Hair loss in dogs
Almost every dog suffers from hair loss. Just like with humans, it is not unusual to lose a few hairs. But sometimes a dog suffers from such severe hair loss that some dog owners wonder whether this is still normal or whether there is something pathological behind it.
Most dogs change their coat 1-2 times a year due to temperature and light (especially in spring and autumn), many even more frequently due to strong temperature fluctuations (keyword climate change and heating). This hair loss is also known as "coat change".
It is also normal for a dog to lose a few hairs every day, as they are constantly renewed and old ones fall out.
But what happens if your dog suddenly loses a lot of hair, gets bald patches, scratches himself all the time or has been losing a lot of hair for a long time?
We show possible causes of natural and pathological hair loss (technical term: alopecia, also called baldness), what you can do as a pet owner and when you should take your doggo to the vet.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- How much hair loss is still normal and what plays a role in this?
- My dog sheds more than normal - what are the possible causes?
- Non-disease-related hair loss
- Hair loss due to disease - with itching
- Hair loss due to disease - without itching
- Very specific and genetic diseases
- When should I take my dog to the vet?
- Treatment and prognosis
- Can I still do something preventive (prophylactic)?
- Summary and tips for an "illness diary"
1. How much hair loss is still normal and what plays a role in this?
As a rule of thumb, every dog loses hair every day.
An exception is made for a few dog breeds that are known to shed hardly any hair at all (often called "allergy dogs" or "dogs suitable for people with allergies").
These breeds include:
- Bichon Frisé
- Rough-haired Dachshund
- and other breeds
However, many of these dog breeds have to go to the groomer frequently, otherwise the hair growth takes over and the coat becomes knotted and dull.
In dog breeds with a natural coat change, the hair loss will go on its own after the coat change is complete.
Other dogs, on the other hand, have hair loss all year round and a specific coat change is not really discernible.
In general, each hair follows a certain cycle, these cycle phases (shedding to regrowth) last about 6-7 weeks.
The breed of your doggo plays a decisive role in hair loss.
If you have a dog with a strong, dense undercoat, it will lose considerably more hair than a short-haired dog, for example. But even in the same breed there are individual differences.
Attitude: If the dog lives in a very warm flat, it will naturally lose more undercoat than a four-legged dog that spends most of its life outside.
Age: Many Doggos hardly shed at all when they are puppies or young dogs, and increasingly more later on. The seniors among our four-legged friends also tend to lose more coat due to age and many turn grey over time.
Due to the strong breed variation, it is hardly possible to give exact information about the number or weight of natural daily hair loss (this has been scientifically investigated and this result has been achieved so far).
Rather, attention should be paid to changes in hair coat or amount of hair loss.
If the hair is coming out in clumps, your dog is constantly scratching or itching, hair loss is usually a sign of illness!
A healthy coat and skin should generally not shed (heavily) and should be shiny. (although some breeds have a very wiry or long coat, which cannot necessarily be described as shiny).
2. My dog sheds more than normal - what are the possible causes?
One thing in advance: The list of possible causes for hair loss is long and can fill entire dermatology books. Therefore, in some cases a lot of patience is needed to find the cause.
I. What is alopecia?
Pathological hair loss describes the "excessive, massive loss of body hair on normally hairy areas of the skin".
Depending on the cause, alopecia can affect the entire body of the dog or only individual, localized areas of the body.
Alopecia is not an independent disease, but rather a symptom of another underlying disease.
Coat and skin are interrelated because the hair roots are anchored in the so-called hair follicles in the skin.
If your dog suffers from a skin problem, this sometimes manifests itself in the loss of hair roots and thus increased hair.
Our guide is intended to give you some initial help for a suspicion and to make it easier for you to decide when you should go to the vet.
3. Non-disease-related hair loss
In certain life situations, your Doggo may have more hair loss without a disease being present. These include:
If the dog is under a lot of stress, it will shed more hair.
This can often be observed in the waiting room at the vet's or on the vet's treatment table....
Strong grief can also lead to extreme shedding - it should be tried to help the dog through grief-accompanying measures such as increased attention and distraction.
II. Heat and pregnancy
Around heat, some female dogs also tend to suffer from increased hair loss, which is hormonal and temporarily confined to this time.
Likewise, some female dogs show increased hair loss during or after pregnancy.
The regenerative capacity of the cells and thus also of the hair follicles decreases. The hair falls out more easily and grows back more slowly.
Some doggos get the so-called "puppy coat" after castration or suffer from more hair loss. Due to surgical intervention, there is interference in the hormonal balance and hair metabolism.
However, this is usually only a purely visual "problem", there are usually no disadvantages for the dog.
Some dogs show increased hair on their way into adulthood due to hormonal fluctuations - here it helps to wait and see.
