Acne on dogs

May 19th, 2008

Sonia Hickey looks at what to do when you find acne on dogs.

It’s not likely you’ll find mans best friend turning down the offer of an off-lead romp because hes feeling self-conscious about a few spots on his chin, but dogs can get pimples, and it is often a sign of something more serious than a rush of teenage hormones.

Take Bruno the English Mastiff, for example. His bad case of acne is costing his owners a fortune and has turned Bruno into a very high-maintenance dog, requiring extra grooming and facial cleansing every day. But while acne is not unusual for Mastiffs their combination of deep facial folds, excessive salivation and very short hair make them susceptible to the condition many other breeds can also be affected.

According to Dr Barbara Fougere, a Sydney-based veterinarian who specialises in natural therapies, Dobermanns, Staffies, Boxers, Great Danes, German Shorthaired Pointers, Weimaraners, Rotties, and Chinese Crested dogs are all predisposed to acne.

Since some breeds are more vulnerable than others, it is thought that genetics does play a part in canine acne. Age can also be a factor acne is most common in juvenile dogs (those up to three years of age), but it has been known to affect older dogs, too.

The upshot is that any dog can be affected by acne at any time in its life, but the cause is not always straightforward.

There can be several causes, says Dr Beth McDonald, a registered specialist in veterinary dermatology. Sometimes acne is simply a collection of spots caused, for example, by your dog doing doggy-type things like digging or resting on its chin, which can create trauma to the hair follicles and hair shafts. But acne can also be a sign of another, potentially more serious health issue. It should never, ever be ignored.

Acne can be a sign of skin infection, such as staphylococcus, or a skin disorder such as atopic dermatitis or demodetic mange. In less common instances, it can be a sign of immunosuppressive diseases or an adverse reaction to drugs.

The relationship with allergy

In some cases, acne can be the manifestation of an allergic reaction, such as a food sensitivity or sensitivity to the sun. There have also been cases where the animal has had a contact allergy to plastic.

Fougere tells the story of Bazza the Boxer, who had severe spots. The acne looked like it was being caused by a negative reaction to something in the dogs environment, so we began looking for possible causes, she says. One of the first things we suggested was for the owner to change Bazzas water and food bowls from plastic to ceramic, and take away all his plastic toys. His acne cleared up straightaway.


Fougere and McDonald both stress that when a dog gets acne, proper diagnosis is vital.

Typically, acne appears as bumps on the chin, lips and muzzle. The red bumps (called papules) and blackheads (called comedomes) are not unlike human acne. These spots don’t actually bother dogs at all, unless a secondary skin infection develops.

McDonald explains: Initially, lesions are mild and we see occasional pimples. Then we see inflammation and some hair loss. The lesions progress under the skin and then we see boils. Of course, by this time, the skin is itchy and irritating for your dog, so he looks to rub his skin against the floor or other rough surfaces.

While this might offer immediate relief, it has the unfortunate effect of inflaming the pimples, causing them to become infected, and the problem escalates, McDonald says.

In severe cases of acne, you can expect your vet might want to do a biopsy a procedure performed under anaesthetic, during which the vet takes a sample of skin from the infected area to assist in identifying the cause.

What to watch for:

  • Lumpy, swollen skin
  • Hair loss
  • Rubbing on the floor and other rough surfaces
  • Inflamed skin
  • Boils
  • Draining sinuses
  • Scratching more than usual
  • Scales, dandruff or dry skin
  • Greasy or smelly coat even after a bath
  • Significant change in skin colour
  • Sores that wont heal

Acne can be a chronic problem requiring long-term management for some dogs, but in most cases it is treatable. If lesions are identified early and treated, secondary infections and scarring can be limited and extensive disease avoided, says McDonald.

Roxie, a Scottish Terrier, is one such case. Her acne was severe and very painful so much so that she had to be sedated and have her chin clipped for it to be examined properly. It was discovered that she had localised demodex mange (an infestation of mites under the skin) and secondary deep bacterial infections, says McDonald. Once this was diagnosed, we were able to prescribe the appropriate treatment. Roxies acne cleared up and did not return.

It is important to understand that the definition of acne refers to pimple-looking spots on a dogs face, McDonald explains. If such spots appear elsewhere on your dogs body, these are not acne, but potentially a sign of some other illness, so you do need to consult a vet.


Since the reasons that acne is present are many and varied, treatments also vary, as the underlying cause needs to be dealt with first.

Spots themselves usually require a course of antibiotics, particularly where secondary infections are present.
Medicated shampoos and ointments containing benzyl peroxide are also commonly prescribed in the treatment of acne, and generally have high success rates in reducing bacteria and helping to clear up the skin.

Natural remedies

As a golden rule, don’t touch, says Fougere. No matter how tempting, don’t squeeze or scrub your dogs pimples. This always makes the problem worse, because you damage the epidermis the outer skin layer and you can actually cause scarring.

That said, it is important to keep the affected area clean because good hygiene practices will aid the healing process. Gentle daily cleansing will do the trick.

Fougere says that in her experience, natural remedies such as malacetic wipes (an acid found in vinegar) have had great results in the treatment of acne. That’s not to say you should just use vinegar from the kitchen pantry if your dog has some spots, she warns. Always get professional advice.

Fougere believes calendula lotion or chamomile tea are also worth considering if your dog has acne. They work as supporting treatments for bathing the affected area. These wont be a cure, but they wont hurt your pet either, she says.

Some websites also recommend the use of aloe vera the gel straight from the plant as a soothing balm. Whatever you do, its important to tell your pets healthcare professional if you are using supporting treatments, so that what you’re doing doesn’t interfere with whatever treatment has been prescribed for your dog.

My experience with natural therapies is limited, admits McDonald. But possibly a topical astringent such as witchhazel may be successful.

McDonald also cautions that it is important to only use treatments that have been subjected to appropriate evidence-based trials and which have been proven to be both safe and effective, so you don’t run the risk of causing your dog discomfort or harm. She has often used human products, such as topical antibiotic ointments, with good results, but says you should do so only on the advice of your vet.

For the duration of treatment, a bucket or head cone is often a good idea for pets that wont be able to resist rubbing their face.

And, on a final note, if you’re planning on breeding, choose a mate who has no skin problems to lessen the genetic impact on offspring, and wait until any current acne has cleared up.

It’s better for Fido and his girlfriend that way, too after all, no one wants to kiss a pimply snout!

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