HAYDUK: More Than Just Skin Deep


With such a reluctant spring, most of us would be hesitant to complain of the annoyances that come along with this beautiful warm weather, but if we were to do so, biting insects would undoubtedly be at the top of that list! And though we may not always recognize it, our furry friends, both small and large, likely feel the same way. 

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 But annoying insect bites are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to skin disease in our animals. Bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, parasites, nutrient imbalances, cancer, and even internal organ dysfunction can all cause changes in the appearance of the skin and hair coat. Being able to recognize, diagnose, and treat skin disease is vital, not only for the health and comfort of these animals but also because some of these infections can be transferred to people.

Most people are aware of a variety of skin diseases affecting dogs and cats, but they can also be a big problem for larger critters like horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs. Often these animals live together in larger groups with ample opportunities for sharing infections, making prompt recognition, diagnosis, and treatment all the more important. 

So how do you recognize if there’s a problem brewing? Skin disease can be a master of disguise with so many possible appearances. Sometimes an animal will be intensely itchy with no other apparent signs. Other times there may be obvious lumps and bumps, large patches of hair loss, or angry red, sensitive skin. And in some cases, subtle changes in the color and texture of the hair or pattern of shedding of the winter coat can indicate potentially serious internal health issues. 

For example, alsike clover can be toxic to horses, causing serious, sometimes fatal liver damage. Toxins normally removed by the healthy liver accumulate in the blood and cause increased sun sensitivity. So an early warning sign of trouble on the inside is red, peeling, sunburnt skin on the outside, particularly on areas of white fur and pink skin. 

Similarly, delayed and patchy shedding of a horse’s winter coat can be a telltale sign of problems with the pituitary gland in the brain. As with sunburn, this seemingly minor change on the surface is an indicator of much more serious problems on the inside. Likewise, subtle changes in the coat colour of your previously shiny black cows can point to nutritional imbalances that can have a significant impact on overall health and productivity.

Some skin diseases are easily diagnosed by experienced eyes, but others are more elusive and require things like biopsies and blood tests to figure out. In the end, catching a problem early is always the best, both for that animal and to help prevent more animals (or you!) from being affected.

Dr. Amy Hayduk grew up in the Nass Valley of northwest BC and graduated  from the Western College of Veterinary medicine as the 2014 “gold medalist” after  completing a master’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Northern BC. She enjoys all aspects of mixed animal practice with special interests in small animal surgery and equine medicine.

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