What's wrong with my pet's skin?

Scratching the surface of skin conditions in cats and dogs.
Dog on floor with front paws in the air

One of the most common health problems our pets face are skin conditions.

These have many causes and are typically more prevalent in the warmer seasons, when allergies are more prone. The condition of a cat’s or dog's skin and coat are also an important indicator of its general health and skin conditions can significantly affect your pet’s quality of life, making them feel miserable.

Depending on the cause, skin conditions of cats and dogs vary from minor to chronic or long-lasting problems requiring lifetime treatment. Skin conditions can also be primary or secondary, due to scratching, and this can make diagnosis complicated.

It’s always best to book an appointment with your vet if you notice something wrong with your dog’s skin. Waiting can lead to more serious problems developing.

What should my cat’s or dog’s skin look like?

A cat’s or dog’s skin is unique to them, but there are many signs that they have healthy skin.

Their skin should be pink or black, smooth and free of crusting, itching, scaling and infected or hot and inflamed areas.

A healthy coat will be thick and shiny with no bald patches, dandruff or parasites.

They will shed fur all year round, but this will typically increase during the summer and autumn months.

What symptoms should I look out for?

Symptoms to look out for include excessive scratching, scabs on the skin or pulling out of fur, which can all indicate skin disease. Poor coat condition and may indicate an underlying illness. Any ear problems may also be linked to a skin condition.

Allergies are one of the most common causes of skin problems in cats and dogs. Allergic skin disease often causes itching, redness and many other symptoms. Severe allergic reactions can cause hives, rashes and swellings anywhere on the body.

Contact your vet if you suspect your cat or dog is having a severe allergic reaction – this is an emergency and they will require immediate treatment.

There are so many different types of skin issues that occur for a variety of reasons. These are some of the more common problems:


Environmental dermatitis occurs as a result of interaction with grass, plants, dirt or bugs. If your cat or dog is licking excessively or chewing at their fur they may leave a patch of skin exposed. This can lead to moist dermatitis (or a hot spot) which is a lesion on the exposed skin. This can be treated with oral or topical antibiotics from a veterinarian. In addition, it is important to feed a balanced, good quality diet to prevent nutritional dermatitis.


Some of the most common skin conditions are caused by parasites, so it is important to keep up-to-date with parasite treatment. Several treatments can be purchased to keep these away, especially during warmer months when fleas and ticks flourish. Reactions that occur as a result of an allergic reaction to the bite of the parasite require treatment that involves the elimination of the parasite and treatment of the bite area with medication prescribed by your veterinarian.

Skin allergies

An allergy is a reaction to a stimulant – this can be something that is inhaled, eaten or a reaction to a bite of an insect. A reaction does not necessarily result from skin contact with an allergen, it can just as easily result from the consumption of an allergen. As the immune system recognises an allergen as a “foreign body” it launches its defences to attack the allergen and repel it from the body. The most common display of an allergic reaction is itching of the skin.

Contact allergies

Contact allergies are allergies caused by direct contact of a substance with a chemical or other irritating substance, causing an inflammatory response in the body (the over-production of antibodies by the immune system) that affects the skin. Your cat or dog will most likely experience a reaction the first time they come in contact with the irritant. If your cat or dog comes in to contact with an allergen that causes skin problems, it is important to consult your vet.


Atopy is displayed as hypersensitivity to a variety of commonplace and otherwise harmless substances in the environment, this can include breathing them in such as pollen, mould and dust. If your cat or dog breathes in an allergen and shows symptoms of distress, you should contact your veterinarian. While atopy cannot be cured, it can be controlled with medication, diet, and lifestyle management.

Food and drug allergies

Food allergies are caused by food containing a particular ingredient which causes the body to mount a defence against an ingredient that is displayed as a skin condition. Food allergies can usually be determined by a process of elimination in which certain food ingredients are removed from the diet one at a time to track the progress of symptoms. Some of the most common food allergies in dogs include wheat, corn, soy, chicken and eggs.


Hives are a specific type of allergic reaction that appears as round raised bumps that itch. Unlike some allergic reactions, hives are fast to appear and generally develop within half an hour of exposure to an allergen. Hives can be caused by a number of factors including insect bites, topical applications and medications. For the most part, once the stimulant that caused the hives to appear has been removed, the hives will disappear within 24 hours.

When to contact your vet

Skin conditions can be very uncomfortable and often very painful, especially if they are severe or go on for a long time. Contact your vet if your pet has a skin problem that doesn’t clear up in a few days. If you see blood or pus coming from their skin it is important to see a vet as soon as possible. You know your cat or dog best – if they don’t have the symptoms listed above but you are still concerned it’s always best to contact your vet.

Source: Animal Welfage League Queensland (AWLQ)

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Things to note

The information in this article has been prepared for general information purposes only and is not intended as legal advice or specific advice to any particular person. Any advice contained in the document is general advice, not intended as legal advice or professional advice and does not take into account any person’s particular circumstances. Before acting on anything based on this advice you should consider its appropriateness to you, having regard to your objectives and needs.