A dog with thickened, leathery skin is an abnormal finding considering that in normal, healthy dogs the skin should be rather smooth. The area of affected skin often appears as gray or blackish and it is often compared to the skin of an elephant. Affected dogs are often very itchy and the skin has a history of chronic irritation. If your dog has thickened, leathery skin, your best bet is to see your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment. There are several conditions that may cause a dog to have thick, leather-like skin.
My Dog Has Thickened, Leathery Skin
It might not seem like it, but your dog’s skin is the largest organ of his body. Its most important role is to provide a protective barrier against the environment which may introduce potentially dangerous pathogens. On top of this, a dog’s skin protects against dehydration and exposure to the elements and houses several follicles meant for hair growth.
A dog’s skin is composed by three main layers: the outermost layer, which is known as the epidermis, the middle layer known as dermis, and the innermost layer known as subcutis (hence the term subcutaneous which means “beneath the skin).
When a dog has thickened, leathery skin this is often indicative of the skin sustaining some type of damage. The damage often occurs as a result of excessive itching or rubbing. What happens in this cases is that, since the outer layer of skin is in a state of chronic irritation, as a defense mechanism, it thickens up.
A dog who has thickened, leathery skin is therefore often a dog with a history or itching and scratching for some time. This itching and scratching is often triggered by underlying conditions that require intervention so to tackle the underlying cause.
“Just like a guitar player gets a callus on his finger from chronic use of the thumb, chronic irritation will cause the skin to change in this area – and become “hyperpigmented” or black.”~Critical Care Vet
A Matter of Lichenification
When a dog presents with hairless, thickened, leathery skin with a darkened color this is often the result of lichenification.
Lichenification is the medical term used to depict a thickening of skin that occurs as result of deposits of dead skin cells that adhere to the skin’s surface. As mentioned, this is the body’s way to put up a defense mechanism meant to prevent further harm.
On top of thickened skin, there is hyperpigmentation which leads to a darkening of the skin and presence of exaggerated markings which is a hallmark of chronic inflammation.
What skin conditions cause lichenification in dogs? One main culprit is a skin yeast infection. In this case, the dog’s skin is heavily colonized by yeast (Malassezia). Yeast are opportunistic organisms that enter the skin when the opportunity arises. While a dog’s skin is normally inhabited by beneficial yeast, at times the numbers of bad yeast may outnumber the good. Often, these bad yeast enter the skin when a dog causes micro-abrasions upon scratching.
Allergies to flea saliva, food or pollen are all potential triggers. Other predisposing causes include mange (mites), and endocrine conditions such as Cushing’s disease or low thyroid levels. Bacterial skin infections may too be a culprit and, on top of a leathery appearance, the skin of affected dog may develop an unpleasant odor caused by bacteria in the dead layers of the skin fermenting the oils.
Because lichenification can be caused by several skin or systemic conditions, it’s important finding the underlying cause so that it can be treated properly. If your dog presents with dark skin on the belly, please see your vet sooner than later to make sure your dog is not bleeding under the skin.
“The clinical signs of all allergic hypersensitivity reactions are similar: pruritus, erythema, hair loss, papules, and, with time, hyperpigmentation and lichenification.”~Dr. Karen A. Moriello, veterinary dermatologist
At the Vet’s Office
The vet will take the dog’s medical history and ask owners questions such as how long the dog had the thickened skin, whether the dog appears itchy and what food is being fed. He or she will physically examine the dog paying particular attention to the skin.
Next, the vet may suggest a skin scraping (microscopic examination of a small skin surface sample to to search for abnormal numbers of yeast and bacteria) and possible culture. This should be fairly inexpensive, and can be performed at the vet’s office. This is a key test especially when the dog appears itchy, considering that secondary infections will actually exacerbate the itching the dog is experiencing in the first place.
When a dog has thickened, leathery skin, treatment ultimately depends on the underlying cause. At times, finding the underlying trigger can be challenging. Dogs may be placed on a food trial where the dog must be fed a specific type of food for a period of time.
To reduce the itching, the vet may put the dog on medications such as steroids under the form of injections or oral pills such as prednisone or dexamethasone or antihistamines such as prescription hydroxyzine or over-the-counter Benadryl. Atopica and Apoquel for dog allergies are other possible medications.
Essential fatty acid supplements may also prove beneficial. Special sprays and shampoos designed to treat whatever skin condition the dog may have may also be prescribed. Oral antibiotics and/or anti-yeast medication are prescribed in the presence of bacterial or yeast infections.
Persistent or challenging cases may warrant a referral to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist. These experts have made of diagnosing challenging skin conditions their area of specialty and should therefore may prove to be helpful.
- Wikimedia Commons Dog with Flea Allergy Dermatitis and Malassezia dermatitis,Caroldermoid, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license