==> Got a bald dog?
Dog losing hair - causes and solutions
Hair Loss in Dogs
First, it is important to note that hair loss is not the same as alopecia. Alopecia occurs in various forms, and even all forms of alopecia together only give a subset of all types of hair loss. So, here we will stick to the generally understandable term hair loss.
Second, it is important to note that dog hair loss is different from shedding: With each hair a dog sheds, a new hair is growing in the hair follicle to replace it. With dog hair loss however, some form of defect prevents growing a new hair in the hair follicle.
Third and most important to note is that, having a bald dog or a dog losing hair invariably is a symptom of an underlying health condition, it is not the cause. If you really want to help your dog (or yourself!?), you need to identify the cause of hair loss.
In this Periodical:
- Early indicators
- Symptoms of hair loss
- Implications of dog hair loss
- Treatment of hair loss
Early indications of a dog losing hair are pre-symptom stage: You don't yet see any hair loss on the dog, but you can reasonably expect to see it soon (or later) if you don't consider it now. In other words, we aim to avoid the symptoms of hair loss in dogs:
1) Look at both parents of the puppy. Hair loss can be hereditary (see later), and it's unclear if the gene defect is dominant or recessive. Thus, if one of the dog's parents has bald patches on the coat, it could genetically transfer to the puppies. "Could", because the parent dog may merely be ill, or be affected by say dehydration, medicaments, wrong diet, etc (see below).
2) Another early indicator is that the dog suffered prolonged dehydration or starvation (explained below) which is common with stray dogs in some areas, and with dogs neglected by the prior owner that are now in a shelter.
3) Dry food (feeding kibble) is another early indicator that the dog may soon have bald spots on the coat. The reason is not necessarily the dry food itself (although it can be, if of poor quality), but the fact that the vast majority of dog owners limit their dog's water intake by rarely filling up the drinking bowls - which should NEVER happen! (For hikes we have this foldable bowl)
Now the dry food has to absorb water from the body to pass through the GI tract, instead of supplying it with water, as all natural food would do. Note that even if the label on a kibble bag reads "moistened", kibble always is MUCH dryer than fresh food: The very existence of kibble comes down to extracting moisture from all its ingredients to make the bag lighter and handling easier - which reduces shipping, storage, and production cost, and extends shelf life1. Thus if this dog isn't given more water, feeding kibble exacerbates the risk of the dog experiencing hair loss later.
1 Shelf life is subject to water activity rather than water content, but discussing the finer differences like these would go beyond the purpose of this Periodical.
Conversely, all naturally occuring foods contain more water than anything else: eg carrots are 87% water, radish 95%, raw beef 73%, raw chicken 69%.
Remember that our German Shepherd Dog Online Health Assessment even includes a water intake calculator. Enter your dog's details (link under every email; again you see, here all has thorough reasons) plus some exercise detail, and you get the scientifically substantiated MWR (Maintenance Water Requirement) for your dog (in addition to other data). So, get the water intake calculator here.
4) And the fourth major early indicator for dog hair loss is frequent scratching. If your dog is scratching a lot in the same spot, then that spot will soon get bald.
Symptoms of hair loss
When you see bald patches like these, it's obvious that the dog is losing hair. However, there are also much less obvious symptoms of dog hair loss:
Unless you consciously check your dog's body twice a week, hair thinning won't be immediately apparent. Hair thinning means, some hair follicles are still intact, while some neighboring hair follicles have died or become dormant. Over time, the latter increase, the former decrease, so that the ultimate outcome is that the entire affected area becomes bald.
Therefore, if we haven't acted upon the early indicators above, hair thinning is the latest point to take action to prevent our dog going bald.
Another great symptom of a dog losing hair you learned about a year ago in the German Shepherd Shedding Periodical: Measure the groomed hair in cups (obviously, always use the same size).
