While the eyes may be the window to the soul, healthy skin is the doorway to overall well-being. In mammals, the skin is the largest organ of the body. It protects the rest of the body, serving not only to hold everything together, but to also function as a barrier that keeps harmful irritants and infections out. In a dog, a healthy coat is full with no areas of hair loss, and is shiny and soft. Your dog’s skin is healthy if there is no flaking, no areas of redness, weeping, scabs, odour, or excessive itching. Here’s why a dull coat might be a sign of a wider issue.
How to identify an unhealthy coat
When a dog is unhealthy, the skin and hair are often the first to suffer. The reasons are manifold. First, the skin and coat organs are large, and require large amounts of nutrients to maintain them. Secondly, when a dog is sick, the body thinks to protect the vital organs, the brain and heart, first. So the body will ‘steal’ nutrients from other organs that are considered less important, in this case, the skin and coat.
When a dog is unhealthy in any way or undergoing a micronutrient deficiency, this can manifest in skin and coat problems. One of those problems is a coat that is overly dry or dull. Instead of looking shiny and feeling soft, the hair will feel rougher and more brittle. In dogs that have darker coats, you may actually notice a colour change, for example, from shiny black to a dull grey.
How to identify the cause and inject life back into a dull coat
Sometimes, a dull coat can be remedied with simple grooming. A dog that is shedding an undercoat may have dull, dry hair that simply needs to be removed with a series of grooming sessions. Sometimes, a dull coat is due to underlying hormonal imbalances, such as excessive cortisol levels seen with Cushing’s syndrome, abnormal thyroid levels, or diabetes. Your veterinarian will be able to run blood tests that will determine if your dog has any of these conditions.
A dull, dry coat can often be due to micronutrient deficiencies. It is well established that conventional dog foods are lacking in skin-nourishing omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids aid skin and coat health by improving the framework upon which skin cells are built and organised. Studies have shown that dog skin that is lacking in omega-3 fatty acids is disorganised, allowing harmful irritants and infections to slip through and cause damage. Dogs that are supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids show better organised skin cells that present better barrier and protection. As a result, a healthy dog with a dull coat may benefit from omega-3 fatty acid supplementation from a high quality fish or flaxseed oil1.
Your dog’s coat can also benefit from vitamin E and zinc supplementation, as these vitamins are known to increase the bioavailability of omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamins C and B (pyridoxine, B12, biotin, riboflavin, d-pantothenic acid, and thiamine) function as protective antioxidants, working against skin-damaging free radicals, and are also known to work in conjunction with each other to improve collagen and skin immune function. While dogs aren’t concerned with wrinkles or anti-aging like humans, promoting skin health with biologically appropriate supplements helps to improve overall health and well-being, and aids in longevity2.
If pet owners are considering giving their dog a supplement for skin and coat health, first schedule a veterinary visit to ensure there are no underlying conditions that are contributing to a dull coat. If everything checks out normal, it’s time to start a supplement. Be patient when looking for results as hair grows in three phases: anagen, telogen, and catagen. Every strand of hair on your dog’s body is in its own phase of development, and regrowth or improvement of the coat depends partially on these phases. Improvement in dull hair is also dependent on how bad a deficiency your dog has in certain nutrients. As previously described, the body will utilise the nutrients for the vital organs first. Once those deficiencies are met, then the body will mete out nutrients to other organs, including skin and coat. Dog owners are often advised to give the skin and coat supplement 6-8 weeks to build up to appropriate levels in the system, before making a decision on whether the supplement is improving a dull coat.
No skin supplement will ever substitute for a complete and well balanced diet. To ensure the best health of your dog, feed your dog a diet that is balanced and complete with all required nutrients, and make sure the label says, “complete feed” in regards to EU labelling. If you are cooking for your dog or feeding a raw diet however, check with your veterinarian to ensure that your dog is getting the right levels of minerals, vitamins, and amino acids.
1Popa, Iuliana et al. "Analysis of epidermal lipids in normal and atopic dogs, before and after administration of an oral omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid feed supplement. A pilot study." Veterinary research communications 35.8 (2011): 501-509. 2"How to Achieve Optimum Coat Condition - Arden Grange." 2015. Accessed: 30 Jun. 2016 https://www.ardengrange.com/Factsheets/How-to-achieve-optimum-coat-condition.pdf
Author info: Sarah Wooten is a small animal veterinarian and certified veterinary journalist. She is a 2002 graduate of the prestigious School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. She practices in Greeley, Colorado part time at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital, and writes for multiple online and print publications.