What is alopecia in dogs?
While it is natural for most dogs to moult in cycles throughout the year, they should not become bald in any areas. Alopecia refers to the partial or complete loss of hair in areas where it should normally be present. It can occur for lots of different reasons and all dog breeds of any age can be affected. It is important to seek veterinary attention if your dog is developing bald patches, as this can be a sign of an underlying condition that needs treatment, for example a hormonal disorder. Thankfully, alopecia is usually treatable and reversible.
What causes alopecia in dogs?
There are many different causes of alopecia. These include:
- Skin parasites e.g. fleas or mites.
- Skin allergies.
- Ringworm: this is a highly infectious fungal skin infection that can be transmitted to humans and other animals. It tends to cause circular patches of crusty skin and hair loss; it is mildly itchy.
- Hormonal diseases e.g. hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease.
- Skin infections e.g. a hot spot.
- Contact alopecia: this is where something rubs at the fur in one area, shortening it or removing it entirely e.g. underneath a collar that is rarely removed or if a dog regularly lies on a hard floor.
- Overgrooming: possible causes include skin allergies, parasites, stress and pain. With overgrooming the fur can be strained pink, or can be removed entirely (this is a common cause of alopecia in cats).
- Seasonal alopecia: some dogs develop patches of alopecia in the autumn that don’t regrow for 6-12 months. This shows a seasonal pattern but is completely harmless. Common breeds affected are Bulldogs, Boxers, Dobermans and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.
- Wounds and scars: alopecia is common around an area previously affected by a wound, as the roots of the hairs can be damaged. This may be temporary or permanent.
- Inherited: in some dogs the tendency for alopecia is passed on through the generations. This is the case with Chinese Crested dog, which is bred to have no fur.
- Leishmania: this is a tiny parasite that is transmitted by sandflies; it is not present in the UK but can be seen in dogs in the UK that have travelled abroad. It can cause crusting, skin lesions and fur loss, as well as severe underlying disease. It is therefore important to know whether your dog has travelled abroad, as the vet will need to take this into account when trying to diagnose the cause of the alopecia.
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What are the symptoms of alopecia in dogs?
As well as the obvious symptom of alopecia, there may be additional symptoms that the dog will display, which can give us a clue as to the underlying cause. These include:
- Skin red and inflamed with possible crusts/ulcers
- Fur around the area is wet (gives us a clue that the dog has been licking)
- Dog licking, chewing and scratching (suggests self-trauma may be the cause of the alopecia)
- Patches of dark skin (pigmentation)
- Changes in appetite
- Weight loss or gain
- Drinking and urinating more than usual
How is the cause of alopecia in dogs identified?
The vet will be able to diagnose alopecia based on the appearance of your dog’s coat, but will then need to try and discover the cause. This will involve asking you lots of questions, performing a full physical examination on your dog, as well as running various tests including hair plucks, skin scrapes, blood tests, skin cultures and biopsies. Further tests may also be suggested depending on the individual case.
How is alopecia in dogs treated?
The treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the alopecia, so the vet needs to diagnose this before establishing what treatment is needed. For example, the treatment for fleas or ringworm is very different to the treatment needed for a hormonal condition such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease. Most cases of alopecia are reversible with appropriate treatment.
How alopecia in dogs be prevented?
Here are a few suggestions that may help to reduce the chances of your dog developing alopecia:
- Ensuring your dog is always up to date with their flea treatment.
- If your dog is prone to hot spots and has a thick coat, then consider clipping in the summer.
- Place a Buster collar as soon as you notice that your dog is persistently chewing at a certain area, to prevent further trauma to the skin and coat.
- Ensure your dog has a soft bed to lie in to help prevent contact alopecia.
- Seek veterinary attention if you have any concerns.