The key causes of dog hair loss are:
- Hormone imbalances
- Callus or Hygroma
- Relentless licking or nipping the skin out of boredom
Dehydration probably is the prime cause of hair loss in dogs. Dogs dehydrate much quicker than people because dogs don't have sweat glands on the skin (only a few on the paws). It is the sweat glands that allow us to cool down our body fairly quickly when we exercise: All muscle movement produces heat, and when sweat vaporizes on the skin, it not only smells so great, foremost it releases heat (the smell are the oxidized minerals in the sweat).
Now, when the body dehydrates, the first organ to experience the deficit of fluids is the skin (nature assumes the largest organ suffers least). When the hair follicles (skin cells) aren't optimally hydrated, they first become dormant, then they die off. It is that simple.
The younger and the healthier the dog, the bigger the chance that all dead hair follicles will be replaced by new cells within a few days to a few weeks (exception: hereditary hair loss). However, if the dog gets a bad diet or medicaments, or suffers an infection, infestation, or allergy, then the hair loss may become permanent - regardless of the age of the dog.
Subject to how much the dog suffers the conflict in the Pack, stress may be the prime cause for dog hair loss. After Dehydration, stress is the first cause I consider.
Find out more: Click to save vet cost, training cost, and your nerves!
Anytime the dog is stressed (for reasons of Pack conflict, fear, Separation Anxiety, pain, noise, boredom, inconsistencies in food or water supply, vet visit, groomer visit, feeling threatened by other dogs, lack of human interaction, etc), the skin and coat suffer. All stressors can cause accelerated dog shedding, or even trigger hair loss in dogs!
Thus, all the behavioral consequences of stress aside, this is another reason why all top trainers use a dog training toolkit like ours.
Find out more: Click to save vet cost, training cost, and your nerves!
This is the subject we all know how important it is, but all too rarely we act on our knowledge, right?
For example, we can assume that every dog owner knows that the 10kg supermarket kibble bags are almost the worst you can give a dog (the 20kg bags are worse; even if you don't feed it all in one meal). Yet industry sales statistics show that both in the USA and in the UK, millions of dogs get exactly that (plus unhealthy commercial food treats on top).
Note that every dog food brand has imbalances of nutrients, even "the best dog food in the world" according to
Find out more: Click to save vet cost, training cost, and your nerves!
Simply because, even a premium dog food like this that consists of [read along] meat, liver, lung, tripe, heart and kidney, green mussel, lecithin, chicory inulin, kelp, parsley, mixed tocopherols, vitamins, and minerals -
- well, it consists of [read along] meat, liver, lung, tripe, heart and kidney, green mussel, lecithin, chicory inulin, kelp, parsley, mixed tocopherols, vitamins, and minerals. But that's it!
Hence why I always say: "The best dog food in the world" is a balanced diet of naturally occuring fresh foods. But IF you feed commercial food (any type, any brand!), then rotate through different brands or, better, mix the food from different brands in each meal.
In addition to being a more balanced and thus a more natural diet, another benefit is that it is a more varied diet - and dogs like variety just as much as we do (regardless how much they love a certain meal). You can serve your dog's favorite meal twice as often as any other meal, no problem, but do serve other meals too.
Now, what has a balanced, natural dog diet to do with dog hair loss? Nothing.
No matter how well hydrated the hair follicles (skin cells) are, they rely on nutrients supplied with the bloodstream. Those nutrients are absorbed from the food in the gut during digestion.
Now if the ingredients of the dog food OR the production process don't leave much potent nutrients in the food, then obviously there aren't much that the blood can supply to the skin cells. Here you need to know that:
- skin cells are served last
- not the amount of nutrients, but their bioabsorption matters
- water extraction slashes bioabsorption of the nutrients
Because bioabsorption again depends on water activity in the food.
For this very reason, even the most "enriched" or "fortified" kibble just cannot supply sufficient potent nutrients to the dog's skin. If the skin cells are short on nutrients, again first they become dormant, then they die. The outcome is the same as with dehydration, only the process is different.
Thus, if you insist on feeding kibble(?), you may want to consider to supplement it with some skin and coat support to strengthen the hair follicles.
