Did you know that skin disease is the number one cause of elective euthanasia in dogs? Poor dog skin health can also the cause of years of suffering and poor quality of life.
My journey in studying animal health has led me through many phases. I’ve realized that the imbalance of gut bacteria creates more chronic disease (including cancer) than any other contributing factor.
And now, I’m grasping the fact that topical bacterial biodiversity also plays a huge role in dog skin health.
A Different View Of The Skin
Think of the skin as an intelligent platform where your dog’s “army” is fed and nurtured. Avoid viewing it as a passive surface that needs to be cleaned. It turns out this cleaning process has a negative effect on dog skin health (and your dog’s immune system!).
The skin is the largest organ in the body, protecting your dog from everything in the world outside of her. The biggest player in guarding against chemicals and the environment is the skin microbiome. This is the accumulation of bacteria, yeasts and parasites. We all know the importance of a healthy ecosystem in the gut. Science is now realizing the role of that same ecosystem on the skin. We’ve discovered that, like gut flora, it’s paramount in preventing allergies, skin disease and autoimmunity, protecting against infection and inflammation.
Just as we’ve “modernized” our dogs to disrupt natural flora in the gut with antibiotics, poor quality nutrition, stress, lifestyle and drugs, so we have done with the skin!
The Real Dirt On Dog Skin Health
We used to think the skin microbiome only existed on the surface of the skin. That the deeper layers were sterile.
We now know these organisms go all the way down to the subcutaneous fat layer.
Even more fascinating is the fact that the skin microbiome and the skin immune system communicate with each other to:
- decrease inflammation
- aid in wound healing
- limit exposure to allergens and UV radiation
- derail oxidative stress
Immune cells called Skin Associated Lymphoid Tissue (SALT) “talk” to the lymph nodes within the body. These distribute signals to the immune system – pretty important stuff!
An imbalance of the skin microbiome can lead to:
- skin allergies
- hot spots
- atopic dermatitis
- poor wound healing
- overgrowth of yeast
- fungal infections
Diseases like Malassezia and Demodex are all a natural part of the skin microbiome. When the skin’s ecosystem is compromised, the bacteria that normally keep these guys at a healthy level become destroyed. That’s when the trouble starts.
Are You Making Your Dog’s Skin Worse?
Once the skin is injured (inflammation, hot spots, etc) the diversity of the remaining good bacteria drops even more. YIKES!
Conventional medicine uses topical antibiotics or anti-fungals. That does even more damage and makes the skin more susceptible to outside invaders, harmful pathogens and infection. On top of that we add oral antibiotics that destroy gut bacteria. You end up with a dog who’s totally vulnerable to everything! Does this sound familiar? Do your dog’s allergies and sensitivities become worse every year?
Now let’s look at some of the factors that affect the skin microbiome:
- “Hygiene hypothesis:” fear tactics make us believe we need to live in a sterile world to stay healthy. In fact it’s not only causing the destruction of the body’s natural ecosystem (our main source of defense) but also creating drug-resistant superbugs and viruses.
- Using those disgusting hand sanitizers then petting your dog.
- Shampooing her weekly, monthly or even sometimes just yearly. A bath should be for emergencies – I’m talking about when your dog rolls in something on the side of the road.
- Using topical antimicrobials or antibiotics.
- Topical flea and tick treatments are also a problem. Anything you apply to your dog’s skin can harm the natural skin ecosystem and these pesticides will too.
- Lack of dirt: not letting your dog get and stay dirty is probably the most important issue! That’s right! Mud, soil, manure, other dogs’ saliva … just plain old fashioned dirt. Dogs and people used to get dirty: we gardened, they dug holes, ran through mud and played in everything.
These all cause and contribute to your dog’s skin disease and allergies – and possibly your ill health too.
Today, everything and everyone lacks dirt and getting dirty.
Healthy Dogs Vs Dogs With Allergies
A 2014 study looked at the difference in community and diversity of the microbiome living on the skin of healthy dogs compared to allergic dogs.
The study found that allergic dogs had lower species richness of microbiome compared to the healthy dogs. This demonstrates that the skin supports a much more biodiverse ecological system of friendly health-supporting bacteria fungi and viruses (microbiome) than had been thought before. It also showed that the diversity of the skin microbiome in atopic dogs is reduced compared to healthy dogs.
Another study in 2017 showed that there was a decrease in microbial diversity in children during flare-ups of atopic dermatitis with skin dominated by Staphylococcus aureus. This was also observed frequently on the skin of allergic dogs.
