In the US, dog skin problems are the #1 reason for seeking veterinary care. As the largest organ of the body, the skin is often overlooked and undervalued by conventional veterinarians because they view the skin as a separate system from the rest of the body.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
From a holistic perspective, the skin functions as a complex integrated organ communicating with the rest of the body through systemic pathways. These pathways include the nervous, kidney, liver, digestive and immune systems.
I find the argument that skin is an isolated system to be infuriating especially when the superficial approaches used to remedy issues of the skin keep dogs in a cycle of sickness.
Before I delve deeper into this conflict let’s first look at the skin from a functional standpoint.
Basic Functions Of The Skin
The skin is part of a bodily system called the integumentary system. This includes the nails, earflaps, ear canals, fur and various glands like sweat, anal, tail and lymph. It provides a barrier holding muscles, internal organs, bones and connective tissue inside the body giving dogs their flexible shape. The skin makes up about 12% of your dog’s total body weight.
Nutritionally the skin stores vitamins, fats, proteins and electrolytes while synthesizing vitamin D. It also prevents dehydration, regulates temperature, excretes water, salt and organic waste.
Simply stated, the skin isn’t just a body blanket. It serves a functioning purpose and contributes to your dog’s vitality. That’s why it’s so important to make sure it’s healthy, along with all the other working inner parts.
The Layers Of The Skin
A dog’s skin is thinner than ours. 95% is covered in fur (give or take some hairless breeds) and made up of three layers: the epidermis, dermis and hydrodermis.
The epidermis has five layers and contains four different kinds of cells: keratinocytes, melanocytes, merkel and langerhans.
Keratinocytes produce keratin responsible for waterproofing your dog’s coat. Melanocytes dictate your dog’s skin and hair color while protecting against the sun’s UV rays. Merkel cells provide sensory perception. For example, merkel cells are found in the paw pads of dogs. Langerhans cells play a fundamental role in your dog’s immune health by keeping the skin’s microbiome balanced.
The second layer of the skin is called the dermis. Attached by basil cells and a layer of protein called collagen, the dermis provides a strong foundation for hair growth and connective tissue. Unlike the non-vascular epidermis, the dermis has an intricate network of nerves, blood vessels, lymph glands and nervous system receptors that regulate pain and other sensations.
The last layer of skin is the hypodermis. It anchors the skin to the underlying systems of the body while providing flexibility, shock absorption and insulation.
Is your dog itching and scratching and dealing with some really annoying skin issues, or what you think might be allergies? Conventional veterinary medicine isn’t the answer.
The Failure Of The Standard Of Care
The standard of care in Western veterinary medicine for most skin issues, acute or chronic, involves the administering of antibiotics, anti-fungals, immunosuppressants and corticosteroids. This doesn’t treat your dog as an individual or question the cause of the condition. The standard of care is the same for my Pug as it is for your Husky despite differences in diet, environment, vaccination, stress level or toxic load.
This regimen of eradication and suppression depletes the immune system and produces heat, congestion and inflammation throughout the body. What makes matters worse is repeated use of vaccines, antibiotics and steroids that can cause systemic imbalances leading to food sensitivities, impaired liver and pancreatic function, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, leaky gut syndrome, autoimmune disease and cancer.[When it comes to your dog’s allergies and skin issues, it’s always best to rule out leaky gut first. Find out how here]
An Early Warning System
The release of toxins through the skin is the body’s way of trying to rid itself of disease. When we pay attention, the skin can serve as an early warning system alerting you to chronic disease and imbalances inside your dog’s body.
In the early 1800s, American herbalist Samuel Thomson taught that disease “radiates from the center to the skin.” Homeopaths know this theory as Hering’s Law of Cure from Constantine Hering, who’s known as the father of American homeopathy. Basically, when you look at how logical the body is and how it functions with its own set of checks and balances, it makes sense that the body would protect itself by sending toxins to the periphery.
As healers, we can minimize these symptoms with herbal care but by no means should we suppress them unless it’s a matter of life or death.
Treating Skin Conditions
Chronic skin issues require consistency and time for true healing. The cause of the disease or imbalance must be treated and then the body will correct itself. This can take up to a year or more.
Diet, flower essences, exercise, fresh air, chiropractic care and massage provide effective additions for any skin-balancing program. Daily massage increases circulation which brings nutrients to the skin, disperses oils through the dermis and helps move lymph fluids and excrete toxins. Supplementation can play a key role in balancing out the body and supporting the liver. Make sure your dog is receiving a fresh food diet with the proper ratio of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, probiotics and essential fatty acids.
As an herbalist I know that chronic skin issues can be frustrating for both you and your dog. Herbal and homeopathic medicine can help by acting as a catalyst to help the body adjust and heal itself.