You know already from prior Periodicals: Where we people get a cold or flu, dogs get a skin infection. Upon a bacterial, fungal, or viral attack we typically suffer first respiratory problems, dogs typically suffer first skin problems.
When the dog gets a skin infection, the immune system responds with increased activity in that very area: The nutrients and fluids supplied with the food through the bloodstream are used to produce more antibodies to fight the infection. So now the hair follicles are short of supply and become dormant. If the infection lasts too long, the hair follicles die and the dog gets bald spots.
For more on skin infections see German Shepherd Skin Infection.
As mentioned in our Periodical Worms in Dogs, Ringworm actually is not a worm but a fungal skin infection, thus Ringworm indeed belongs right here. It too can lead to dog hair loss.
An infestation with parasites can lead to an infection (see above), but does not necessarily. The most common canine infestations leading to hair loss are caused by mites (Mange!), which are tiny eight-legged parasites, most of which burrow into the skin. Like ticks, mites belong to the same class as spiders, and so I decided to not like them at all!
You may or may not remember that we interrupted our latest dog health series at the point of worms:
... as I couldn't bear anymore itching at the time (should you ever write as much about these topics, you will know exactly what I mean )! We will however finish off that series at some point, and then you'll also know more about mites than you thought you ever would when you subscribed to the MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL about three years ago.
For now, let us just memorize that some mite species can cause hair loss in dogs!
In general, dog skin allergies can have various causes, however when an allergy causes dog hair loss, it typically results from a food allergy, medicament allergy, or parasitic allergy (foremost: flea bites, mites).
Note that allergies - not only those that result in dog hair loss - quite commonly manifest after the administration of flea and tick spot-on medicine, or when a new house-cleaning agent is introduced, or when a new (cheap) dog food is being served which contains a cocktail of chemical additives. Thus make sure that you consider these possible causes as well.
Medicaments known to cause german shepherd hair loss (and hair loss in other dogs too):
- Antibiotics and antifungal drugs
- Anti-blood-clotting drugs
- Cholesterol-lowering drugs
- Corticosteroids and other drugs that suppress the immune system
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- All steroids
- All hormone treatments
- Chemotherapy medications
- Certain vaccinations, spot-ons or flea/tick/worm tablets
- Epilepsy drugs
- High blood pressure medications (beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, diuretics)
- All thyroid medication
Obviously, this list isn't even complete. Thus the chance of drug-induced dog hair loss cannot be over-emphasized. When you notice "my dog is losing hair", if the dog receives any medicaments at the time or received medicaments in the past three months, always first consider the medicaments as the cause. Medicaments. Not food supplements. Food supplements are unlikely to cause dog hair loss.
Note that it can take several months after you discontinue a medicament for the hair loss to end as well. This is because of the life cycle of dog hair. We will feature this specifically for German Shepherds in the next Periodical.
Hormonal imbalances can result from medicaments (see above), but don't necessarily.
The two key hormonal causes of dog hair loss are excessive cortisol levels (caused by tumors/Cushings syndrome), and Hypothyroidism (thyroid deficiency) - which in most cases is caused by an inherited autoimmune disease, thus these dogs should not be bred!
Hormonal causes of hair loss in dogs normally show up symmetrically (the dog is losing hair on both sides of the body), while all other causes normally show up asymmetrically (on one side only/ seemingly random).
Callus is hardened skin, hygroma is a soft fluid-filled sac under the skin. Both together are often called pressure sores. They develop when the dog's skin (or our own skin) tries to protect itself against friction, pressure, or trauma.
Many larger, heavier breeds like the German Shepherd Dog develop calluses or hygromas on elbows, hips, hocks, thighs, stifle, rips, chest, shoulder, or brisket when the dog has to lie on hard ground: Prolonged pressure on areas where bones and skin are thinly separated compresses the blood vessels and thus reduces blood supply to the area, which causes tissue damage and dog hair loss.
Pressure sores can be painful but aren't always painful. If your dog often licks at the same areas of the body, then likely the area is painful to the dog. Note that relentless licking can make a pressure sore abscess, ulcerate and become a weeping wound!
