Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on May 01, 2010 From the WebMD Archives
Dogs are a pleasure to pet, especially when they’re blessed with healthy skin and lustrous fur. But some dogs are plagued with itchy, flaking skin and lackluster coats. What can you do to restore your dog’s shiny coat?
Essential Fatty Acids: Key to a Healthy Coat
Healthy fats play an important role in keeping your dog’s coat in good condition. Fortunately, few dogs develop dull coats because of nutritional deficiencies, although veterinarians occasionally see such problems.
“With the ready availability of quality pet foods, it is very difficult for a pet to have a nutritional deficiency of any kind,” says Wendy Brooks, DVM, a diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. She also owns the Mar Vista Animal Medical Center in Los Angeles and serves as educational director for the web site VeterinaryPartner.com
Reputable commercial dog foods typically contain enough nutrients, including essential fatty acids, to maintain healthy skin and a shiny coat, says Florida veterinarian Dawn Logas, DVM, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology.
In contrast, dogs on low-quality commercial dog foods or improperly balanced homemade diets — for instance, a dog that eats mostly chicken — may not get enough nutrients to keep a healthy skin and coat.
Low-fat diets are risky, too. “The obvious coat problems from deficiencies would be a dandruffy, dull coat from an omega-6 deficit if the pet is eating an extremely low-fat diet,” Brooks says.
In fact, puppies that eat very low-fat diets develop coarse, dry hair and skin lesions that become prone to infection.
But diet isn’t the only culprit when it comes to irritated skin and dull coat. Dogs that scratch themselves frequently or are bathed too often can lose oil from their skin. Though these dogs don’t have a true dietary deficiency, supplements can often remedy the problem. “I see a lot of dogs that probably could use more fats in their diets,” Logas says.
Omega-6 for Dog Coat Care
“Most dog foods, fortunately, are very high in omega-6 [fatty acids],” Logas says. “Those in themselves can be helpful just to give a shine to the coat, add some luster back, and help replace the oils in the skin.”
Vegetable oils are also a source of omega-6 fatty acids. Pet stores sell omega-6 supplements, but “honestly, sunflower oil or safflower oil works fine,” Logas says. For a small dog, stir in one teaspoon of oil per meal, she says. For a large dog, give one tablespoon per meal.
Just make sure that the oil is fresh, because oils that are kept too long can go rancid and become less effective, Logas says.
The same goes for dog food that contains essential fatty acids, which can oxidize when exposed to air. “You don’t want to have dog food open and around for months and months,” Logas says.
Omega-3 for Dog Coat Care
Omega-3 fatty acids can also help dogs with skin disorders.
“Omega-3’s have other beneficial effects for skin problems,” Logas says. “They have very good anti-inflammatory effects, so we use them for dogs that have allergies or other inflammatory skin diseases.”
Flaxseed oil and fish oil are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. To relieve itching or inflamed skin, owners should look for supplements that contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
Supplements come in liquid or capsule form. Brooks says that she prefers the liquid form, because it gives more flexibility in dosing. Logas likes capsules, because they protect oils from oxidation that happens during exposure to air.
But if dogs refuse to take capsules, some brands have snip tops that allow owners to cut the capsule and pour the oil onto food.
Be careful not to give too many fatty acid supplements, Logas says. Excessive amounts can be “too rich,” she says, and dogs may have upset stomachs and vomiting.
A dog’s skin and coat should improve about six weeks after starting omega-3 supplementation, Brooks says.
Other Supplements for Healthy Skin and Coat
Pet stores stock a variety of other supplements that claim to improve skin and coat health. Brewer’s yeast and garlic were once believed to be natural flea repellents, Logas says. But “it really doesn’t have any effect,” she says.
In fact, she cautions against overdoing the supplements. Perhaps as a reflection of human interest in consuming vitamins, “people want to add in a lot of other vitamins” for their pets, too, Logas says. “Really, there’s not a lot of evidence that it does much to help just a dog who has more or less a normal coat.”
But, if dogs have certain skin diseases, supplements can help. For example, zinc deficiency can cause crusting on the skin. Also, some dogs with seborrhea, or scaly skin, may require extra vitamin A.
But it’s best to seek veterinary help before starting your dog on supplements, say Brooks and Logas. For instance, too much zinc or vitamin A can cause problems if given for long periods.