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Pyoderma in Dogs: When the Itchy and Scratchy Show Turns Real

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Seeing a dog scratching themselves isn’t new. After all, they roll around in – well, everything. You spend tons of time wiping grass, debris, and who-knows-what off their coats. And then there are the annual battles against flea and ticks to consider. So you probably don’t think too much about your dog when they start scratching. But when the scratching leads to patches of hair loss? Or red skin? And raised bumps that look suspiciously like pimples? You pay close attention. That isn’t normal itchiness. And while you need a veterinarian to diagnose the condition for sure, odds are you’re dealing with pyoderma. This tricky medical condition leads to uncomfortable problems in canines. And without proper treatment, your poor itchy pup may end up miserable.

Pyoderma

When you look at the simplest definition, pyoderma is a bacterial infection. In Latin, pyo translates as “pus” and derma translates as skin – so “pus under the skin.” (I know, you were dying to hear that) But that’s what pyoderma in dogs IS. Bacteria manage to get under the outer layers of the skin, creating an infection. And the biggest culprit? Staphylococcus intermedius. A bacterial strain NORMALLY found on the skin (our skin AND our dog’s). It doesn’t usually bother your dog. But when it gets UNDER the protective outer skin layer? That’s when it causes problems.

Pyoderma shows up when there’s SOME break in the skin around the hair follicles. You can see irritated, red skin (though your dog’s scratching usually causes that). But the biggest signs are those (you guessed it) raised pustules. They resemble pimples with a white pus-filled center. As the infection continues, the skin dries out and flakes off. And some dogs lose hair around the area. Sometimes you’ll also notice a foul odor (infections DON’T smell pleasant) Short-haired dogs REALLY look pathetic, with an almost-hive appearance to the pustules. While pyoderma can show up anywhere on a dog’s body, the most common spots include:

  • Armpits
  • Chins
  • Groin
  • Lips
  • Skin folds
  • Between toes
  • Vulvar folds
Pyoderma often occurs in folds of skin

Puppy Pyoderma

In puppies, there’s a special form of puppy pyoderma, sometimes called puppy strangles. The raised red bumps show up with swelling or cellulitis. And your poor little fuzzy baby feels TERRIBLE. No one’s sure what causes puppy strangles, but veterinarians think there’s an immune component. In other words, the immune system of the pup starts attacking the body. You see the swelling and bumps mostly around the armpits, belly, face, and groin.

You absolutely MUST get your puppy to a veterinarian. The swelling that accompanies puppy pyoderma is DANGEROUS. While your kiddo will recover with intervention – and many never develop another case – they lack the immune system to fight the infection on their own. And they’re MISERABLE. Don’t wait – get into the vet ASAP.

What Causes Pyoderma?

How does a normal bacteria carried around on the skin turn into an infection nightmare of itching and pus? Sometimes, it’s as easy as a break in the skin. If your dog suffers any trauma that creates a wound (and it doesn’t take much! A scratch will do the trick!), Staph gets a chance to march inside the body. Then they have a cozy, warm, MOIST environment to replicate and wreak havoc. This is how many pyoderma infections get their start.

But that’s not the only way. The skin’s a delicate organ. If anything changes blood flow, Staph gets a window of opportunity. And when the immune system doesn’t function properly, it can’t fight off something as simple as a common bacteria. Suddenly, what started as your dog scratching an ORDINARY itch turns into a pyoderma nightmare. The following can all lead to those pustules:

  • Allergies
  • Cancer
  • Chemotherapy or steroids
  • Foreign bodies under the skin
  • Hormonal disorders (Cushing’s and hypothyroidism)
  • Immune deficiency
  • Malnutrition
  • Mites
  • Parasites
  • Ringworm
  • Trauma
  • Wounds

And if you have a breed of dog with wrinkles – such as Bulldogs or Pugs? Yeah, you may find yourself battling pyoderma on a regular basis.

Skin Health

Why is the list of pyoderma causes so LONG? And why so many different causes? Sure, it makes sense that a break in the skin might allow that pesky Staph inside, but hormone changes? Malnutrition? Parasites? Why are they leading to the formation of gross little pustules on your dog’s skin?

The body works to maintain homeostasis at all times. Everything needs to remain in careful balance. If something shifts too far one way or another, the system needs to decide how to get back as CLOSE to normal as possible. And the skin? That’s not a priority. So if your dog doesn’t receive a high-quality diet, the body needs to make a decision. What’s more important? The organs or the skin? (I’ll give you a hint – it isn’t the skin)

The same happens when your dog struggles with Cushing’s disease or hypothyroidism. The hormone levels go CRAZY. And your dog’s body struggles to keep the most important systems functioning. Dogs with either disease often have unhealthy skin and thin, patchy hair or missing hair. (When we adopted our Greyhound – who has hypothyroidism – she was NAKED over most of her body) Skin and hair aren’t priorities, and that allows pyoderma to gain a foothold.

