Seborrhoea is a group of disorders affecting the keratin layers of the skin, leading to a greasy or dry coat.  The Dogs outer layers of skin, sebaceous glands and hair follicles are over active causing the over-production of sebum (fatty lubricating substance) and skin cells. Primary seborrhea occurs in dogs under the age of 18 months.  It is a chronic condition which leaves the skin greasy, scaly and smelly and the  ears have a waxy buildup.

Scratching the Surface of Canine Skin Disease


What is seborrhea?
Primary seborrhea is an inherited disorder of the skin in which the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis), the sebaceous glands, and part of the hair follicles are hyperproductive. The rate of cell turnover in these tissues is significantly increased, causing excessive production of scale (dry flakes of skin) and sebum (fatty lubricating substance). Seborrhea oleosa is the more greasy form while seborrhea sicca is a dryer form. Many dogs have a combination of both types. Chronic waxy ear infections (otitis externa) also occur commonly as part of this disorder.

Signs of primary seborrhea are usually apparent by a year of age. Affected dogs are often greasy, scaly and smelly.

Secondary seborrhea is seen in older dogs. It looks the same clinically but is a response by the skin to other conditions, rather than an inherent defect in the skin itself.

How is seborrhea inherited?
Primary seborrhea is probably inherited as an autosomal recessive trait in the West Highland white terrier, and this may also be true in other breeds. This means there can be affected puppies in a litter where both parents have normal skin but carry the gene for seborrhea. Autosomal dominant inheritance with variable expressivity may be the mode of inheritance in some breeds.

What breeds are affected by seborrhea?
Primary seborrhea is most commonly seen in the American cocker spaniel, West Highland white terrier, English springer spaniel, and Basset hound. It is also seen in the Irish setter, German shepherd, dachshund, Doberman pinscher, Chinese Shar-pei, and Labrador retriever.

For many breeds and many disorders, the studies to determine the mode of inheritance or the frequency in the breed have not been carried out, or are inconclusive. We have listed breeds for which there is a consensus among those investigating in this field and among veterinary practitioners, that the condition is significant in this breed.

What does seborrhea mean to your dog & you?
Early evidence of the disorder such as mild flaking and dullness of the coat may appear as young as 10 weeks of age. Because these signs are subtle, they often go unnoticed. However, usually by a year to 18 months, the signs have become pronounced. Affected dogs commonly have a dull coat with excessive scaling, a greasy feel and smell to the skin (especially in areas of body folds), smelly waxy ears which may be infected, thickening of the foot pads, and dry brittle claws. Some breeds (West Highland white terrier, cocker spaniel, springer spaniel, Basset hound, Shar-pei) are more prone to the greasy form of seborrhea (seborrhea oleosa) with chronic ear infections and greasy skin, while others (Doberman pinscher, Irish setter) are more likely to develop the dryer form (seborrhea sicca)

Dogs with seborrhea are prone to secondary infections, either bacterial or yeast, and frequently develop skin lesions and associated itching. This condition is called seborrheic dermatitis. Scratching leads to worsening of the lesions and spread of the infection.

How is seborrhea diagnosed?
The signs associated with primary (inherited) and secondary (response to another condition) seborrhea are the same. Your veterinarian will take into consideration your dog's clinical signs and age (primary seborrhea is seen in young dogs), and submit a skin biopsy to a veterinary pathologist who will look for changes in the skin typical of primary seborrhea, to rule-out other conditions that cause similar clinical signs. (This is a simple procedure, done with local anaesethetic, in which your veterinarian removes a small sample of your dog's skin.)

When there is severe seborrheic dermatitis, the secondary infections must be cleared up before a diagnosis of primary seborrhea can be made.

For the veterinarian: Staphylococci and Malassezia are opportunistic pathogens that are believed to play a significant role in seborrheic dermatitis and otitis. Intense pruritis is common where there is secondary infection with these organisms.

Besides primary seborrhea, rule-outs in young dogs (less than 12 to 18 months) with seborrheic signs include demodicosis, cheyletiellosis, food hypersensitivity, epidermal dysplasia, nutritional deficiency, and ichthyosis.

How is seborrhea treated?
Primary seborrhea requires life-long management. There is no cure, and the ease of control varies between dogs. Dry scaly seborrhea can usually be controlled more easily than the greasy form. You and your veterinarian will need to work together to determine what is best for your dog. You will quickly become an expert on recognizing changes in your dog's skin and ears, and knowing when veterinary care is required. 