Herbs for Skin Conditions
Below is a list of my favorite herbs for chronic skin conditions. I use many externally and internally to quell symptoms and bring about systemic balance. If you have a dog with skin allergies or issues, give them a try.
You can use them in a variety of ways, including tinctures, infusions, decoctions and poultices or compresses. Here’s how to make each on:
- Give 1 drop for every 25 pounds, two to three times per day.
- Make a hot tea using 1 oz of herb in a quart of filtered water. Boil water, add to herbs, cover and steep for 30 minutes. Allow to cool.
- Give 1 tbsp for every 25 pounds divided for morning and evenings with food unless otherwise noted.
- Add 1 oz root, bark, seed to a quart of filtered water. Cover and simmer on low for 1 to 2 hours.
- Give 1 tbsp for every 25 pounds divided for mornings and evenings with food.
Poultice Or Compress
- Chop up fresh plant material. For poultice, apply directly to affected area or wrap in clean gauze and apply.
- For compress, apply herbal mixture/tincture/infusion/decoction to clean cotton cloth and cover affected area. Can be applied hot and cold.
Herbs For Dog Skin Problems
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Parts used: whole plant, leaf, dried root.
- Method: tincture, decoction, infusion and dried root.
- External use: simmer leaves for 5 minutes and use as a poultice to bring down swellings.
- Internal use: supports the nervous system and is anti-inflammatory.
Burdock Root (Articum lappa)
- Parts used: seed and root.
- Method: tincture, decoction, dried root.
- External use: cooled decoction wash for hair loss and dry skin.
- Internal use: body cleanser, liver support, hormone balancer, anti-inflammatory and prebiotic. Burdock mixes well with dandelion and red clover to help clear toxins.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
- Parts used: Flowers.
- Method: infusion, tincture, oil, fresh or dried flower.
- External use: massage oil or salve for deep dermal penetration to increase blood flow and circulation. Calendula compresses are excellent for anal swellings, improve lymphatic drainage, dry weeping skin.
- Internal use: anti-ulcer, anti-tumor, supports the liver and lymphatic system, anti-inflammatory, soothes the digestive system and gently stimulates the immune system. Calendula is high is water content so it is best to dry them before use unless making a flower essence. Avoid giving internally during hot weather as Calendula is warming.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
- Parts used: flowers, leaves, stems.
- Method: tincture, oil, infusion, fresh or dried.
- External use: simmer leaves to make a poultice for treating hot spots, ulcerated tissue, all types of sores, and dry skin. I use this on the top of the tail where fleas like to bite.
- Internal use: lymph stimulant, anti-tumor, digestive support, anti-inflammatory, prebiotic. Excellent alternative to calendula in the summer as chickweed is cooling.
Cleavers (Gallium aparine)
- Parts used: leaves and above ground stems.
- Method: tincture, infusion.
- External use: Fresh juice wash for skin crusts and skin cancer. Can be used as a poultice when pulverized and full of juice for stopping bleeding and wounds. Cleavers quickly reduces inflammation.
- Internally: supports lymphatic system, removes excess fluids, anti-tumor and makes an excellent systemic tonic for chronic imbalances.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
- Parts used: whole plant, flowers, leaves, root.
- Methods: oil, tincture, infusion, decoction, fresh, dried.
- Externally: use as an oil or salve for warts and other skin tags.
- Internally: liver restorative, kidney support, nutritive, anti-allergy, safe for long-term use. My dogs love dandelion fresh and ground up in their raw diet in the spring.
Nettles (Urtica dioica folia)
- Parts used: leaf, root, seed.
- Methods: sautéed fresh, tincture, infusion, decoction, dried herb, fresh juice.
- External: Fresh juice as a wash for inflammation and to stop bleeding or weeping.
- Internally: nutritive, anti-inflammatory, kidney support. An excellent remedy for environmentally reactive dogs, safe for long-term use.
Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus)
- Parts used: leaves and root.
- Methods: infusion, decoction, tincture, dried herb, oil.
- External use: fresh cooled infusion can treat burns, itching, wounds and insect bites.
- Internal use: juice can be used for burns humectant, liver support, small intestine and kidney support. Use as a single herb under the supervision of an herbalist or holistic vet. Not for long-term use.
The skin is an indicator of health. When treating conditions of the skin including the ears, make sure your health practitioner uses a complete approach focused on causative factors.
If we honor the skin as an integral organ we can use it to help prevent disease before it has a chance to take hold in the body. This outlook would move treatments of chronic skin conditions from a suppressive standard of care to a supportive format that involves diet, supplementation, herbal or homeopathic medicine and lots of patience.
And don’t forget that healing the skin can start from within. If chronic dog skin problems and disease won’t let up, it could be leaky gut.