Skin Disease

As skin is so visible, skin disease is one of the commonest conditions we treat. There are hundreds of different skin conditions and we can only explain about some of the more common ones in here.

Probably the commonest cause of complaint is ‘itchiness’, which is seen as scratching, chewing or licking at the skin. Most itchy skin disease is caused by allergies, but they are very difficult to tell apart.


  • Parasites e.g. fleas, lice, ticks, mites. We advise using prescription flea treatment, as many over the counter remedies are not effective enough. Fleas spend the vast majority of their time living OFF the animal and in the furnishings, carpets and floorboards of the house. Occasionally, you see fleas on the pet, but more often you only see small specks of black flea dirt – if put onto damp tissue, a red ‘halo’ will form as they consist of dried blood.

The most common cause and the GOLDEN RULE is TREAT ITCHY PETS FOR FLEAS!

  • Contact allergies. A reaction to something the animal has been standing or lying on, often affecting the feet and belly areas. Examples of causes include floor cleaners, carpet shampoos, washing powders, lawn treatments etc.
  • Food. This is usually a reaction to a certain protein source in the diet e.g. lamb, beef etc. The skin lesions are often all over the body and respond poorly to tablets. Even pets whose diet has not changed can be affected, if the manufacturers change the formulation or use a different batch of meat.
  • Atopy (environmental allergy). The body reacts to environmental allergens e.g. house dust mites, grasses, trees, pollens etc. It causes general skin disease that often responds well to tablets but relapses once they have finished. There may be a seasonal pattern, often being worst in the spring and summer.


We first need a full, accurate history – be observant, watch your pet – and above all, be honest with us, especially regarding how long it has been going on, any treatments given etc. It is important to remember that skin disease can be a complex and chronic problem, and often takes considerable time and effort to diagnose.

  • Duration of signs
  • Intensity – how itchy? Pets are good at scratching/licking when out of sight!
  • What the skin looked like – Red? Spotty? Scaly? Dry? Greasy?
  • Any changes in environment, diet etc.?
  • Any seasonal pattern?
  • Any skin problems in in-contact animals or humans?
  • Any flea treatment used and when
  • Any other treatment given and any response to it
  • Any systemic signs e.g. tiredness, not eating, drinking more, etc.


  • Skin scrapes – taking a scraping of the surface of the skin (often done conscious) can show evidence of skin mites
  • Cytology – to see what types of cell and types of ’bugs’ are present on the skin
  • Culture and sensitivity – to see which bacteria are present and what antibiotics are effective. A culture can also be done for ringworm (a fungus), although this can take up to 2 weeks
  • Skin biopsy – under general anaesthetic, to see the skin changes present. This tends to be used on lumps, ulcers etc. which do not respond to treatment
  • Exclusion diet – feeding a ‘pure’ diet may help to tell if allergies are present, however it is ESSENTIAL to stick to it for 8-12 weeks before we know whether it has worked or not. This diet is difficult to stick to, especially with cats out hunting and dogs on walks.
  • Intradermal skin testing – this needs specialist referral. Under sedation, tiny amounts of possible allergens are injected into the skin and we can tell which ones the pet is actually allergic to.
  • Blood test – there is a blood test that can help determine causes of atopy. Blood tests may also help identify underlying causes of skin problems e.g. thyroid disease, liver disease.


No two animals will respond the same, so we may need to try several treatments until we find the most suitable one for your pet. We may also need to use two or more treatments concurrently.

  • Flea control – regular treatment with a good quality flea product for all pets. Treatment of the environment is also essential.
  • Shampoo – there are a varied range of shampoos for different conditions which may be used.
  • Essential fatty acids often help, particularly in dry skin, to restore oils in the coat. These essential fatty acids aim to improve the general health of the skin and often helps reduce the dose of other drugs needed
  • Antihistamines – these are usually used in combination with other treatments
  • Antibiotics – are used in skin infection, where the skin is red and has ‘spots’
  • Corticosteroids – are usually the most effective way of reducing itching and at low doses are very well tolerated. Side effects can occur, e.g. increased drinking/urinating, liver damage, vomiting, weak immune system etc. and we always try to use the lowest dose we can.
  • Diet modification to avoid sensitive foods
  • Vaccine – in some cases a vaccine can be made to desensitise the animal


While a few skin conditions can be CURED, many can be CONTROLLED and need long term medication. This can be expensive – so we advise you to consider pet insurance BEFORE your pet develops skin problems!


Not all skin disease is allergic, other problems can include:

  • Ringworm (scaly skin)
  • Seborrhoea (dry or greasy skin)
  • Alopecia (baldness)
  • Immune disease e.g. lupus, pemphigus
  • Systemic disease e.g. thyroid, liver, adrenal gland disorders