Skin Diseases, an Overview

by Anne Jones RN, BSNE

Information for this article is a summary of material from Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, Delbert G. Carlson DVM and James M. Giffin MD, Chapter 4.

To clarify the difficulty in in determining canine skin problems, there are at least 35 or more skin diseases that can be quickly named as possible irritants to canine skin! Some days it seems our dogs must have them all, when they scratch, lick, moan and groan! There are numerous pests that cause skin reactions. There are the inhalants that may cause allergic response. There are the growths, the sores and the problems of hair loss. What’s a Bichon owner to do?

It has often been said that the best specialty to have for a human doctor is dermatology because the patient never gets well and does not need to be seen at night. Maybe veterinarians feel the same way but there do not seem to be many dermatologists in veterinary medicine. However they can be found. Yet the first place to seek help is with your primary vet who should know your dog’s history and will be able to make an initial decision as to whether the “new” problem is the “old” allergy or if there is another cause for this itch.
Discussed here are some of the types of skin issues you may deal with. Some are rare in Bichons and others do occur with frequency. The list of possibilities is long and the final determination or diagnosis may also be long in coming. Fleas and ticks are the pests most frequently looked for but there are other unexpected pests. Immune mediated problems (allergies) are hugely complex to diagnose and to treat. Lick sores, friction loss of hair (elbows are common in some breeds), and hormonal disorders all leave bald spots. Bacterial infection, contagious disease and other issues may be either the sole cause of skin problems or they may be a secondary complication. There are the various lumps, bumps and growths that seem to particularly plague the Bichon Frise.

Diseases affecting skin, causing itch, licking and hair loss, making the poor dog miserable and leaving the owner wishing to hide this moth eaten pet of hers – these are major frustrations for both owner and veterinarian. They may also be the most frequent reason for seeing a vet, in any breed, but particularly in a breed where the major health issue is allergy.

There is no reason to discuss allergy in this article. It is covered elsewhere. Some of the inherited problems are rare in Bichons whereas they are major in other breeds. Cheylitiella Mange, known as walking dandruff, seems to have missed the Bichon up to now and may it ever be so! Sarcoptic mange is a common skin disease in packs and strays and is caused by a mite, as is Red Mange (demodicosis). Lick sores (acral pruritic dermatitis) is more often seen in short-coated breeds. Note that Bichons are NOT a “home alone” breed and may lick from boredom!

We know that some Bichons are highly allergic to fleas and this is a disease in and of itself. Fleas will drive the allergic Bichon nuts and one that is not allergic may offer fleas free room and board and never mind them. Only when tapeworm appears in the stool later will the owner know there were fleas on board! Lice and ticks are individual dog issues and may never bother some Bichons if they are indoor dogs.

Hormonal disorders can be frustrating to treat and may well be a cause of hair loss in Bichons. Hypothyroidism would be the most suspect condition when hair coat is thin, brittle and slow to grow. Excess cortisone (both from medication and from adrenal hyperfunction) and excess estrogen can cause hair loss in some breeds. In the Bichon this may happen from protracted treatment with predisone. Mange (caused by a mite) and ringworm (fungus) can cause patterned hair loss.

Infection may be a complication from several skin problems, with hot spots (acute moist dermatitis) being common in Bichons. Hot spots can result in pyoderma (skin infection) if the hot spot is not dried up promptly. A juvenile pyoderma, called puppy strangles, is found in very young pups and can become quite serious if not properly treated. It was once a common cause of death in young pups. Any skin problem that causes scratching and biting of the skin can ultimately cause infection from trauma.

Warts are actually rare in dogs but papillomas are growths that are somewhat similar and may or may not have a stem. Lipomas are fatty tumors that are usually benign but can become infected if the skin is broken. They typically are round and soft, filled with fluid and grow slowly.

It is very important that any growth be examined by a veterinarian because only he or she will be able to identify those that are or may become cancerous! The most common skin cancers are mast cell tumors, melanomas and adenomas. It would be remiss not to add that any “lump” or raised area around the mammary glands of a female have to be seen promptly because mammary cancer is the most common cancer in bitches of all breeds. Remember that any lump or tumor that grows rapidly may be cancerous, as may any open sore that does not heal.

Common skin growths seen in some Bichons are called sebaceous cysts. These can occur on any part of the body from top of the head to hocks and any place in between! These are small capsules surrounding a lump of cheesy material called keratin. If chewed, they can become infected. It has been this author’s experience that they will start early in some Bichons and keep appearing in new places throughout their lives. They may be excised but if they are that numerous, your dog may be seeing the vet every few months for removal. It is harmless to leave alone those that are not easily scratched or chewed. It may be advisable to remove any that are receiving constant attention from teeth or paw. Most do not have this many and the occasional little cyst may dry up on its own.