So always provide a dedicated padded resting place in every room where you want your dog to be with you. We prefer Westpaw's dog nap mat, but we also have Westpaw's thick dog blanket to throw quickly on the floor anywhere for the dog to lie down.
Relentless licking or nipping the skin out of boredom
Some dogs counter boredom with relentless licking or nipping on their own skin. Over time, both will destroy the hair follicles, resulting in dog hair loss.
If the dog hair loss is not caused by any of the above, then it is caused by an autoimmune disorder, and such autoimmune disorder is believed to be hereditary, a gene defect. Obviously, such a dog should not be bred!
If only more people read these Periodicals here (whether dog owner or not), those people could live so much healthier (without any effort at all), and save so much money spent on inadequate drugs!2
2 Only that this bit is not in the interest of the pharma industry... but you aren't the pharma industry, or are you now?
Also note that every medicament that only addresses symptoms is likely to cause another ailment down the line: The longer the medicament is administered, the bigger the time lag may be before symptoms of the newly caused defect become apparent. If you don't take a holistic approach to your health and your dog's health, you'll always be worse off financially and/or health-wise, mostly both.
I was wondering about two extra points so I researched them as well:
Impact of altering?
After spaying/neutering, some dogs show temporary symmetrical hair loss around the genital and flank regions. If subsequent to altering a dog develops Hypothyroidism (one in four dogs does), and this condition is not treated, then the hair loss may become permanent.
Note that subsequently does not mean caused by altering the dog (so often misunderstood and thus misrepresented!). As Hypothyroidism is hereditary, it is crucial to understand that this very common and easily treatable defect can be triggered by stress or significant metabolic changes at any point in time.
If you avoid stress for your puppy, the first significant metabolic change will be sexual maturity. Now, if you alter the dog before that (as you better would, see Dog Spaying and Neutering), then obviously there is a 100% chance that this dog develops Hypothyroidism subsequent to altering if the defect didn't already show in early puppyhood (as it rarely does). But obviously this does not mean that altering the dog caused the defect! It is hereditary, it would likewise show up if you never even contemplated to alter the dog!
I hope this made it really clear, for anyone truly interested. In internet times too many uneducated "bloggers" (including on medical websites!) jump to conclusions that just don't make sense at all, but which mislead the public who read them.
Correlation with coat type or coat color?
Is dog hair loss correlated with coat type or coat color? Is say, the short coat German Shepherd, or say the white German Shepherd more likely to become a bald dog, a dog losing hair?
I couldn't find reliable data on this topic, sorry. And as we have used up all of Mailchimp's 30 data fields in our GSD research database, it's unlikely we'll find out systematic details about German Shepherd hair loss anytime soon.
For members on the site itself we could use unlimited dog data fields, true, yet only a handful of subscribers understand how beneficial membership is! And that's not enough for data analysis. Hence why this Periodical is on hair loss in dogs in general, not on hair loss in German Shepherds in particular.
What I can say though is: Even if there is no correlation between dog hair loss and coat type and coat color (which seems likely), both coat type and coat color certainly influence how noticeable hair is around the house.
Implications of dog hair loss
Except if you have a long coat German Shepherd, normally the dense undercoat would provide an additional layer of protection of the skin. And, regardless of your dog's coat type, the outer coat or guard hair would always protect the skin of a German Shepherd Dog in some way.
Even the American Hairless Terrier and all other hairless dogs do have a fine layer of short hair on their skin! It just can only be seen close up. Skin without hair actually only exists when you just epilated/shaved it (which you should never do with a dog).
Okay, now let's assume in your case prevention came too late or wouldn't have been possible, and your dog experiences patches of hair loss - of the guard hair, and where it exists of the undercoat too. All hair gone! Now what are the implications for you and the dog?
Sensitivity to sunrays
Hopefully your dog feels well, despite the symptom of hair loss. Then there is no reason to subconsciously try to win a beauty contest (that doesn't even exist) and keep the dog indoors. Continue to walk and exercise your dog as you normally did, only be aware that:
- sunrays are always there, even if the sun is completely hidden by thick dark clouds
- canine skin is much thinner than human skin
1 + 2 gives 3. bare dog skin is very sensitive to sunrays!