4. Hair loss due to disease - with itching
I. How does itching manifest itself?
The dog tries to relieve itching by: constant scratching, licking, gnawing, nibbling, biting, rubbing, sometimes he also shows hectic movements and restlessness (for example in case of parasite infestation).
Strictly speaking, the itching often causes the hair to break off, due to the dog's manipulation (so-called apparent alopecia) and not always to direct hair loss (true alopecia).
Sometimes the itching is so severe that so-called self-traumas occur.
The dog injures itself by scratching and biting in a desperate attempt to stop the itching.
The following diseases are associated with itching:
Parasite infestation is one of the most common causes of itching.
Ectoparasites (parasites that live on or in the dog's skin) such as mites, fleas, hair lice and lice (less common) are unwelcome guests on our doggo.
Even in places where a tick has been sitting, some fur may fall out due to licking by the dog or inflammation.
Some ectoparasites can be seen with the naked eye (fleas or their flea excrement - often on the back end, ticks or hair lice), mites, on the other hand, can only be seen microscopically.
Not all mites cause itching, but Sarcoptes mite infestation in particular is accompanied by severe, sometimes insatiable itching.
In contrast to fleas or ticks, mites cannot transmit diseases.
Quite a few Doggos suffer from allergies these days. In addition to food allergies, these include all kinds of environmental allergens (perfume, detergents, plants, etc.) to which your doggo may react.
If the food is suspected, a (properly conducted!) elimination diet often provides valuable information. The diet should be clearly discussed with your vet beforehand, because even the smallest feeding mistakes can ruin the whole result!
Nowadays there are a number of so-called hypoallergenic foods and also various chews that are suitable for allergy sufferers and can alleviate your dog's allergies.
A so-called flea saliva allergy is also common in our doggos. In this case, the dogs react allergically to the excretory products of the fleas.
In these cases, careful flea prophylaxis including treatment of the environment is extremely sensible.
Lastly, Canine Atopic Dermatitis (CAD) is important to be mentioned here.
This is also an environmental allergy and describes the increased tendency of a dog to allergic and inflammatory, itchy reactions to various environmental allergens.
Here, too, the exact cause has not yet been clarified and a breed-related frequency can be recognised.
(Terrier, Dalmatian, Shar-Pei, Lhasa Apso, Boxer, Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, English Setter and Irish Setter, among others).
IV. Skin fungi
The so-called dermatophytosis can also lead to hair loss, especially dogs with a weak immune system.
The so-called malassezia, yeast fungi of the skin, also lead to skin problems if they multiply excessively.
Circular, hairless areas often give a first suspicion, but of course your dog can also be affected over a large area or suffer from something else.
But dogs do not always show itching.
Attention: some skin fungi are contagious for humans (zoonosis).
V. Bacterial infections of the skin (pyoderma)
These can be primary (i.e. the main cause) or secondary (in addition to another underlying disease, the more common case).
Frequently, constant scratching or increased licking causes micro-injuries in the skin and bacteria can penetrate deeper into the skin or the skin barrier is weakened overall.
Depending on the severity, the skin then becomes more or less inflamed and may need antibiotic treatment.
5. Hair loss due to disease - without itching
The following diseases, on the other hand, do not necessarily lead to itching - this may occur later due to a secondary infection (additional infection of the skin due to strong scratching or lowered immune defense of the skin) or due to the severity of the disease.
I. Hormonal (endocrine)
Hypothyroidism and hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing's syndrome/hyperadrenocorticism) often show (symmetrical, non-inflammatory) hair loss as one of the main symptoms, leaving the dogs almost naked in some areas.
Reason: The cell cycle is, among other things, hormonally controlled and leads to a disturbed hair cycle if there is too much or too little of the corresponding hormones.
More rarely, diabetes mellitus also leads to an altered coat or hair loss.
Your vet can confirm these suspected diagnoses with further blood tests.
II. Tumors/paraneoplastic syndrome
In some cases, organ tumors also lead to an altered hormone balance - as a result, the hair coat changes or there is increased hair loss.
Examples: Testicular tumors of the male dog, ovarian tumor of the female dog.
Tumors of the skin (e.g. epitheliotropic lymphoma, squamous cell carcinoma) can also destroy the skin structure and thus also the hair follicles.
The so-called "paraneoplastic syndrome" refers to accompanying symptoms that occur due to a tumor disease.
Sometimes one of these symptoms is increased hair loss, which can occur with or without itching.
III. Nutrient deficiency
An unbalanced or low-quality diet leads to a nutrient deficiency in the long run.
Especially important for the skin are: high-quality protein, unsaturated fatty acids, B vitamins such as biotin and zinc and selenium.
