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What is Seborrhea?

Seborrhea is a skin disorder in which the outer layer of skin (epidermis), the sebaceous (oil) glands, and some part of the hair follicles are over-productive.  This over-production causes an excess of dry flaky skin (scale) and sebum (a fatty, lubricating substance).  The trunk, back, and ears of the dog are most commonly affected.  American Cocker Spaniels tend to develop the greasy form of seborrhea known as "Seborrhea Oleosa".  Symptoms of this disease are chronic waxy ear infections and greasy skin.   There is also a dryer form of the disease known as "Seborrhea Sicca".  Some dogs may have a combination of both forms of this disease. 

Dogs with both types of Seborrhea are prone to secondary skin infections (seborrheic dermatitis).  These secondary infections can be due to bacteria or yeast and may cause the dog to develop additional skin sores, ear infections and other symptoms associated with these conditions.   The increased irritation/itching/scratching of the secondary infection, when combined with the existing Seborrhea condition, leads to even more severe skin lesions and further spread of the secondary infection.


When diagnosing Seborrhea, your vet must decide if your dog's condition is Primary Seborrhea or Secondary Seborrhea.  Primary Seborrhea, also known as idiopathic seborrhea (of unknown cause), is a genetic disease most often seen in young animals 1o weeks to 18 months old.   The mode of inheritance is not known, but is probably autosomal recessive (meaning that both parents must carry the gene).  

Animals affected with Primary Seborrhea generally have dull coat, scaly/flaky/hairless skin sores, waxy ear infections, greasy appearance/feel, thickening of foot pads, dry/brittle claws and can have the skin may have an offensive smell (especially in breeds with skin folds).  Other breeds suspected of having a genetic predisposition for Primary Seborrhea are the English Cocker Spaniel, English Springer Spaniel, Dachshund, West Highland White Terrier, Labrador Retriever, Basset Hound, Irish Setter, German Shepherd & Doberman Pinscher.

Secondary Seborrhea is a reaction of the skin to another disease, rather than a defect of the skin itself.  Secondary Seborrhea is typically seen in adult dogs.  The symptoms are the same as for Primary Seborrhea.   Some conditions which may lead to Secondary Seborrhea include: endocrine disorders such as hypothyroidism or hypoadrenocorticism, food or drug hypersensitivity, nutritional disorders/deficiency, ectoparasites, endoparasites, ichthyosis, demodicosis, cheyletiellosis, dermatophytosisand and epidermal dysplasia.

In cases of seborrhea that are difficult to control or diagnose, your vet may recommend your dog be seen by a dermatologist.  These specialists can sometimes be more helpful in identifying underlying issues and in helping to control on-going severe skin problems.

If secondary infections are present when seborrhea is diagnosed, these conditions must be treated first.   


Symptoms associated with primary (inherited) and secondary (response to another condition) seborrhea are the same. Your veterinarian will take into consideration your dog's physical condition and age (primary seborrhea is seen in young dogs), and submit a skin biopsy to a veterinary pathologist.  (This is a simple procedure, done with local anesthetic, in which your veterinarian removes a small sample of your dog's skin.)  The pathologist will look for changes in the skin which indicate primary seborrhea and which can rule-out other conditions that cause similar clinical signs.

If your dog is diagnosed with primary seborrhea, his condition will  require life-long management.  There is no cure for this disease and management of the condition will vary with each dog.  Dry, scaly seborrhea is usually easier to control than the greasy form.  You and your veterinarian will have to work together to determine the best treatment regime for your dog.  You will have to learn to recognize when changes in your dog's skin and ears require additional veterinary care.

Anti-seborrheic shampoos and moisturizers are common methods of treatment.  Initially, you will probably need to bathe your dog 2 to 3 times a week, following the bath with the recommended moisturizer.  As the condition is brought under control, the number of baths will gradually be reduced to a "maintenance" level.  If your dog has a secondary bacterial or yeast infection (as is common), you will need to treat this condition with appropriate medication (antibiotics/antifungals) at the same time that anti-seborrheic therapy is started.   

To be effective,  the medicated shampoo you use on your dog will need to remain in contact with the skin for 10 to 15 minutes after lathering.    There are a number of different anti-seborrheic shampoos available.  Your veterinarian will likely prescribe one of the milder shampoos to start with and if this fails to control your dog's condition, he may then suggest switching to a stronger product.   Stronger shampoos are many times necessary to control dogs with greasy skin, but once the condition is under control, a milder shampoo can generally be used for maintenance.   Long hair can make it difficult to effectively clean the skin, so it's usually best to keep your dog's coat cut short.  Be sure to rinse thoroughly to removes debris (scales, grease) and all of the shampoo.   Monitor your dog's condition and be sure that you don't over-bathe him as this can worsen seborrhea.

You veterinarian may also recommend additional treatments which could include systemic and/or topical corticosteroids, ointments containing tar, salicylic acid and sulfur, antibiotics, and retinoids (vitamin A derivatives) such as isotretinoin.   Your dog's treatment plan will depend largely on the severity of his condition and how well he responds to initial treatment efforts. 
It's common to see ear infections in seborrheic dogs and these conditions must be treated promptly.  The best way to avoid major problems is to check your dog's ears frequently.   Your veterinarian can show you how to flush your dog's ears and/or you can read my
EAR CARE page for information on caring for Cocker ears.   Signs of ear infection can include head shaking, rubbing the head on carpet or furniture, unusual scratching of the ears, waxy build-up in the ear which requires more frequent cleaning and/or an unpleasant odor.   Ear infections usually  require treatment for 2 to 3 weeks, depending on the type of infection and severity of the condition.

It's vitally important that you monitor your seborrheic dog's environment and over-all health for conditions or changes that can cause seborrhea to worsen.    Secondary skin infections are common and can quickly spread and become severe.  This in turn can cause seborrhea to suddenly worsen.  Changes in food, nutritional deficiencies, external parasites (fleas and ticks) or certain illnesses can all trigger the need for additional care to control seborrhea.    Treating these issues quickly and correctly can minimize the length of time and severity of the problem.

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