Antiseborrheic shampoos and moisturizers are the most important components of treatment. Initial bathing of 2 or 3 times per week is generally required, with frequency gradually reduced to a maintenance level as the condition is controlled. If your dog has a secondary bacterial or yeast infection (as is common), this must be treated with appropriate medication at the same time that antiseborrheic therapy is started.

Effective bathing requires that the medicated shampoo remain in contact with the skin for 10 to 15 minutes after lathering, followed by very thorough rinsing which removes debris (scales, grease) and shampoo, and also moisturizes your dog's skin. An after-bath rinse will also help to retain moisture. Occasional misting of the coat with the dilute rinse can often reduce the frequency of bathing required. Careful monitoring is required, since over-bathing can worsen seborrhea.

There are a large number of antiseborrheic products available. Your veterinarian will likely suggest a milder product to start, and change to a stronger one if necessary. Stronger products are usually required to control dogs with greasy skin, with possible switch to a milder product for maintenance. Long hair makes effective shampooing more difficult so it is best to keep the coat short.

Ear infections are common in seborrheic dogs. The best way to keep on top of these is to check your dog's ears regularly. Your veterinarian will show you how to flush your dog's ears with a product designed to reduce wax build-up. Use this when your dog's ears have a waxy odour.  Signs of an infection include a need to clean the ears more frequently, itchiness (as shown by head shaking, pawing at the ears, rubbing the head along the carpet) and/or an unpleasant odour. This requires prompt treatment, usually for 2 to 3 weeks.

It is important to watch carefully for any other conditions in your dog, as the signs of seborrhea will worsen dramatically if s/he develops nutritional inadequacies, external parasites (fleas for example) or some other illnesses. A sudden worsening of seborrhea (a need for more frequent bathing or an increase in odour) can also indicate a secondary skin infection to which these dogs are prone. Such infections should be brought under control quickly with the appropriate medication, as they can quickly become severe and widespread.

In some dogs it is almost impossible to control the seborrhea and recurring yeast or bacterial infections, despite the most diligent efforts of their owners. Various drugs have been tried in these dogs with varying results. If effective, they are needed life-long and all have side effects, so they are used only where other measures fail.

For the veterinarian: There has been some success in the treatment of cocker spaniels with the retinoic acid etretinate. Corticosteroids and cytotoxic drugs like methotrexate are used with some success as well, but the long term use required is associated with potentially severe side effects.

Breeding advice
Dogs with primary seborrhea and their close relatives (parents and siblings) should not be used for breeding.


Campbell, K.L. 1997. Diagnosis and management of keratinization disorders in dogs.  ACVIM - Proceedings of the 15th Annual Vet. Medical Forum. pp 220-222.
Power, H.T., Ihrke, P.J.  1995. The use of synthetic retinoids in veterinary medicine.  In J.D. Bonagura and R.W. Kirk (eds.) Kirk's Current Veterinary Therapy XII Small Animal Practice. p585-590.  W.B. Saunders Co., Toronto.
Scott, D.W., Miller, W.H., Griffin, C.E.  1995.  Muller and Kirk's Small Animal Dermatology. pp 737-743  W.B. Saunders Co., Toronto. This has a practical and detailed section on clinical management.

Copyright © 1998 Canine Inherited Disorders Database. All rights reserved.Revised: October 30, 2001.
This database is funded jointly by the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre at the Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island, and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
Permission to reprint granted by
Alice Crook, DVM Coordinator, Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre
Atlantic Veterinary College University of Prince Edward Island

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Dr. Rob Hilsenroth

The skin is the largest organ in an animal's body. The unique design of the skin allows it to perform many important functions. Most of the skin is soft, pliable and covered with hair. In certain areas, however, the skin is custom-made to perform specific functions, such as that of the nose and the foot pads of the paws. Skin has the remarkable ability to heal if damaged or to regrow if removed. Skin can even be surgically removed from one area of the body and placed in another site to grow É a process called grafting.

