Examining a Dog’s Skin and Coat

Pets can be very good at hiding the early signs of illness, but the skin never lies. As groomers, we see pets more than their veterinarian, so it’s important that we familiarize ourselves with some of the most common skin problems, what we could do to help and when to direct them to the veterinarian.

Lumps, bumps and skin swelling can have many underlying causes, and though they’re one of the easiest things to see on the pet’s skin, don’t assume your clients know they’re there. I feel there’s always room for improvement when it comes to recording and sharing this information with our clients—any sign of a skin abnormality needs to be directed to the veterinarian for an examination. Masses and swellings are difficult to diagnose without veterinarian procedures, such as aspirates and biopsies, and tests are necessary to determine the cause.

My main concern is whether they’re cancerous, contagious or just clogged skin cells. There are a lot of non-cancerous lumps found on pets, and it’s normal to see them on at least one pet during a normal workday. I see cysts, warts, infected hair follicles and even ear hematomas. Though many pet owners aren’t terribly concerned about the non-cancerous abnormalities, it’s worth acknowledging as they can create discomfort for the pet during the grooming process.


Cancer or Not?

Growths on a pet’s body can be either malignant or benign. Malignant lumps tend to spread rapidly and can metastasize to other areas of the body, while benign growths tend to stay in the place of origin and do not metastasize; however, they can grow to be enormous.

About 50 percent of mammary gland tumors are malignant; they grow in the area around the teats and appear as one or several hard or soft lumps. In the beginning, the lump is covered with skin and hair, but in time it could rupture or leak.

Other cancers you might see are squamous cell carcinoma, which are often caused by excess exposure to the sun. When grooming dogs in the summertime, I don’t clip them too short so I can leave a protective layer of coat.

Mast cell tumors occur in the mast cells of the immune system and are present in nearly every tissue of the body. Their purpose is to signal when a toxin, infection or foreign invader has entered the body so that the immune system can launch the proper attack. Mass cell tumors are the most common skin tumors in canines.

Malignant melanoma normally occurs on the mouth or mucous membranes, although about 10 percent of the time they are found on parts of the body covered with hair. They tend to grow extremely fast and are likely to spread to other organs, including the lungs and the liver.

Despite our constant fear of cancer, a commonly diagnosed cause of skin swelling is abscesses. A small bump or lesion on the outside can hide a pocket of pus and debris under the skin—these are painful to the pet and can feel warm to the touch. In dogs, I find most abscesses around the face, but no matter where the swelling is located, you will notice the pet is more sensitive to your touch or sometimes the owner mentions a behavior change. I push for my client to get immediate veterinarian care.


Non-Threatening Lumps

Not all visible lumps are serious. Lipomas are common, benign fatty tumors that grow in the layer just under the skin or even internally that older pets commonly develop. They are soft, rounded, moveable lumps that aren’t painful to the pet and normally aren’t any cause for alarm. Still, they should be monitored because they can grow big enough to interfere with the pet’s daily life or even press on their internal organs.

Some bumps are just sebaceous cysts, which are plugged oil glands in the skin. Typically, these are nothing to worry about, as long as the pet leaves them alone—I’ve seen pets turn these tiny cysts into quarter-sized lick granuloma.

Skin cysts that are composed of dead cells or fluid can rupture during grooming or on their own. Again, it is important to keep track of these skin issues so that you can proceed with caution or even avoid the area all together. They are little land minds on the skin that can break open at even the lightest touch. I did read that sebaceous gland cysts have developed into tumors called sebaceous adenomas, which is something that should be addressed by a veterinarian.

Certain breeds, like Cocker Spaniels, Poodles and Schnauzers, are prone to sebaceous cysts, and some dogs can develop several at one time. If oily skin or blocked pores are present, removing excess dead undercoat and regular baths with a shampoo containing benzoyl peroxide may be helpful. The shampoo flushes the hair follicles and degreases problem coats. I like to use it before I use other medicated shampoos to allow better penetration of the anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and yeast products.


Other Skin Issues

Sudden hair loss is a big red flag that something’s wrong. Ectoparasites and allergies are one of the most common causes of hair loss, but it could also be caused by infections or stress. In older pets, sudden hair loss can be linked with an endocrine, thyroid and metabolic changes.

Pets we see often suffer from either environmental allergy or food allergy—environmental allergies are more common than food allergies, but some unfortunate pets may experience both at once. Again, it’s best to leave diagnosing the allergy to the veterinarian.

Another skin issue we see is a pet that acts normal, but their coat is dull and greasy, their skin is flaky and they’re typically overweight. I find that a talk with the client about diet is needed and a few extra baths with a degreasing shampoo and a good de-shed improves the situation. It’s just a temporary solution to a larger problem, though—pet owners need to change the pet’s diet to see long-lasting results. Typically, omega-3 fatty acids help minimize inflammation, while omega-6 fatty acids maintain skin cells. Many of our pet clients could benefit from these supplements in their diets.

Itching appears to be one of the biggest skin concerns that clients call out on a regular basis. While topical skin and coat products provide relief, we need to emphasize the importance of getting to the root of the problem. When it’s identified, changes have to be made to the pet’s lifestyle.

One of my favorite medicated shampoos on an obvious but undiagnosed issue is Davis’s KetoHexidine Shampoo, which combines ketoconazole and chlorhexidine gluconate to address problems associated with bacteria, yeast and fungi.    

I have many dogs that come in with their own 4 percent chlorhexidine for skin conditions associated with microorganisms and bacteria, and I like to keep Davis’s 2 percent miconazole nitrate shampoo in my product line to battle fungal conditions, including those associated with yeast and ringworm—it helps with scaling from seborrhea, too.

There are also several different medicated creme rinses that can be very helpful. Davis’s pramoxine anti-itch cream rinse is especially helpful, but any oatmeal-derived conditioner that follows an antibacterial shampoo will work just fine.

If there’s still extreme inflammation after the bath, I will use something with hydrocortisone in it. One of my favorites is Zymox Topical Spray with Hydrocortisone for dogs and cats, as the enzymes in the product add a protective topical barrier that creates a residual effect that kills bacteria, fungus and viruses.


Relaying the Message

It can be hard to know which lumps are dangerous and which can be left alone. Truthfully, we should not comment on what we think, as it could be construed as diagnosing a problem. The owner must get their veterinarian involved.

Sores on the face or ears can seem harmless at first, but any stubborn sore that does not go away on its own should be evaluated by the pet’s veterinarian. Sores on the upper lip may be an ulcerative skin condition often linked with allergies. There are other causes of persistent sores, and all require medical attention. Like contagious infections such as bacteria, viruses, fungus, autoimmune disease or possibly cancer.

However, every lump that is not removed should be closely watched. Oftentimes, growths that appear to be benign turn out to be more serious. Any pet with a mass that is growing rapidly or otherwise changing should return to their veterinarian.

Being a pet groomer is essential in both our two-legged and four-legged client’s life—sharing is caring.  PB

Chris Pawlosky is a Certified Master Groomer, professional handler, breeder, grooming show judge and successful pet store and grooming shop owner (The Pet Connection) since 1985. For 20 years, she served as national training manager for Oster Professional Products, where she developed new initiative educational material to educate at schools and conventions all over the world. Pawlosky is currently working with Judy Hudson to produce the Grooming Professors—a service through which the two industry veterans share their many years of grooming, competing, dog show conditioning and handling with groomers across the country via Facebook and through an interactive website where visitors can access webcasts and videos about everything grooming related.