Question: Our 12-year-old mixed-breed dog, Carla, has lots of dandruff and is constantly scratching. We've tried various shampoos, but they haven't really helped. Can you suggest any holistic solutions?
S.S., via email
Answer: Just like humans, dogs and cats are constantly replenishing their skin cells; old cells are shed, and new cells replace them. But sometimes there is very rapid skin replacement, and as a result, dandruff—white flakes of dead skin cells—can be seen on your pet's coat.
This condition is also known as "seborrhoea sicca." As well as dry, flaky skin with white or translucent flakes of dander or dandruff, your pet may also be itchy and shed more hair.
The skin is a very sensitive organ and an indicator of your pet's general health, so it's important to get your pet checked out for any potential underlying conditions. Possible causes of dandruff include poor nutrition, allergies, a skin-drying environment, not brushing your dog enough, bathing her too often and genetic factors.
A parasitic mite called Cheyletiella can also cause dandruff. It's vital to rule this out, as cheyletiellosis or "walking dandruff," as it's known, is extremely contagious to people and other pets (unlike the usual type of dandruff).
A magnifying glass can help you work out if your pet has a mite problem. If you look closely at the dry flakes, you will be able to see the parasites moving. If you are in doubt, get your pet checked by your vet.
Diagnosis and conventional treatment
Your vet will check for cheyletiellosis and may also suggest blood tests to rule out conditions like hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). Allergic skin conditions must also be investigated, especially if your pet is also very itchy. Treatment will depend on whether there's an identifiable cause.
Fortunately, "walking dandruff" is easy to treat. Lime sulfur dips are very effective and can eliminate this type of dandruff quickly. Some spot-on flea prevention products that contain fipronil (such as Frontline) can also get rid of this mite.
Apart from treating your dog, you will also need to wash her bedding, and anything else she has slept on, in hot water and the dip. Any combs and brushes used should also be washed in the dip.
If there is no clear cause, then here are some general holistic solutions that can help with Carla's dandruff.
A healthy gut is vital for healthy skin. The digestive system needs to function optimally and absorb the right nutrients in order to nourish the skin and keep it working as it should.
Pets fed dry kibble packed with additives and preservatives are more prone to dandruff and dry skin problems. So switching to a high-quality natural diet is a crucial first step.
According to traditional Chinese veterinary medicine, for dry flaky skin it's best to feed pets neutral and cooling foods such as eggs, defatted pork, rabbit, lean fish, clams, cod, millet and barley. Vegetables like potatoes, spinach, celery, broccoli, mung beans, string beans, carrots and pumpkin are also good options.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for healthy skin. Try to include oily fish in your dog's diet, but also consider a high-quality omega-3 supplement, such as Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet.
Suggested dosage: follow the instructions on the label
Vitamin A is vital for preventing dry skin. Cod liver oil has a good mix of vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids.
Suggested dosage: for cats and small dogs, 2,000 IU/day; for medium dogs, 5,000 IU/day; large dogs, 10,000 IU/day. Avoid giving vitamin A to pets with liver damage, as it can cause toxicity
Glacier Peak Holistics Daily Defense is a good supplement for skin and immune support.
Suggested dosage: follow the instructions on the label
This soothing herbal tea can be helpful for dandruff. Steep half a teaspoon each of chamomile, geranium and chickweed dried herbs in a pint of boiled water for 15 minutes, then feed to your dog daily.
Suggested dosage: 1 Tbsp 3 times/day for small cats and dogs; 2 ounces for larger dogs
Herbal tea can also be used topically. Use 30 drops of calendula tincture to 1 cup of boiled water. Let it cool and then sponge or spray it over your dog's body. This is extremely calming for dry skin.
Standard pet shampoos tend to dry out the skin. Instead, try shampoos made with colloidal oatmeal, which is soothing, and other gentle ingredients. Earthbath Oatmeal and Aloe Itch Relief Pet Shampoo is a good option (available from Amazon).
If your dog has a lot of dandruff, it's a good idea to start off with a shampoo that contains salicylic acid, which can help get rid of flakes. Lather into the skin, then leave on for 10 minutes before rinsing off.
Try Beaphar Anti-Dandruff Shampoo in the UK, which also contains soothing calendula oil, or SynergyLabs Veterinary Formula Clinical Care Antiparasitic & Antiseborrheic Medicated Shampoo in the US. For severe cases, try Virbac Keratolux Shampoo, but only use it short-term.
As a rule, dogs prone to dry skin should not be bathed more frequently than at three- to four-week intervals in hot weather and two-month intervals in the winter. Topical teas and sprays made from herbs (see the 'Herbal teas' section, left) are good substitutes for bathing.
There are some excellent Chinese herbal formulas for dandruff, such as Shou Wu Pian and Psor Skin by Dr. Kang Formulas. Try to find a traditional Chinese veterinary practitioner who can prescribe the right remedy for your pet.
This traditional Chinese technique can be helpful for a variety of pet problems, including dry, flaky skin, and it's something you can do yourself. Using your index finger, touch the following points on your dog and apply steady pressure or use small circular strokes for 20 to 30 seconds, once or twice a day.
GB 20 Gallbladder 20 is located below the back of the head in a depression at the nape of the neck about half way between the spine and bottom of the ear. There are two points, one on each side, which feel like dimples and can easily be found if you move your dog's head up and down. Holding this point is said to calm irritability and itchiness.
SP6 Spleen 6 is well known for moistening and tonifying blood and fluid. It's located in a depression on the inside of the back leg, just behind the tibia and below the origin of the Achilles tendon.
LI 11 Large intestine 11 is said to clear heat and strengthen the immune system. It's located on the inside of the front leg, in the elbow crease on the outer side, easily found with the elbow flexed.
In his book Everyday Homeopathy for Animals, Dr Francis Hunter recommends the following homeopathic remedies for dandruff, but you need to identify your pet's temperature preference before using them.
• If your pet prefers warmth and has rough, flaky, dry dander, give Arsenicum album 30 C.
Suggested dosage: 3 times/day for 7-10 days; repeat after a 10-day break as necessary
• If your pet prefers cold surfaces or is too hot and also has red, scaly skin prone to infections, give Sulfur 6c.
Suggested dosage: 2-3 times/day for 2-3 weeks
Chickweed ice cubes
Chickweed is a soothing, anti-inflammatory herb that may be helpful for itchy skin conditions. Try the following recipe for your dog.
Large handful of fresh chickweed
1 tsp honey
1) Place the chickweed in a blender and add the honey and 2 Tbsp of water. Blend until smooth.
2) Freeze the chickweed juice in ice cube trays. Take out one cube at a time and allow your dog to lick it.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com