Tackling your dog or cat’s skin problems with nutrition and supplements

Resolving allergies and other skin problems in your dog or cat involves much more than just stopping the itch. It also means getting to the root cause of the problem, and using nutrition and supplementation to help heal his skin from the inside out.  

It may seem counterintuitive, but skin problems in dogs and cats need to be addressed from the inside out, not the outside in. While it’s important to alleviate the discomfort of your animal’s itching and inflammation, it’s also crucial to get to the root cause of the problem. Otherwise, symptoms will just keep resurfacing. This article focuses on the foods, supplements, and medicinal herbs that can be used to support the repair, regeneration and restoration of healthy skin in dogs and cats.

What are the primary goals?

Helping the animal’s immune system become more resistant to infections, and decreasing the amount of inflammatory substances released by the immune cells, are important treatment goals when it comes to skin problems. The immune system begins in the gut. We are dealing with both the microbiome of the gut, which includes the immune cells, and the microbiome of the skin (immune cells, beneficial bacteria and yeasts, protective oils, and cellular fluids).

Overtreatment with antibiotics will “wipe out” the protective microbes in the skin and gut, making the animal more susceptible to yeast and fungal infections. A probiotic can help restore the immune system in the gut, along with prebiotic fiber starches such as kabocha pumpkin, green papaya, and more.

Conventional treatments don’t solve the problem

Conventional medicine will help control symptoms, but unless the underlying conditions are diagnosed and treated, the problems will reoccur or even worsen.

  • The overuse of antibiotics, as mentioned above, creates resistant strains of pathogenic bacteria and yeasts, and makes the animal more susceptible to re-infection. Antibiotics will also cause an imbalance of the digestive system and microbiome, resulting in food sensitivities, poor digestion and diarrhea.
  • Additionally, the overuse of harsh chemical and antibiotic shampoos and lotions, means the skin cannot heal properly.
  • Drugs and steroids suppress the immune system, increasing susceptibility to infections.
  • The conventional approach includes few to no treatments that involve nutrition to improve skin health from the inside.

Start by correcting nutritional deficiencies

Many animals on commercial diets develop underlying deficiencies of zinc, Omega-3s, vitamin A, collagen, and antioxidants. Zinc deficiency arises from diets high in calcium and phytates (peas, lentils, legumes); many allergy-prone dogs develop allergies to the pea protein in “grain-free” diets. Dietary fatty acid deficiencies (Omega-3, linoleic, linolenic, arachidonic) will also induce various forms of abnormal skin, especially in cats — if the skin is dry, think “deficiency”.

Common symptoms of nutritional deficiency include:

  • Dry skin, flaky, lusterless coat (lack of essential oils and amino acids)
  • Chronic alopecia (hypothyroidism)
  • Skin that feels cooler than normal (hypothyroidism)
  • Skin that has dry flakes with or without pruritis (itching)
  • Lichenification
  • Hyperkeratosis, acanthosis nigricans, darkening of skin (hormonal)
  • Dry eyes, dullness, possibly crusty discharge from eyes
  • Dry, warm, crusty nose (chronic inflammation)
  • Parasites

A variety of nourishing foods, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, seen in the table below, can help correct these nutritional deficiencies.

Get to the root of inflammation

Although we want to suppress and mollify the dog or cat’s itching, chewing, scratching and discomfort, these symptoms will return unless we get to the source of the problem, so it’s important to figure out what’s causing the problem in the first place. An acute and chronic inflammatory process can be triggered by:

  • Inappropriate vaccination methods (giving vaccines when the animal is already inflamed and the immune system is “hyper”)
  • Foods or ingredients (commercial processed food, herbicides, heavy metals, pesticides, preservatives)
  • Molds, pollens, grasses, fungi
  • Parasites (fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, mites)
  • Allergens from carpets, furniture, dog beds, fire and mold retardants
  • Genetically-acquired allergy sensitivities (environment, foods, climate) from mother
  • Weather and climate changes (hot/damp, hot/dry, wind)

Many adult dogs develop food allergies, especially when eating commercial pet foods. Feeding puppies processed commercial “puppy food” is one of the main causes of allergies in adult dogs. The immune system becomes “hyper-immunized”, causing inflammatory reactions to certain food ingredients, including corn, wheat, soy, chicken, rice, tapioca, legumes, fish meal, and egg by-products. Anti-inflammatory supplements include Omega-3 and Omega-6 from flax, evening primrose oil, or borage oil.

Include antioxidants as foods or supplements

Supplementing the diet with vegetables and fruits high in antioxidants, in addition to specific nutraceutical antioxidants for the skin (pill, powders, oils), would be the first and best thing to add to a treatment plan for canine and feline skin problems. Tables 3 and 4 below outline the ones I use most commonly.

Additional antixoidants

  • Ripe papaya contains vitamin A and high amounts of vitamin C.
  • Quercetin is both an antioxidant and anti-Inflammatory; it modulates the Th1 and Th2 inflammatory responses.
  • Melatonin not only helps with sleep, it is also an antioxidant, and improves hair growth, collagen, and skin healing.

As you can see, healing a dog or cat’s skin problems isn’t just about putting him on anti-itch medications. It involves getting to the root cause of the inflammation, whether it’s allergies or another condition, improving his gut microbiome, correcting any nutritional deficiencies, and adding antioxidants and other nutrients to his diet through food or supplementation. The process takes time and patience, but because it reaches so far beneath the surface symptoms, the results will be much more satisfying for you and your animal companion.

Treatment plan for most skin problems, especially if they’re chronic

  1. Improve the gut microbiome (decrease hyper-immune reactions)
    a) Prebiotic fiber foods — broccoli family, kabocha and other squashes, celery, beet root, steel cut oats (organic), pearl barley, quinoa, green papaya, cabbage
    b) Probiotics — from organic dairy products, or capsules with live organisms
  2. Decrease inflammation
    a) Omega-3s
    b) Quercetin
    c) Luteolin foods — celery, broccoli family, parsley, basils
    d) Chinese herbal formulas — Kochia -13, Coptis Purge Fire, Xanthium-12, Tang Kuei and Arctium, Tang Kuei and Tribilis, and others
  3. Heal the skin: repair, regenerate
    a) Collagen/bone broth
    b) Choline/eggs, liver, meats
    c) Astaxanthin (BioAstin)
    d) Other vitamin A precursors – yellow/orange vegetables such as pumpkin, carrots, squash, sweet potato, as well as cooked tomatoes, spinach, tuna, beef liver
    e) Zinc foods — nutritional yeast, pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, meats, green beans, mushrooms