Q: A significant number of dogs we have come across in Singapore are suffering from some degree of skin problems. Why do you think this is so?
Dr. Lee Yee Lin: I am starting to realise that most people tend to have a myopic view of skin problems. When we see a skin issue, we tend to think it’s just the skin and we focus solely on treating it. So, the most typical approaches to that involve antibiotics, anti-fungal medications, and steroids.
The dog gets a little better but three months down the road, the same thing happens again. Why? Because in my opinion, the causes of skin problems are multifactorial. Those factors can lead to issues developing at any point in a dog’s life – as early as when she’s a puppy or as late as when she’s a senior.
Our year-round warm and humid weather doesn’t help a dog’s coat condition.
In a lot of other countries, dogs that are prone to skin problems do not develop severe symptoms because they enjoy generally cooler and drier weather. It’s common to see flare-ups in warmer months but the cooler months put less stress on the dog’s skin and symptoms would subside or disappear.
We can get away with bathing our dogs once every six months in those countries but in Singapore, it’s just not possible.
A lot of skin problems in dogs stem from breeding. In certain periods, some breeds are more popular than the others. We had a craze for Westies, Toy Poodles, Shih Tzus, Japanese Spitz, and now Corgis and Frenchies. The truth is, the rise of such demand often leads to overbreeding.
When dogs are overbred and the bitches don’t have time to rest, they don’t produce great puppies. The not-so-great puppies are then used to breed and generations down, we get weaker puppies that are likely to have immunity issues.
For example, some issues like Demodex are passed from mom to puppy. Breeders who don’t care would breed a demodectic mother and out of the whole litter, a couple of puppies would get the condition as well, either early or later on in life.
So, we have a dog that already has a weak immunity and on top of that, she has to deal with the daily stressors in life.
“Oh no, mom’s gone out. What should I do? I am just going to bark my head off.”
Add to that the fact that a lot of dogs in Singapore do not get enough exercise. Without appropriate training and exercise, they do not have an outlet to de-stress. That’s when chronic stress kicks in.
Our body’s cortisol level goes up when we feel stressed to prepare our body for fight or flight and returns back to normal when the stress passes. The same applies to dogs.
However, if they are constantly stressed, their baseline cortisol level remains high. When faced with more or new stressors (e.g. thunder), their adrenal glands either have to produce even more cortisol or they are unable to because they are overworked.
That’s also why we sometimes see stray dogs running around with healthy skin but once we bring them home, there’s a high chance they would get skin problems. They have to deal with new stressors and very often they are left at home without adequate exercise to relieve stress.
Diet also plays a part. There are many schools of thought – people who are pro-raw, home-cooked, wet food, dry food, etc.. Even vets have different opinions.
I don’t think anyone is 100% right and 100% wrong. It boils down to the individual dog’s needs. Sometimes I do use prescription diets if the patients need it. But whether it’s good to feed your dog something out of a box for her entire lifetime, I have my doubts.
From my own experience, a lot of my patients that are placed on a properly designed fresh raw diet seem to do better. For example, even with slight kidney dysfunction, with diet and lifestyle change and the use of suitable supplements, the values seem to improve.
With that said, there are patients that cannot tolerate raw meat and do better with home-cooked. Some vets don’t recommend home-cooked meals because they tend to be unbalanced. So, it’s important to speak with an animal nutritionist to design a proper diet. Dogs would survive if you give them chicken and rice every day but it doesn’t mean they would thrive over time.
5. Lack of proper long-term management
Some dog owners had asked me why after so long their dog is still suffering from skin problems. It’s crucial to understand that we cannot treat allergies. We can only manage it.
But just because the symptoms are not there anymore doesn’t mean we can slack off with the management. If you are allergic to peanuts, you just don’t eat them. That’s management and not treatment. I can’t give you something so you can start eating peanuts.
Similarly, there are some things your dog has to try to avoid and continuous effort is required to keep the skin under control.
About Dr. Lee Yee Lin
Fulfilling a childhood vision towards animal welfare and conservation, Dr. Lee has dedicated the past 12 years towards veterinary medicine, holding a license to practice in Singapore and Australia.
With special interests in internal medicine and soft tissue surgery, she also focuses on using a holistic and integrative approach in patient care, seamlessly combining allopathic medicine with complementary healthcare modalities, such as Bowen Therapy, therapeutic grade essential oils, Traditional Chinese Medicine, herbal remedies, and BodyTalk.
You can find her at Gentle Oak Veterinary Clinic.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and coherence.