But the most important conclusion was “the clinical effectiveness of treatments for AD didn’t depend on the elimination of Staphylococcus aureus, but on the diversification of the bacterial community.”
This means that trying to kill Staphylococcus aureus with drugs is not only ineffective in treating atopic dermatitis, but actually lowers diversity in the bacterial community, adding to the imbalance and creating further disease.
[Related] Is Leaky Gut Syndrome playing a part in your dog’s allergies? You need to read this post.
Tips To Improve Dog Skin Health
- Let your dog Get Down, Get Real and Get Dirty! Take her to as many different dog parks, parks, wooded trails, beaches, farms as you can – the more diverse the dirt the better.
- Get a kiddy pool. Then buy different organic soils, composts and manures and put them in the pool. Let your dog roll, dig and play in it. You can sometimes add water to make mud and let her play in that too. Let it sit on her skin, then hose her off with just water and NO soap. If you live in an apartment you can even do this with flat flower planters if you have a balcony or moppable floor surface!
- Make a yogurt or kefir mask for her skin and coat. Use three tablespoons of organic yogurt or kefir and add half a teaspoon of a probiotic with at least 10 strains and 30 billion CFU. Increase the amount of yogurt or kefir as needed for the size of your dog and cover her in the mixture. Leave it on for at least half an hour and rinse with just water. If you have to use any soap, use liquid Castile soap (it’s great as a household cleaner too).
- Be aware of bedding! Natural fibers like cotton, linen and hemp contain a more natural balance of bacteria compared to synthetic fibers, which hold bacteria that are out of balance or harmful to the normal skin microbiome.
- Mutualistically Cross-Species Seeding. This means touching your dog! Studies have shown that children raised with dogs in their homes are much less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune issues. But what about the other way around? Touching our dogs, especially if we’re dirty and sweaty, allows for cross-species diversity and “seeding.” This creates a diverse ecosystem of microbiome for your dog and you! If your dog is really suffering from skin disease, try rubbing your body all over with a dry cotton towel BEFORE your shower. Then wipe your dog with it, or lay it across her bed. To me hugging and cuddling is even better but if you’re apprehensive about doing it with a dog who has severe skin disease then this is an alternative.
One of the saddest things is when a family stops touching their dog because she’s smelly or looks “diseased,” causing her to become emotionally isolated. Add a stupid plastic cone to the mix and now you know why it’s a huge passion for me to try and get to the bottom of the epidemic of skin problems in dogs.
[Related] Are you feeding your dog’s microbiome? You should be. Here’s how.
The Wolves In Yellowstone Park
Wolves had been a natural part of Yellowstone until the last official killing in 1926. They were re-introduced in 1995 to keep the elk population under control. While other changes in animal populations strained the park’s ecosystem, the rise of the elks was the biggest contributor to the deteriorating conditions of the park. Yellowstone contained “some of the worst overgrazed willow communities in the West.”
The 1995 re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone had a profound effect on the Park’s biodiversity. Just by reintroducing the wolves, the biodiversity was hugely increased. Direct and indirect changes took place:
- rivers changed direction
- beaver, grizzly bear, eagle, raven and other animal populations increased
- berry-producing shrubs grew higher and richer
- out of control elk populations decreased
This example highlights a crucially important concept: the addition or removal of even one species leads to non-linear changes to the ecosystem. The same delicate balance exists on the skin. When the balance is upset, organisms not associated with pathogenic behavior can become damaging to the host.
As soon as the elk weren’t limited by wolf predation, they became “pathogenic” to the ecosystem. Their numbers swelled and overgrazing occurred. This created pressure on aspens and willows, which beavers use for food and dam building materials. The loss of beaver dams caused increased erosion and lost habitats for fish, amphibians, otters, moose, mink, wading birds and more.
From this one example, we can relate the role of elk — out of proportion in numbers after wolves were eliminated from the park — to that of a pathogenic skin microbe opportunistically becoming invasive to the host (the skin) once the delicate balance is disturbed.
For me this one example shows how nature and all animals continue to teach and show us how to heal ourselves and the world at large, without billions of dollars being spent to find more drugs that eradicate what one group of dogmatic politicians or scientists feel is the flavor of the day. We just need to pay attention, watch and listen – and speak up when we learn! It’s a perfect illustration of what happens when we disturb the natural balance of our ecosystems.
So, how often should you bathe your dog? In the end, your dog’s skin doesn’t actually benefit from a disruption of the good bacteria. A bath a week, a month, or even once a year, can be doing more harm than good.