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What to Feed Your Dog for Healthy Skin and a Shiny Coat

By: Stacey Hunvald, DVM

Skin concerns are among the most common reasons dog parents schedule a veterinary appointment. Your dog’s skin—and coat—is the largest organ in their body, and its many complex functions demand about one-third of their daily protein requirement along with substantial fats, carbohydrates and appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals.

Here’s what you need to know about common skin conditions in dogs, and what to feed for healthy skin and a shiny coat.

Common dog skin problems

Signs of poor skin health include:

  • Excessive scratching
  • Redness
  • Thickening and inflammation of the skin
  • Loss or thinning of fur
  • Dull coat appearance or a rough coat/skin texture
  • Sores and scabs
  • Skin odor

Because it demands so much, skin and coat health starts with a well-balanced diet. At a minimum, ensure that any commercial diet you are feeding is approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the governing agency of dietary requirements for all domestic animals. AAFCO-approved commercial diets contain enough protein and fat as well as trace vitamins and minerals to allow most dogs to maintain a healthy skin and coat. All food found in Petco stores and on Petco.com is AAFCO compliant.

Remember that other health issues often go hand in hand with skin concerns. While a specialized diet might improve skin health, it’s important to consult your veterinarian to rule out any underlying factors that might be causing skin concerns.

What causes skin issues in dogs?

Many skin conditions manifest the same way in people as they do in pets, so it is important to have your dog evaluated by their veterinarian if you believe they have an issue. Additionally, there is often more than one problem present since a fungal or bacterial infection frequently occurs as a secondary issue when one of the other causes is present.

Conditions that contribute to abnormal appearance and skin discomfort include:

  • Allergies (most commonly to environmental allergens but sometimes to food ingredients)
  • Ectoparasites (fleas, ticks, mites, lice, etc.)
  • Fungal and bacterial infections
  • Hormone disorders such as low thyroid hormone or elevated stress hormone
  • Immune disorders of the skin
  • Specific mineral absorption problems or deficiencies in specific breeds

While diet can improve the structure and function of the skin, it is unlikely to solve a specific health problem on its own. Your pet may also need medications or shampoos to address the problem, especially initially. Your veterinarian will help you determine the best course of treatment, whether it is through diet, medication, shampoos or some combination of all three.

 

How can I improve my dog’s skin and coat?

There are several dog foods that are specifically formulated for skin and coat health. Since the skin requires so much protein and fat to maintain its structure, a good skin-focused diet will contain high-quality quantities of these nutrients.

Many skin-focused diets also include additional omega-3 fatty acids. This specific type of fat molecule can help reduce inflammation at the skin’s cellular level. The two most important omega-3 fatty acids for dogs are known by their acronyms EHA and DPA. Both types must be present for optimum skin health.

Omega-6 fatty acids are another essential fatty acid you will often see recommended in skin-focused diets and supplements. This type of fat molecule is critical for building skin cell membranes. All AAFCO-approved diets contain enough omega-6 fats for nearly all dogs. The proportion of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the diet (and therefore ultimately in the skin cells themselves) can help reduce inflammation. Because of the generally high amount of omega-6 fatty acids in any standard diet, additional omega-6 is usually not helpful since an excess can impair this important ratio. Your veterinarian can tell you if your pup’s specific concern is an exception to this general rule.

Vitamin A also helps keep skin cells healthy. While you are likely to see this vitamin in a healthy skin diet, you should not supplement vitamin A separately from your pet’s food without specific recommendations from your veterinarian, as too much  can cause as many problems as too little.

Always consult your veterinarian if you feel your pet’s skin and coat have lost the luster they once had. Your vet can also help you determine what pet food changes would be most beneficial for your dog. 

Other important diet options

For some dogs, a shift toward a diet with a fish protein can alter the protein and fatty acid proportions enough to cause significant improvement in skin and hair appearance, particularly when there is no underlying health issue.

It is critical to note that it is risky for some dogs to shift toward a higher fat or higher protein diet, so always check with your veterinarian when considering a diet change. Some breeds are susceptible to gastrointestinal issues or pancreatitis when eating a high-fat diet and this can be a greater concern than some skin issues. 

Additionally, note that all diet changes should be made gradually to reduce the risk of stomach upset such as vomiting or diarrhea. Change diets by gradually adding a small amount of the new food to the original food and slowly increasing the new food and decreasing the old one over a period of 10 days.

Is my dog allergic to ingredients in their food?

Although significantly less common than environmental allergies and sensitivities, some skin conditions are related to an ingredient in the food itself, most commonly the protein source. In such cases, changing to a diet that contains a less common source of protein such as lamb, duck, bison, venison, rabbit or salmon instead of chicken or beef may be helpful. Another option for eliminating protein allergens or sensitivities is to feed a hydrolyzed-protein food in which proteins have been broken down into smaller molecules that the dog’s body cannot recognize as the allergen protein. This type of diet requires a prescription from your veterinarian, but its use is generally considered the best test for food allergies.

To determine if a specific food ingredient allergy is contributing to your dog’s skin issue, you must strictly avoid any morsel of the possible allergen, including in treats or table scraps. In addition, while pet parents might prefer to feed a grain-free diet, note that it is very uncommon for dogs to be allergic to grains in dog food. Such diet trials must be done for two to three months to truly evaluate whether a specific ingredient is to blame.

Petco's picks for healthy skin and coat nutrition

Additional factors in maintaining your dog’s skin health

In addition to feeding a diet containing the recommended ingredients for skin and coat health, your veterinarian might recommend a vitamin supplement. When choosing this option, always use a pet-specific product, as human supplements may not be as easily absorbed by dogs and they may contain other vitamins that can be toxic to pets. Check with your veterinarian on reputable brands of skin supplements. It is critical to note that over-supplementing certain  vitamins and minerals can be toxic to dogs, so always check with your veterinarian and carefully follow the instructions on the packaging for your dog’s weight and needs.

In addition to proper nutrition, some pets need specialized shampoos to improve their skin and coat. Different conditions call for different topical products, so always discuss this with your veterinarian. Some potentially helpful solutions include:

  • Flea and other ectoparasite preventives (diet cannot reduce skin issues associated with parasites)
  • Antiseptic or antifungal shampoos and conditioners
  • Moisturizing shampoos and conditioners for dry or flaky skin or fur
  • Topical calming sprays to help reduce itch

Some dogs may need prescription-strength versions of these solutions for optimum results.

Proper care of your dog’s coat and skin through their bathing and grooming regimen is also important. Regular brushing and removing hair tangles can help prevent irritation and damage to underlying skin. For wrinkled breeds, careful cleaning and drying of skin creases is also required.

Finally, note that chronic skin issues or intermittent flare-ups can occur, even after diet concerns have been addressed. Chronic health issues require follow-up with your veterinarian to ensure your dog is on the right management path. In some cases, maintenance medications will be needed long term. Checkups and adjustments to treatment are often necessary to help keep your dog’s skin and coat as healthy and comfortable as possible and keep your pup thriving.

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