Especially cheap food or a very one-sided BARF diet will lead to a nutrient deficit in the long run.
A well-trained nutritionist or vet can help you in these cases, sometimes it makes sense to calculate the dog's rations exactly and see what nutrients have been lacking so far.
A nutrient deficit can also be caused by long illnesses, especially intestinal diseases.
Other indications of nutrient imbalances are: dull coat, flaky skin and general poor performance/lack of energy in your doggo.
In severe cases, these dogs show an increased susceptibility to infections because the immune system is weakened.
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Some skin parasites such as Demodex mites (hair follicle mites) do not primarily cause itching.
In the case of this type of mite, local infestation is classically accompanied by the formation of "spectacles" - circular hair loss around the eyes.
Demodex mites (demodicosis) do not necessarily need to be treated, in fact they live on many dogs without causing symptoms of disease.
Only when the immune system is weakened (illness, stress, etc.) does an increased outbreak occur.
When treatment is necessary, the vet will decide individually for each sick dog.
Another example is leishmaniasis, an infection caused by leishmania. These single-cell parasites attack the immune cells of the dog and cause the dog to fall ill, sometimes very severely.
This disease has many faces and can manifest itself, among other things, in skin changes and hair loss, although these are usually not the only symptoms.
V. Autoimmune disease
These are diseases in which the immune system of the dog's body turns against itself.
There are a number of known autoimmune diseases of the skin, but they are all comparatively rare.
Among the best known are: Lupus erythematosus, Pemphigus vulgaris/foliaceus.
Diagnosis in these cases usually involves taking a biopsy (sample of the skin).
VI. Intestinal diseases
In some cases of chronic (long-term) intestinal disease, the dog's intestine can no longer absorb (reabsorb) or produce sufficient nutrients (poor colonization with bad intestinal bacteria).
The skin and hair then lack the necessary nutrients and the hair breaks more quickly, grows back less easily or falls out more often.
In rare cases, (chronic) poisoning, e.g. with thallium, leads to hair loss in clumps.
Thallium was used in the past as a depilatory and in rodenticides, among other things, and can still be found in the soil with a poisonous effect for decades.
If your dog suffers from an additionally severely disturbed general condition or other signs of poisoning, this should also be taken into consideration.
VIII. Organ Diseases
Diseases of the liver, kidneys or pancreas can also manifest themselves in an altered coat. In this case, the dogs have a little more hair loss than usual and the coat usually appears shaggier and less glossy.
Advanced diseases can lead to a loss or reduced production of proteins.
One of the main components of hair is keratin, a protein - if protein is missing, not enough keratin can be produced.
IX. Disturbed metabolism
After severe illness or pregnancy, the hair growth phase may be prolonged and more hair will fall out.
Once your dog's body has recovered, the hair structure usually returns to normal.
X. Post-clipping alopecia
After clipping, e.g. at the vet's for an operation, fur growth at this site only resumes after a long time. In some cases, the clipped area remains bald.
This not infrequently leads to resentment on the part of the owners towards the vet, however, this does not happen due to "wrong shaving", but it is simply "bad luck" that the dog's body reacts to shaving in this way.
6. Very specific and genetic diseases
Some hereditary diseases lead to an incomplete formation or functional disorder of the hair follicles, the hair cannot grow healthily.
An example of this is follicular dysplasia (the hair follicles produce little or no hair and the coat is of poor quality).
Some dogs, such as the Mexican Naked Dog, are bred to be almost hairless.
I. Cyclic flank alopecia
Hair loss in the flank region (anterolateral abdominal wall) occurs seasonally and usually resolves spontaneously on its own after a few months, but may recur.
II. Alopecia X
If all other diseases have been ruled out, this diagnosis is sometimes made by the veterinarian. It is therefore a so-called diagnosis of exclusion, the cause of which has not been clearly established to date.
A hereditary component certainly plays a role, as certain breeds such as the Chow-Chow, Miniature Spitz, Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Miniature Poodle, Samoyede and Keeshond are particularly often affected.
Since this hair loss occurs seasonally, a connection with the length of daylight is also suspected.
The sebaceous glands of the hair roots die and the hair breaks off.
Typical affected dog breeds are Vizsla, Akita, Samoyed, King Poodle and Springer Spaniel.
The diseases mentioned are not exhaustive, there are many other skin diseases which can lead to loss of coat and increased hair loss, but these are rare and less well known (e.g. Canine pattern disease/alopecia).
IV. Other causes can be
- Dry indoor air (heating)
- excessive grooming or frequent bathing
- Pressure points due to tight-fitting harnesses/collars
- Scars or injuries where fur can no longer grow (hair follicles destroyed).
- Psychological causes (however, all other possible causes should be ruled out first).