Chemotherapy drugs and steroids suppress the immune system. They often target cancers or other disease processes affecting the body. But as a result, they allow Staph infections to flourish. In this case, your vet WILL know the associated risks, and they’ll advise you to keep an eye out for those pustules.

Diagnosis: Hitting the Lab

With so many possibilities for pyoderma in dogs, figuring out the cause is often frustrating. Are those dry, flaky patches the result of an accidental scratch? Or does your dog have an underlying condition? Are they allergic to fleas (one of the most common allergies in dogs), or is something in their food to blame? You MUST make an appointment with your vet to get the cause of the pyoderma diagnosed. There are TOO MANY possibilities to figure things out on your own. And in the meantime, your poor pup is suffering.

Hopefully you have pet insurance handy, because your canine is in for LOTS of testing:

  • CBC and chemistry (to make sure your dog’s healthy)
  • Cortisol panel (to test for Cushing’s)
  • Cultures and sensitivity (to test appropriate antibiotics)
  • Fungal culture (to check for ringworm)
  • Histamine test (to test for allergies)
  • Skin biopsy (pyoderma can go DEEP into the skin)
  • Skin cytology (to confirm bacterial presence)
  • Skin scraping (to check for mites)
  • Thyroid panel (to test for hypothyroidism)

And the wait times vary for these tests. Some need several days to run. You’ll need some patience. (Hard to do when your dog is itchy, I know, but you can’t rush results)

It’s tempting to skip testing and move on to treatment. After all, you know what pyoderma looks like, right? Why spend the money when you can move from Step A to Step C? If you skip finding out WHY your dog has pyoderma, though, it’s going to come back again – and again – and AGAIN. While it’s frustrating to spend money on tests that MAY come back negative, it’s important to understand why your dog’s hair keeps falling out.

Scratching may be a concern or not - but testing is needed to know for sure

Treating Pyoderma

Luckily, getting rid of those disgusting pustules isn’t difficult. They come from a bacterial infection. And what works on bacteria? Antibiotics. However, with pyoderma, there’s a little wrinkle. Staphylococcus intermedius LOVES its home in your dog’s hair follicles. So getting it to move OUT takes time. A LOT of time.

The average course of antibiotics for a case of pyoderma is THREE TO FOUR WEEKS. And if you get a particularly nasty infection, you may be looking at longer – in the 8-12 week region. Veterinarians often reach for systemic antibiotics – meaning pills (or liquid, if your dog is tiny). But sometimes, they’ll have you use an antibacterial shampoo, as well. It’s CRITICAL that you finish the entire course and follow EVERY instruction. If you don’t? You got it – those pustules are coming right back.

However, if there’s an underlying condition, you’re also going to need to address that problem. But you saw your vet (of course you did). So they’re going to work with you and get you started on proper therapy. Together, your dog’s pyoderma will clear up in no time. It’ll mean some patience (you ARE talking at least a month), but things will work.

“Alternative” Therapy

Plenty of internet sites will offer you alternatives to seeking veterinary assistance for pyoderma. I’ve encountered everything from apple cider vinegar to Vaseline. Please don’t. First of all, you’re not treating the underlying problem – which IS a bacterial infection (or potentially a condition that allowed the bacteria to run haywire). Second, these “therapies” are often dangerous.

Vinegar is acidic and can lead to superficial burns on the skin. It also DRIES the skin further. Your dog was ALREADY itchy from the drying the Staph accomplished. You don’t want to compound the problem by using vinegar. And Vaseline will SEAL IN the moisture around the hair follicles. This makes it an even happier environment for the bacteria. You’ll end up worsening the pyoderma. (And, yes, I’ve seen the results of both attempts. The dogs were SICK by the time they hit the treatment room)

No More Itchy and Scratchy

Seeing your dog trying to crawl away from their skin breaks your heart. Pyoderma is a doggie version of chickenpox. (And if you had them, you KNOW what a nightmare they were) They twist and scratch and itch and pull out their hair. And until you figure out how that bacteria got a foothold in the skin, you won’t solve the problem. It means agreeing to some lab testing – and a LENGTHY course of antibiotics – but your dog will thank you in the end. Their skin will heal, their hair will grow back, and the scratching will stop.

Well, it won’t STOP, but the horrible itching will stop. And that’s what really matters.

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Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy worked as a Licensed Veterinary Technician for 10 years, focusing on Emergency/ICU and later Cardiology, as well as volunteering at both the Philadelphia Zoo and Virginia Living Museum for over six years. She's now a freelance writer, but she gravitates toward writing projects with a focus on animals (once an animal-lover, always an animal-lover). She lives in Virginia with her husband, three cats (one "works" as her personal assistant), and a Greyhound who thinks she's a big cat — all of them rescues.

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