They’re related, but not the same. In order to effectively get to the root of your dog’s skin problem, you need to know the difference between an allergic reaction and a yeast infection.
Shenanigan was a young Yorkshire terrier, five pounds of gorgeous silky hair. Then she had an allergic reaction, probably caused by a flea or mosquito bite. She started scratching and was soon tearing out chunks of hair. The vet started her on topical hydrocortisone to alleviate the symptoms. She got worse and started erupting in hot spots. The vet gave her antibiotics and more steroids, but her misery and pain continued. Her hair began to fall out and her skin was turning black. She couldn’t sleep, smelled terrible, and was utterly miserable.
After nearly six months of pills, shots and tests, our vet gave up and told us Shenanigan should be euthanized. There was nothing more he could do for her.
Obviously, this was a completely unacceptable solution. I am an organic chemist, so I went to work in the lab and reference library, and soon came home with a “potion with potential”. I slathered it all over Shenanigan and crossed my fingers.
Her itching ceased immediately. She slept through the night for the first time in weeks. And within 48 hours, she was sprouting whiskers in many of her bare spots. In two weeks, she was essentially rid of the disease.
That was 40 years ago. Since then, things haven’t improved much when it comes to conventional treatment for allergies.
About 90% to 95% of all dogs will have a skin problem at some point in their lives. At this very moment, about 15% of all dogs are feeling itchy, losing hair, flaking with dandruff, and so on. They are fed antibiotics and steroids, given allergy shots, and bathed in irritating (even toxic) shampoos, all to no avail.
Most of these symptoms can be traced back to an overgrowth of yeast – that is, a systemic infection – which not only can cause hair fallout and black skin, but also can make the dog feel lethargic and unwell and lose his appetite. If you can learn to recognize the earliest signs of such an infection, no matter how it got started, you can reverse it quickly.
Recognizing early signs
When a dog scratches himself, his nails can open the protective barrier of the skin and allow an infection to take hold. Whatever the cause, this is the time to nip it in the bud. The most effective treatment is prevention, and early detection is the key.
Your dog’s underbelly is a wealth of information. Turn him on his back and begin your inspection at the genitals and the area where the rear legs join the body. The skin here should be almost white, depending on the color of the dog overall. It should look clean and pure, maybe even very slightly pink.
Here are some early signs of trouble:
Red, rusty or black dots or specks on the skin. These look like tiny pinpricks or blackheads, but are flat or flush with the the skin. It may even look just like dirty skin, with a general greyness overall. This first appears in the groin area, usually near the genitals. If you see this, the dog already has a problem, most likely yeast.
Black specks that look like pepper or small poppy seeds. These are left behind by fleas. Flea “dirt” is actually excess blood (from the dog) consumed by the adult flea and passed as feces. If you see this, you have to take immediate action to de-flea your dog and your house, and probably your car. Often, fleas are the instigator of secondary problems.
“Dandruff”. Crustiness or flakiness on the rump area (especially on the back where the tail joins the body) is an early sign of skin disease. Dogs, like people, do not have excessive flakes if their skin is healthy.
Any rash, red spot(s) or raw places. Especially check the “underarms” where the legs join the body, and the front of the chest.
Thinning hair or bare spots. On the back, near the tail, thinning is usually accompanied by crusty flakes, and can remain hidden for a long time if the dog has a very thick coat. If you see bare patches on the dog’s sides, this could be a condition known as bilateral alopecia, a well-known but not well-understood disease.
Scratches, scabs, and other superficial wounds. Keeping an infection out at the discovery stage is the most effective way to treat it.
Reddish or rusty hair between the pads and toes. This hair should be the same color as the rest of the dog. If it looks reddish, this is yeast in the feet. The rusty color is not caused by licking. The dog licks his feet because he is infected with yeast, the agent that changes the color of the hair.
Which is it?
It could well be an allergic reaction that starts the problem, like a bug or flea bite or a bad reaction to grain in food. But what happens next is that the local immune system can’t function properly, allowing the yeast to bloom and invade. This is what many veterinarians can miss. They generally do not recognize the early signs of yeast, and allergy testing can give misleading false positives in many cases. An allergy is a reaction to an allergen. In order to treat it, the allergen must be removed from the dog’s environment. The consequence of an allergic response is basically a failure of the immune system to protect the dog from infection, whether bacterial, fungal or yeast.
Prednisone and other steroids only mask the symptoms, do not treat the underlying infection, and serve to further depress the dog’s immune system, thereby allowing the infection to ruthlessly advance.
In more than 40 years of dealing with so-called allergic dogs, we have found that more than 90% of these persistent conditions were actually caused by systemic yeast infections, even if a temporary allergic response was what started it all.