pustules (pimples)
- Oozing moisture or bleeding around the area of hair loss (typically a secondary condition)
If parasites cause alopecia, they may or may not be visible. Fleas, ticks, and lice can be seen with the naked eye; mites and fungal elements such as ringworm cannot be seen.
Often the dog will cause trauma to their skin by excessive scratching, causing open wounds. Many dogs will have other affected areas, such as ears and feet, with certain allergies.
What are the Causes of Hair Loss(Alopecia) in Dogs?
Some possible causes for dog hair loss include:
- Pressure sores
- Friction (from a collar, for example)
- Nervous chewing or licking
- Trauma or scarring
- Post-surgical clipping
- Skin infections (bacterial, yeast or fungal)
- Allergies (insect, food, environmental, contact)
- Ectoparasites (fleas, lice, mosquitoes, mange mites such as Demodex or Sarcoptes)
- Abnormality in the growth of the hair shaft
- Thyroid disorder
- Cushing’s disease
- Sex hormone imbalance
- Skin cancer
- Genetics (e.g., Alopecia X, colour dilution alopecia, certain breed predispositions)
- Atopy is a genetic predisposition to develop allergic reactions or diseases.
- Anxiety-related or underlying pain with self-trauma
- Autoimmune disorders
- Endocrine diseases (e.g., hyperadrenocorticism, hypothyroidism, seasonal flank alopecia, sex hormone-responsive)
- Nutritional (starvation or unbalanced diet, vitamin deficiencies)
- Vaccine site alopecia
- Chemical exposure, burns
Dog Breeds That Are Prone to Alopecia
- Dogs that are especially prone to alopecia include:
- Mexican Hairless, Chinese Crested (“normal”)
- Genetic: Bulldogs, Dobermans, Yorkshire Terriers, Dachshunds, Greyhounds
- Nordic breeds: When clipped, hair may not return for Siberian Huskies, Pomeranians, and others
- Atopy-prone breeds: Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Bulldogs, West Highland White Terriers, and others
- Any breed with poor husbandry, especially puppies, is prone to Demodectic mange
Likely Diagnosis of Hair Loss in Dogs
A thorough physical exam by your veterinarian is the most critical step in diagnosing the cause or causes of alopecia. It is seldom a quick fix for skin disorders in dogs.
Your vet will consider multiple factors before determining what diagnostics are appropriate in your dog’s case (including age, breed, sex, health status, and prior medical history).
Unfortunately, dogs have no simple “recipe” to fix alopecia, and figuring out the cause is essential to choosing treatment options.
Also, many (if not most) causes of alopecia are ongoing conditions that need periodic medications or other treatments—understanding this before you even make the vet appointment will save you from frustration if symptoms return.
When seeing your veterinarian, be prepared to answer detailed questions about your dog’s history, including:
- Number of pets in the home
- Degree of pruritus (“itchiness”)
- Past treatments
- Dog’s environment (indoor/outdoor)
- Dog’s “job” (hunting dog vs couch potato)
- Parasite medications
- Prior health issues or blood work abnormalities
- Exposures (pond water, wooded areas, wild animals, etc.)
Once your vet has these answers, they can examine your pet and determine possible causes. Your vet will check closely for any evidence of fleas or flea “dirt” (faeces), ticks, or saliva-stained areas such as the feet, tail base, and flanks.
They will also note any unusual odours. Yeasty feet smell like Fritos, and ears have unique smells depending on yeast or bacteria. Your dog’s skin may have a waxy or greasy feel, which will help decide what topical therapies to use.
Common Diagnostic Tests Carried Out by Vets
Depending on the exam findings, your vet may recommend one or more of the following tests:
- Skin scrapes (for Demodectic or Sarcoptic mange)
- Cultures (for bacterial infections)
- Tape preps (looking for bacteria, yeast, and inflammatory cells)
- Blacklight and fungal cultures (for Dermatophytosis or ringworm)
- Ear smear to look for bacteria, yeast, cells, or mites
- Skin testing for allergies
- Possible food trials
- Blood tests (for organ function and endocrine diseases)
- Faecal exam (for parasites)
- Biopsy (for autoimmune diseases or cancer)
How do you treat Hair Loss (Alopecia) in Dogs?
Tell your veterinarian if you believe your dog’s thinning hair or hair loss is out of control or if you notice redness, crusty or scaly skin, or bald patches around its coat. The first step will be determining the primary cause of your dog’s hair loss.
A variety of treatments for dog hair loss are available depending on the diagnosis.
- Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics (oral or topical).
- Yeast and ringworm infections can be treated with antifungals (oral or topical).
- Certain skin conditions may necessitate the use of steroids.
- Immunotherapy may be required for allergy desensitisation, either orally or by injection.
- Nervous chewing or licking can be treated with behavioural medications.
- Mange can be treated with medicated shampoos or dips.
- Hypoallergenic diets are frequently effective in treating hair loss caused by food allergies.
- Hair loss caused by hormonal and endocrine disorders can be reversed with thyroid medication and hormone therapy.
- Supplements of vitamin E, vitamin A, and fish oil may be recommended for pets with certain conditions or a proclivity for dry skin or skin infections.
- To prevent your pet from licking or itching the affected area until it heals, an Elizabethan collar (e-collar or cone) may be required.
Often, a dog losing hair has some underlying health issue. Because of this, you must inform your vet as soon as you notice hair loss in your pet. The underlying cause could be bacterial or fungal infections, allergies, flea or mite infestations, or endocrine disorders.
Keep your dog’s skin and fur healthy to prevent hair loss. Give your pet regular grooming, a healthy diet, and up-to-date preventative medication to achieve this.
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