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What Causes Hair Loss (Alopecia) in Dogs and Cats?

Causes & Diagnosis
Hair Loss
Causes & Diagnosis

For both dogs and cats, hair loss can all be influenced by:

Dog and cat hair loss (also called alopecia) is the abnormal thinning or complete loss of hair. Hair loss is very common in pets and is one of the main reasons for veterinarian visits. When a dog or cat experiences hair loss this indicates a medical problem. Fortunately the most common cause is an allergic reaction to fleas and can be remedied with topical flea treatments and removal of fleas from the environment.

Skin parasites and infections

Parasitic fleas, lice, and mites cause hair loss because they cause itching. The pet scratches or bites vigorously and the hair is chewed or broken off. The moist, chewed skin is ripe for skin infections with yeast, ringworm, or bacteria. The yeast, ringworm, and bacteria also cause itching, and even more hair is chewed off.

Where the dog and cat hair loss occurs suggests which parasite is involved. Fleas attack the back over hips; lice often attack the back and back legs; mites focus on eyes, ears, mouth, and elbows.

Allergies

When humans are allergic, our eyes water, our noses run, and we itch. With pets, allergies are expressed in the skin and ears rather than the eyes and nose. So, allergic pets have itchy skin, and in response they scratch or chew out their hair. Pets can be allergic to:

  • Foods
  • Inhaled allergens
  • Materials their skin contacts

Common food allergies are caused by grains (wheat, corn, soy), meats and fish (beef, lamb, pork, salmon), milk and yeast. Common inhaled allergens are pollens, cigarette smoke, and perfumes–especially those added to cat litter. Pets can experience contact allergies when they walk through grass, across chemically treated decks, or on carpets with chemicals in the carpet or underpad.

Poor nutrition

Hair requires a constant supply of nutrients to remain anchored in the skin. Nutrients that support healthy hair are the same as those that support healthy skin: vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Hair that doesn't receive a balanced supply of nutrients becomes dull, loosens, and falls out. For example, pets on starvation diets have thin, dull coats. Hair loss due to poor nutrition often involves the whole pet, but may be most obvious over areas that are easily worn and over the back and hips where hair follicles have shorter growth cycles and longer inactive periods. Some Northern dog breeds, such as the Siberian Husky, have a genetic tendency to zinc deficiency that leads to skin and coat problems. The problem is in the pet's inability to absorb zinc, which is usually present in adequate amounts in the diet. The medical term is Alopecia X of the Northern breeds.

Abnormal organ function

Because the kidneys, liver, intestines, and other organs regulate the nutrients in the blood, diseases and drugs affecting these organs directly influence hair loss. For example, pets with inflammatory bowel disease, cancer or on chemotherapy often have dull, thinning hair throughout. Pets with kidney failure often have bedraggled, dull coats and may have a strong smell of urine from their skin. Pets with liver failure have orange-yellow skin (jaundice), and nails that grow long but are weak and flaky.

Blood flow

Hair is a living element anchored in the follicle and nourished by blood for most of its cycle. When the blood doesn't circulate, hair will not grow well. Pets with weak hearts, low blood pressure, and chronic anemia may have cool skin and dull coats. The thinning coat is from hair being lost from the follicle rather than being licked and broken off.

Excessive or deficient hormone levels

Hormones are chemical messengers made in one part of the body and used in other parts. Some hormones travel throughout the body, and other hormones travel only as far as the cells around them. Many hormones influence hair growth, including testosterone, estrogen, melatonin, growth hormone, thyroxin, and cortisol. Abnormal levels of these hormones cause hair to be too thin or to be too thick. Examples of how thyroxin and cortisol affect the hair follow.

The thyroid gland in the neck makes the hormone thyroxin which travels through the blood and influences almost every cell in the body. Thyroxin increases the rate that cells grow and multiply because it stimulates the cell's nuclear machinery. Hair follicles and skin cells are as strongly influenced by thyroxin. With normal thyroxin levels, hair growth is normal. With insufficient thyroxin, which usually occurs in dogs (hypothyroidism), hair growth is thin, especially over the back. With excess thyroxin, which usually occurs in cats (hyperthyroidism), the coat is poorly groomed and matted over oily clumps of skin cells.

Cortisol is a hormone released from the adrenals that is carried by the blood and influences most cells in the body. When cortisol levels are too high–due to Cushing's disease or cortisol medication overload–hair thins over the back all down the tail, leaving tuft of hairs at the very end (rat tail). If hair is clipped anywhere on the body, it grows back very slowly. When cortisol levels are too low–hypocortisolemia or Addison's disease–hair loss may also occur.

Pet medications

Several oral, topical and injected medications cause hair loss. For example, high doses or long-term use of oral, topical, or injected steroids can cause hair follicles to shrink and hair to fall out. Hair regrowth is delayed until follicles are no longer influenced by high steroid levels. Some topically applied flea medications cause hair loss at the area of application. Injected vaccines cause hair loss at the injection site and in some pets there is further widespread hair loss over the next few months. Fortunately, this is rare. With all these medications, hair is lost from the follicle rather than bitten off.

Behavior (excessive grooming and anxiety)

Pets can develop hair loss because they have behavioral problems. For example, dogs with a separation anxiety behavior disorder lick patches of hair off their legs. This is called acral lick dermatitis. With acral lick dermatitis, dogs can lick so unrelentingly that their skin breaks down and becomes infected. What began as anxiety turns into a bacterial and yeast infection that is difficult to cure because the pet licks it whenever left alone. The areas normally involved are the front legs just above the wrist (carpus) and back legs near the ankle (tarsus). Cats can also over groom or barber themselves until bald spots spread over abdomen and thighs. When over grooming is causing bald spots, the hairs will be broken or chewed off and the only involved areas will be where the pet can reach so the back, head and neck are never involved.

All pets are susceptible to hair loss, but the following breeds often have their own particular problems. For example, Dachshunds have a breed predilection for thinning over the ears, abdomen, and neck. Hair loss due to hypothyroid disease affects the Afghan hound, Airedale, Boxer, Chow Chow, Cocker Spaniel, Dachshund, Doberman Pinscher, English Bulldog, Golden Retriever, Great Dane, Irish Setter, Irish wolfhound, Miniature and Giant Schnauzer, Newfoundland, Poodle, Scottish Deerhound, and Shetland Sheepdogs.

Hair loss due to hyperthyroid disease affects many breeds of cats, but is uncommon in Siamese and Himalayan cats.

Hair loss due to hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing's disease) affects these dog breeds: Beagle, Boston Terrier, Boxer, Dachshund, and Poodle.

These breeds grow hair very slowly after being clipped: Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, Chow Chows and mixed breed dogs with Northern genetics. These breeds evolved in cold, snowy climates and shed and regrow their hair once a year or once every two years.

How is hair loss diagnosed in dogs and cats?

Hair loss in dogs and cats is caused by many different medical and behavioral problems which make a thorough examination essential to steer the diagnosis toward problems caused by illness, infection, stress, surgery, behavior, pregnancy, parasites, vaccinations, or drugs. In addition to a thorough history, some of the following medical tests can be necessary to reach a diagnosis: combing for flea dirt, skin scrapings, skin biopsy, skin culture, hair culture for fungal growth, blood test, urinalysis, X-ray, and Woods lamp illumination.

Evaluating hair loss in dogs and cats

Before ordering medical tests, veterinarians evaluate:

  • The pattern of hair loss
  • Whether the hairs fell out or were chewed out
  • Whether there are signs of systemic illness
Treatment
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