Dermatology Q&A: Whats the deal with my dogs dandruff?

April 4, 2019
Laura Wilson, DVM, DACVD

Veterinary clients may not realize that the dandruff theyre seeing could be a more serious condition. Heres what to do when this question comes up.

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Q: Pet owners ask why they see dandruff in their dog's fur, often when taking a closer look, like while brushing their pet. Is this a big deal? Can they moisturize topically or through food supplementation?

A: A common question raised by dog owners is what is the dandruff they see in their dog's hair coat-and what can they do about it? It's a simple question, but there are actually a handful of things to check before brushing off this frequent owner query!

Is what they're seeing “just” scale, or does this debris represent crust? Normally exfoliated keratinocytes, or skin cells, are correctly called scale, or dandruff, while crusts are formed by dried serum or pus on the surface of the skin, often representing a ruptured pustule.

Dandruff-like scale can be seen in a variety of more benign situations like a pet that is overdue for grooming and brushing or could benefit from additional fatty acid supplementation. Just like some dogs will exhibit a heavier seasonal shed, some dogs also tend to show more regular scaling debris in a seasonal fashion, possibly related to changing weather conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.). Bathing with an oatmeal-based shampoo in lukewarm water may help gently remove this dandruff while not overly drying the skin or coat of these affected pets.

A quick check of the underlying skin can help determine if the dandruff in question is scale or crust. By slowly running your hand over the trunk of a dog, moving from the rump toward the neck, you can better see if there are any underlying macules, papules, pustules, healing collarette lesions or comedones that would warrant further investigation. 

If the underlying skin is pale pink or grey-black, depending on the color of your canine patient, and there are no primary or secondary skin lesions, this dandruff is more likely to be a benign cosmetic change. Fatty acid supplementation in the form of a liquid pump over the food, gel capsules, flavored chews or diets enriched with omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids can help improve skin and coat quality. Typically, fatty acid supplementation administered parenterally is more effective (and less messy!) than products applied topically.

If you note changes to the underlying skin, impression smears and in-house cytology, skin scrape, dermatophyte or skin cultures-or even biopsy-may be warranted to determine the underlying cause of more pathologic scale and not simple dandruff.