We’ve all heard that skin is one of the first lines of defense against disease. In fact, the skin’s first line of defense actually consists of a bunch of bugs, living in harmony. The collective group composed of all these bugs is called a microbiome.
These many different types of bacteria and yeast live on our pets’ skin in balance … sort of respecting each other’s boundaries.
When a yeast called canine malassezia dermatitis (Malassezia) overgrows its boundaries … it can cause pretty intense itching. This intense itching is oftentimes misdiagnosed as skin allergies.
Just like any other yeast, Malassezia in dogs likes to grow in moist, dark areas where the sun don’t shine. This yeast likes to live in the …
- Ears (where it’s commonly mistaken for a dark sweet-smelling ear-wax)
- Under the chin
- Around the anus and private parts
Malassezia is lipophilic. That means it has an affinity for fats or lipids. So dogs who tend to have a lot of oils on their skin will be more prone to the overgrowth of this yeast.
Dogs who are particularly greasy have more problems with Malassezia. Dogs who swim a lot, leaving damp areas where the yeast can thrive, can also have more problems. That said, almost any dog can have a problem with Malassezia.
Many people confuse Malassezia with candida. So they attempt to treat dogs with starch-free diets, thinking this will handle the problem. In fact, the problem with Malassezia is the change in the microbiome of the skin. It’s not a candida of the gut.
Allergies And Malassezia Go Hand in Hand
Allergies encourage Malassezia overgrowth by causing inflammation.
Skin inflammation from allergies, plus scratching and biting … makes the skin irritated and moist. This causes yeast overgrowth and gives the allergic dog a double whammy. It’s a vicious cycle because the yeast in itself is extremely irritating and itchy.
A dog with both allergies and Malassezia, which is very common, has two very good reasons to itch.
There’s also a triple whammy. More than 60% of dogs with Malassezia overgrowth are actually allergic to the Malassezia! So this allergy to the yeast intensifies the entire situation.
You’ll often see Malassezia on thickened, denuded areas of skin in dogs with chronic allergies. A dog with Malassezia can have skin in the groin or underarm that looks like someone sprinkled pepper on it. Or you might see one of these signs …
- Little red bumps in areas
- Grayish crusts that flake off the skin
- Orange-peel appearance to the skin
- Hairless, elephant-like darkened skin
Dogs with Malassezia often smell, with an odor similar to old musty shoes.
Other Signs Your Dog Has Malassezia
Malassezia isn’t always so obvious. Here are a few more subtle signs you may notice:
- Sweet, yeasty smell
- Reddening between the toes
- Brown crud on the top border of the toenail
- Dark grey-black patch on the skin
- Reddened groin area
- Red inflamed areas under the folds of the front or rear legs.
- Thickened ear flaps with an orange peel texture inside the flap along with very itchy ears and brown ear secretions
Malassezia In Dog Ears
Malassezia in dogs’ ears is very common. So if you put a cotton ball down your dog’s ear canal and find dark brown stuff on it … then it’s very likely your dog has Malassezia overgrowth in the ear.
A dog’s ear canal is much longer than ours and you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Oftentimes, but not always … the budding yeast organisms can be seen under a microscope. Your vet can place tape on the skin, then stain it under the microscope. It’ll appear as blue round or oval cells.
Treating Your Dog’s Malassezia
Bacterial infections of the skin are typically recognized and treated. But fungal and yeast infections can often go undetected. This causes years of frustration because one of the real causes is unidentified.
It’s important to find out if your dog has Malassezia as well as allergies. Because Malassezia itching will persist even after the allergies begin to improve.
That’s why I recommend that you treat for the yeast infection concurrently if you believe your dog has it.
In my practice, I prefer an energetic allergy elimination procedure … because I find it so very effective. But again, if there’s a Malassezia overgrowth, you may see the allergies totally clear up … and your dog will still itch from the Malassezia.
It can get very confusing if you don’t get all the pieces of the puzzle lined up correctly.
Say No To Immune Suppressing Drugs
I specialize in treating allergies. So I’ve treated many patients who’ve been given Apoquel (or other immune-suppressing drugs). They’ve been incorrectly diagnosed with allergies … when they actually have a simple overgrowth of yeast.
Again, it’s far more common to see a combination of allergies with concurrent Malassezia. They play off each other and create a more intense itch.
The bottom line is that skin problems in dogs are epidemic. Younger and younger dogs are succumbing to both allergies and yeast … or yeast alone.
I predict that the reckless use of these new allergy drugs will produce next-generation dogs that have even more problems. Steroids like prednisone are meek and mild when compared to the damage Atopica and Apoquel do.
Malassezia Dog Shampoos
I recently got a new English Labrador Retriever puppy from a very devoted breeder. She adamantly told me that Labradors should never be bathed, but simply hosed down with water. She said the only shampoo she used if she really had to, was an enzymatic shampoo.
Her dogs all had beautiful coats and no smell. It makes sense to me. By not using detergent shampoos, she kept the microbiome intact and healthy. Once the imbalance sets in, the yeast has the opportunity to overgrow.
Wash your dog with a non-abrasive detergent shampoo, such as a Castile soap shampoo. It’ll preserve the oil and microbiome in his coat and skin.
Medicated Shampoos Make Malassezia Worse
Repeatedly bathing with detergent medicated shampoos is the last thing you should do for a skin problem. Even harmless-seeming shampoos with essential oils may be stripping your pet’s microbiome.
And shampoos labeled “natural” are often anything but. They frequently contain potentially toxic chemicals like sulfates … which they disguise by calling them “coconut-based.”
For yeast, my preference for topical treatment it to use an enzymatic shampoo.
Malassezia grows slowly, yet tenaciously. It can be difficult to get rid of because once it’s established it’s slow to recede.
That’s why you have to persist over time with the enzymatic treatment. Be ready to jump in when the summertime comes along if your dog swims.
In my clinical experience, an unsettling number of dogs are prescribed expensive and dangerous drugs … when they simply have a Malassezia yeast problem that’s causing the itch. The problem is that these drugs eviscerate your dog’s immune system. But what we really need to do is increase his immune function to help handle the problem.
The moral of the story is that we should not lose sight of the forest for the trees. The bugs on your dog’s skin make up his first line of defense. It seems that many of the common treatments are backfiring … and that’s why so many dogs continue to have this problem.
Saunders CW, Scheynius A, Heitman J. Malassezia fungi are specialized to live on skin and associated with dandruff, eczema, and other skin diseases. PLoS Pathog. 2012;8(6):e1002701.