Scruff, a four year old Yorkshire Terrier who had dandruff

Scruff was originally found wandering the streets when he was eight months old. He was in poor condition, half-starved and covered in fleas. Lynn took him on as a pet, gave him the treatment that he needed, and he’s matured into a fine healthy adult dog.

There is one problem that remains: dandruff. If you closely examine the area of skin along his back, between his shoulders and the base of his tail, he has white, flakey scales lurking in the depths of his fur. If he was a human wearing a suit, there would be small white flakes gathering on his shoulders and the back of his neck. Lynn has tried various treatments, including an anti-dandruff shampoo that she bought in a pet shop, but Scruff’s problem is as bad as ever. It doesn’t bother him at all; he isn’t itching, and he doesn’t know that there’s anything wrong, but Lynn would obviously prefer that he had normal healthy skin.

Dandruff is a word that isn’t generally used in veterinary medicine: skin specialists prefer to use the term “scaling disorder”. Normal, healthy skin is the result of a complicated natural process, starting with the cells replicating at the base of the skin, then maturing into fully fledged adult skin cells by the time they reach the skin surface. It’s like a continual microscopic elevator: as old skin cells fall off at the top, new ones come up from beneath to replace them. In healthy skin, this continued replacement happens in such a gradual way that it’s invisible. Nobody notices tiny skin cells falling off into the surrounding environment.

Dandruff happens when this process goes wrong, and the smooth shiny surface of the skin is replaced by an irregular, flakey, dried-out surface, with skin cells falling off in large clumps that are visible to the naked eye. Factors involved in dandruff include external factors that cause damage to the skin surface and internal factors that stop skin cells from maturing properly.

The external causes of dandruff include several types of parasites that can damage the surface of the skin, causing the scaliness. Typically, an affected dog would be itching, something that Scruff didn’t seem to be doing. When I examined him, I couldn’t see any creepy crawlies. I checked some of his dandruff under the microscope to be safe. There is a tiny mite called “walking dandruff”: it looks like scales of skin that move around slowly and it can be easy to miss without checking under magnification. Scruff’s sample was clear, but I gave him a standard spot-on anti-parasite treatment anyway, so that we could be certain that we’d ruled parasites out.

There are many internal factors that can cause dandruff, included genetic diseases that can only be diagnosed by taking a skin biopsy. Another internal cause involves the diet. Dandruff can be the result of a food allergy, and sometimes a special low-allergy diet needs to be fed for a few months to see if this solves the problem. More commonly, a diet may simply be deficient in special oils, known as essential fatty acids, that are needed by the body for healthy skin. Scruff is fed on a standard pet food from the supermarket which should be sufficient, but I prescribed him with a special daily oil supplement to see if this will improve his skin condition. It won’t make an immediate difference but after a couple of months, if this is the cause of his problem, the dandruff should clear up.

Scruff will also be bathed every week in a prescription-only anti-dandruff shampoo and Lynn’s going to use a fine comb regularly to remove all skin scales. One way or another, we’re hoping that he’ll be free from that dreaded doggy dandruff very soon.


  • Dandruff – or excessively scaly skin – is common in dogs
  • It’s important to rule out some specific causes that need treatment
  • Shampoos and dietary supplements will help most cases

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