Depending on the severity of the stimulus, these will result in no to more severe itching.
7. When should I take my dog to the vet?
- Sudden changes in coat (coat is no longer shiny, severe hair loss, coat structure has changed, dandruff)
- Skin irritations or inflammations that you can't explain or if they become more severe
- Itching that goes beyond the normal "scratching".
- Your dog licks, nibbles or bites itself more often on certain parts of the body.
- Your dog hurts itself (self-traumas)
- You have discovered parasites
- Bald patches on the body
- Your dog shows additional symptoms of a disease (remember: behind a skin disease there can be a completely different underlying disease).
- If YOU also have skin changes (a visit to the dermatologist after the vet visit may be advisable).
It is especially important to help your dog with itching. Itching can be worse than some pain and leads to further destruction and disease of the skin through constant scratching. Subsequent infections due to invading bacteria etc. often follow.
8. Treatment and prognosis
Parasitic diseases in particular can usually be diagnosed quickly and the appropriate medication usually works well (sometimes even the treatment of the environment is decisive, especially in the case of flea infestation!)
Depending on the cause, your vet may need to do more tests first.
If it is a complicated disease, extensive skin examinations such as biopsies may follow.
From medications to shampoos, hypoallergenic diets, prophylactic anti-parasitic medications to surgery, there are a myriad of remedies that can be used.
Your vet will decide this together with you.
In addition, you can consult a naturopathic veterinarian or an animal healer, especially for stubborn or therapy-resistant cases.
They work with various herbal and homeopathic remedies and will probably also be able to give you further tips on feeding your dog.
If you suspect that your dog's problem is not physical but psychological, a behavioural therapist (ideally in cooperation with your vet) is the right person to contact.
A general prognosis cannot be given due to the multitude of possibilities.
However, if an underlying disease is managed well, the increased hair loss will decrease or return to normal (e.g. with a successful change of diet in the case of an allergy).
But: Despite all efforts, the cause of severe hair loss cannot always be found.
In these cases, only symptomatic treatment remains (stopping the itching, alleviating the inflammation, etc.) and sometimes a change in diet.
Whether the next hair cycle can proceed normally depends not only on the success of the therapy but also on the extent of the hair follicle damage and whether it is a genetic disease.
9. Can I still do something preventive (prophylactic)?
With the following 6 measures you support the skin metabolism in any case:
1. Regular combing: It is important to remove the dead undercoat - this allows more air to reach the dog's skin. Always comb in the direction of the hair growth and cut out existing knots if necessary. It is best to get advice from a specialist shop, as there are many different models depending on the coat structure and length.
2. Bathe as little as possible with shampoo - only when absolutely necessary.
3. A well-balanced diet: a high-quality complete feed or a well-prepared raw/fresh diet
4. Linseed, fish or safflower oil in the feed supports skin and coat. Especially in the mentioned oils there are many essential omega-3 & omega-6 fatty acids, which are also involved in the regulation of inflammation in the body. Approx. 1 tsp/10 kg dog as a rough guide.
Supplementary feeds such as brewer's yeast, mineral mixtures etc. are often good, especially in severe illnesses when the dog has an increased need or a poor metabolism. Ideally, however, only after consulting your vet, because too much of a good thing can also put a strain on your dog's metabolism.
6. Stroke your dog a lot - in addition to the feel-good factor, you will also notice the smallest changes in your doggo more quickly.
10. Summary and tips for an "illness diary"
A pathological hair loss of your doggo that cannot be explained by simple causes sometimes means a complex diagnosis by your vet.
Since the causes are very diverse and not always clear, you often have to approach the diagnosis step-by-step with your vet.
Sometimes, however, a definite diagnosis is not possible because the cause cannot be determined.
Hair loss is sometimes linked to other underlying diseases, which is why a diagnosis that is as precise as possible is a prerequisite for a correct and successful therapy.
An exact description with a detailed history often helps your vet a lot.
In particularly tricky cases, you as the owner can try to keep a kind of diary in which you note down every change with possible causes.
The most important thing:
- Does your doggo suffer from itching? If so, which parts of the body does your dog scratch constantly?
- On which parts of the body is the hair loss particularly severe?
- Does your four-legged friend show other symptoms besides the skin changes (lethargy, changed eating or drinking behavior, change in body weight, changes in excretions, etc.)?
- Is there a new detergent, a new dog bed, are there special grasses in bloom at the moment or is there anything that could trigger a so-called "contact allergy"?
- Has the dog's diet been changed?
- Are there any other illnesses your dog is known to have?
- Has your dog taken any medication?
- Have there been any changes in your dog's environment or habits?
- Are other animals/people in the household also affected?
- Lastly: Is there anything you think is worth mentioning?
I wish you and your Doggo all the best for your health!