Thus, even if you merely walk the dog on a road where there's no risk of scratches from bushes, do protect bare skin by applying a strong dog sun-block (the spray is not only much stronger than the wipes and the stick, it also avoids direct contact and wiping/rubbing which could cause inflammation on bare dog skin).
Risk of scratches and skin lesions
If you walk the dog where (s)he can roam through bushes, be aware of the much higher risk to suffer scratches up to and including skin lesions.
Sensitivity to temperature changes
Normally, it's the dog's coat that keeps the dog warm enough when outside in winter, and cool enough when outside in summer. This is the third implication of dog hair loss: Subject to the extent of the lost hair, the dog's metabolism may struggle to maintain standard dog body temperature: 38.3 - 39.2 C or 101 - 102.5 F (ie canines are 2 C or 3 F warmer than humans).
Note that even in the heat of the summer or during heavy exercise, your dog's body temperature should never exceed 40.5 C or 105.0 F (leading to hyperthermia, heat stroke, death!), and personally I would take the dog indoors or stop the exercise if I fear that the dog's body temperature may have reached 40.0 C or 104.0 F.3 It just isn't healthy for dogs, remember that dogs can't bear heat as we do because dogs can't sweat (see above).
The immense difference this makes for balancing body temperature you learn in a lifestyle sauna: The sauna may have 80 C or 176 F but your body temperature won't even reach 37.8 C or 100.0 F! Your sweat releases all heat back into the environment (sauna). Conversely, dogs cannot sweat (no sweat glands other than a few on the paws). So they can only regulate body temperature through panting. But there's only so much panting one can do!
So, always, always observe your dog's behavior during summer heat and during exercise, and stop the exercise or go indoors when in order.
3 If above you were wondering: "Tim is funny, how shall I possibly know my dog's body temperature!?!" - Well, after a while you'll get a feeling for that. You'll notice it through changes in the dog's behavior. In the beginning however, with a new dog, you would need a proper rectal thermometer (and I would also use these disposable thermometer covers to keep the thermometer hygienic).
Do not waste money on a pet ear thermometer or no-contact infrared thermometer: Regardless what you may read in some (fake?) reviews, you cannot take a dog's body temperature in the ear, in the mouth, in the armpit, or infrared. Only rectal. Should I ever find personal proof to the contrary with any other thermometer, I'll let you know. Till then, believe the vet: The only accurate dog body temperature is the rectal temperature.4
4 Yes, I know, if you insist to take your dog's body temperature in the ear, in the mouth, in the armpit, or infrared, you can substitute accuracy with comparison: The first few times you'd still need rectal measurements in different situations, but each time you'd also take your favorite measurement/instrument. You compare the two measurements, and this way you develop knowledge of your dog's body temperature range on your preferred instrument (which nonetheless must be consistent in its readings).
With a behavior-trained dog, taking the rectal temperature is easy enough for your five-year old: Just put a bit vaseline or pure baby oil around the disposable thermometer cover, have the dog stand, demonstratively show the dog what you're planning to do, and then gently insert the thermometer tip about an inch into the anus. After 10 seconds (or upon beep) take out and read. Keep a written record for later. Done!5
5 I just realized: Standard dog body temperature was missing in our brilliant Dog Vital Records Sheet, I've added it now.
Back to a bald dog's sensitivity to temperature changes: Subject to the extent of baldness, don't let the dog out around midday, and don't leave the dog out at night. If the hairless area is too large, consider using something like a fashion coat when it's cold, or a dog jersey when it's hot.
Dog hair loss and flea bites
This Periodical is already like a book again(!), so just very brief now: I have no proof but I'd bet that bare dog skin is even more inviting to parasites like fleas & Co! There's no hair in the way that hinders them to bite. On the other hand, there's no cover either, so hairless dog skin is a more risky place for fleas to be. But I doubt fleas are able to perform such risk assessments, hence why I believe there must be a bigger risk of flea bites to a (partly) hairless dog.
