Flaky skin is not representative of healthy skin. Thus, if you are observing flakes on the coat of your dog or cat that means something is inherently amiss with the health of the skin and hair coat. However, there is not one single cause for the presence of flaky canine and feline skin, and determining the cause of flakes is paramount to finding a solution to treat them.
When the flakes are observed on the skin and hair coats of dogs and cats are dry to the touch, feeling like the character of fish food flakes, this typically indicates simple dry skin. Flakes of this kind often are not accompanied by significant hair loss, foul odor, and/or redness or irritation. This presentation is fairly easy to treat with a combination of omega-3-fatty acids derived from fish oils taken orally, and weekly to biweekly baths with a moisturizing shampoo fortified with oatmeal and essential fatty acids. This approach comprehensively, directly conditions and nourishes the skin and hair coat.
Oily FlakesWhen the flakes have an oily feel to them, this typically means that a skin disease process is at work that is more complicated than simple dry skin, known as seborrheic dermatitis. Seborrheic dermatitis occurs when the rate of skin cell turnover becomes excessive due to inflammation. This is also often accompanied by overactive sebaceous glands (glands that secrete conditioning, water proofing oils for the skin), hence the typical oily texture of flakes, skin and hair coat in patients that suffer from seborrheic dermatitis. In addition to flakes and oiliness, the skin is often itchy, inflamed, and there is often a general foul odor to the pet.
The most common inflammatory influence with regard to seborrheic dermatitis is skin allergy. Thus, in addition to direct anti-seborrheic topical management of the skin and hair coat (more on that below); a comprehensive skin allergy management regimen is also imperative. From a supplemental point of view, omega-3-fatty acids derived from fish oils are still important, but for more reasons than just directly conditioning the skin and hair coat. By their nature, omega-3-fatty acids are naturally anti-inflammatory, diverting inflammatory biochemical pathways to inert, non-reactive pathways
An allergic pet should also be fed a hypoallergenic diet. Diets should be free of grassy grains (wheat, corn, barley, and oats) and contain a novel protein source, that is, a protein source the dog or cat has never before consumed. This covers the patient for possible food allergy, as food allergy sensitivities build over time from prolonged, repeated consumption of a protein, most commonly, an animal source protein. For most dogs and cats, that rules out chicken and beef, as these are the most common protein sources found in commercial pet food diets. Good novel protein sources include: rabbit, venison, and duck, as well as an array of less common sources.
Hydrolyzed protein diets are also very effective, since they take away the necessity to find novel protein sources. Hydrolyzed diets cut large chain proteins into smaller, maximally absorbable chains that are unlikely to lead to allergic reactions that erupt in the skin.
For a carbohydrate source for patients with seborrheic dermatitis, I like rice, technically a grain, but unlikely to cause adverse reaction in the gut. Potato is also a good carbohydrate source that also contains other important nutrients such as potassium.
Last but not least, from a topical point of view, a pet that suffers from chronic seborrheic dermatitis, should at least in the short term, be regularly bathed with a veterinary grade, anti-seborrheic shampoo. Such a shampoo should have benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid as its two active medical ingredients, while also having aloe, essential fatty acids, and other naturally conditioning agents in it. Your veterinarian can recommend effective anti-seborrheic shampoo products. I typically advise bathing with such a shampoo three times weekly until the flakes, oiliness, and odor are under control, and then bathe the pet as needed.
Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms. In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport. He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.