What is the function of skin?
The primary purpose of skin is to protect the body from insults like trauma and microorganisms. The skin is also responsible for keeping the dog warm. It does this by producing hair and maintaining an insulating layer of fat. Specialized skin of the paw pads and tongue allow dogs to cool themselves by letting moisture evaporate.
The skin helps regulate the body's moisture balance by creating a barrier to the outside environment. It keeps itself pliable by producing oils from the glands called sebaceous glands, which are located all over the body. Skin oils also contribute to the external barrier against bacteria.

The skin is a sensory organ as well; it contains nerve endings called sensory receptors to provide touch and pain sensation. It's very easy to take the skin for granted, but it's critical to an animal's survival.

What kinds of skin diseases can a dog get?
Like any other tissue in the body, the skin is subject to disease. Despite the wonderful versatility of the skin, it has only a small number of ways to respond to insult or injury. Disorders of the skin are often challenging for the veterinarian to diagnose since many skin diseases look very much alike. In addition, the skin can often be affected by disease occurring elsewhere in the body. This is referred to as secondary skin disease.

Skin that is unhealthy can either be dry and flaky, or greasy with a strong odour. When the skin is unhealthy, the dog's coat is usually affected. Hair may fall out, creating bald patches, or the hair may be brittle and dull. Irritated skin is often red and ÒangryÓ looking. Small raised bumps or crusty scabs may appear. Diseased skin is uncomfortable and may cause a dog to scratch excessively, damaging the skin further. Chronically irritated skin can change colour and become wrinkled and tough.

A common disease of dogs is called seborrhoea. Seborrhoea refers to the rapid death and subsequent new production of skin cells. Skin cells normally die off and are replaced at a relatively rapid rate as compared to other tissues in the body. But the normal rate of turnover is accelerated with this disease. Seborrhea results in dry, flaky skin (seborrhoea sicca) or greasy, foul-smelling skin (seborrhoea oleosa). These conditions allow the skin to become easily infected with bacteria and yeast which further skin damage and increase the affected dog's discomfort.

What causes seborrhoea?
Seborrhoea is a skin disease that is often secondary to problems such as allergies, poor nutrition, mange, hormone deficiencies or hormone excess. In these cases, if the underlying disease is diagnosed and treated or cured, the seborrhoea will greatly disappear.

Some dogs are unfortunate enough to be born with seborrhoea as a primary disease. In these cases, no underlying cause for the disease can be found. Primary seborrhoea is believed to be an inherited disorder. It is seen often in the Spaniel and Terrier breeds, and less commonly in Labrador Retrievers, Doberman Pinschers and Chinese Shar-Peis. At this time, there is no cure for this disease and dogs must be carefully managed their whole lives to keep them comfortable.

How can primary seborrhoea be treated?
Dogs with primary seborrhoea are usually treated with shampoos. Owners often need to bathe their dogs two to three times a week with therapeutic shampoos just to control the symptoms and try to prevent skin infections. Skin infections invariably occur, however, requiring treatment with antibiotics. A group of drugs called retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A, have been tried for the treatment of primary seborrhoea with variable results. These drugs are very expensive and may have undesirable side effects including eye and liver problems.

What is being done for dogs with primary seborrhoea?
Morris Animal Foundation and the Golden Retriever Club of America recently funded Dr. Ken Kwochka's study at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. The study, "Treatment of Canine Idiopathic Seborrhoea with 1,25-Dihydroxyvitamin D3" explored the possibility of using a drug called calcitrol (a vitamin D derivative) to control the symptoms of primary seborrhoea in dogs. The results of Dr. Kwochka's work suggest that calcitrol may be a new and safer alternative to the retinoids for dogs with this chronic, uncomfortable disease.


Rob Hilsenroth, DVM, was the Executive Director of Morris Animal Foundation.
Morris Animal Foundation is a nonprofit organization which sponsors animal health studies at veterinary schools and institutions throughout the U.S and in other parts of the world. All annual unrestricted contributions to the foundation support health programs not the cost of administration or fund-raising. If you'd like to make a contribution, write Morris Animal Foundation, 45 Inverness Drive East, Englewood, CO 80112. For more information, please call (800) 243-2345.
 reprinted with kind permission from Heidi Jeter, Director of Communications Morris Animal Foundation 45 Inverness Drive East Englewood, CO 80112, 303.790.2345, 800.243.2345,
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The above information is simply informational. It's intent is not to replace the advice of a veterinarian nor to assist you in making a diagnosis of your pet. Please consult with your own veterinarian for confirmation of any diagnosis. Your pets life may depend on it.