Everything else on dog flea treatment and dog flea control is here - which again, was like a book!
Dog hair loss and mosquito bites
This risk must be even higher: Mosquitoes sense first where they want to sit down, and once they sit, they "bite" almost instantaneously.
As mentioned above, a mosquito Periodical will come later.
Dog hair loss and tick bites
This should be a definite advantage for us: Because of the size and shape of ticks (even when unengorged), it should be easier to notice a tick on the body of a dog losing hair.
Everything else on ticks is here - which again was no "article" but rather like a book!
Treatment of hair loss
Your chances to prevent dog hair loss you can easily deduce from the Early Indicators chapter above. So, here are a few more notes on the treatment of dog hair loss (ie when prevention came too late).
Most vets will simply prescribe medicated shampoos and/or antibiotics out of routine (both also provide perks from the pharma industry, which takes the boredom out of the routine ).
You know by now that I prefer common sense thinking over thoughtless routine behavior: When you look at the causes of dog hair loss above, what do you notice?
Well, I notice that only one of the eleven described causes of dog hair loss can be addressed with antibiotics: Infection. And I notice that medicated shampoos cannot help with anything other than infection or allergy (and even this is rare). And if your dog recently received any medication at all (here including vaccination or flea/tick/worm remedy) and you now treat the dog hair loss with further medicaments, then you will typically cause further side effects down the line (and make the pharma industry all the happier).
So, I am not going to show you any of the high-priced remedies, all of which are unsuitable, and most of which are ineffective anyway.
To sensibly treat a dog losing hair you first need to identify the cause of hair loss:
- If your dog is generally healthy, likely Dehydration plays a big role.
- If your dog is often restless, or following you everywhere, or barking a lot, then the dog certainly is very stressed and you may want to revisit our Feeding Routine, stick to consistent meal times, provide dedicated resting places in every room where you want your dog to be with you, etc.
- If your dog is on a kibble diet, likely you may want to re-read the chapter Diet
- If your dog has recently received medicaments, there is a very good chance that they have at least contributed to the hair loss (often in conjunction with dehydration, because many medicaments require an increased water intake!)
- If the skin in the region of the hair loss looks fine, the hair loss is not due to an infection (because most canine infections show on the skin, and skin infections show local symptoms), so then antibiotics make no sense at all, see above!
- If your dog has recently been facing a change in diet, or a new floor cleaning agent, or flea infestation, or spot-on or vaccination, the hair loss may result from an allergy - and I would systematically check each such cause
- If your dog has recently been facing a significant metabolic change (eg sexual maturity, pregnancy, different climate), likely hormone imbalances are causing the dog losing hair
- If you aren't providing comfortable padded resting places where your dog likes to lie down, then consider pressure sores to be the cause of the hair loss
- If your dog is licking or nipping the skin a lot, and your regular grooming session hasn't shown any infestation, and the dog doesn't seem to be in pain, then the first thing I'd do is to ensure the dog isn't bored: dog games and dog toys
- If none of the considerations above made it into my shortlist, the dog hair loss is probably hereditary, and I'd ask the breeder to see both parents again
So, you see it's unlikely that I would visit (and pay) the vet at all for something like hair loss in dogs. And even if I did, almost certainly he wouldn't be able to "convince" me that medicated shampoos and/or antibiotics are in order. After this Periodical, hopefully it will be the same for you.
Some vets will then prescribe a Melatonin therapy where 3 to 6 mg melatonin are given orally three times a day for at least three months (and some will even complement this treatment with an oral levothyroxine therapy). Again both provide nice perks from the pharma industry.
Note that the latter is totally inappropriate unless the dog has been diagnosed with Hypothyroidism, and a Melatonin therapy has helped very rarely (and only in Nordic breeds) because melatonin levels pulse in the body. Thus giving a supplement does not duplicate what naturally occurs, which makes it impossible to determine the right dosage - and so typically ends up in a dosage that has severe side effects without any efficacy.
Next edition: Hair growth in GSDs