Petfoodology

the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.

Can I change my pet’s diet to improve skin and coat health?

Can I change my pet’s diet to improve skin and coat health?
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While we want pets to have a nice, shiny coat, having a shiny coat does not always mean the diet is best for your pet, since high fat diets, even if they are not good quality ones, will typically give pets a shiny coat. However, in addition to the absolute fat content, here are some other components of a pet’s diet that can help in skin and coat conditions.

Pets may have allergic conditions that predispose them to itchy skin or infections. The most common cause for this is a hypersensitivity to environmental allergens (dust mites, etc.) or insects (some pets, if they are sensitive, can have an intense inflammatory reaction to just one flea bite!). In rare cases (under 5%), allergies are caused by proteins in food. In these uncommon cases, it is important to work with your veterinarian to diagnose the cause, which may include a full dietary trial with diet ingredients that your pet has never eaten before (novel ingredient diet) or where the ingredients are broken down into smaller pieces that will be less likely to cause a reaction (hydrolyzed protein).

For those pets who intermittently have itchy skin or whose owners would like their pets to have a shinier coat, some diets may provide more skin and coat benefits than others. Most studies have shown diets higher in total dietary fat will result in a shinier coat, and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids can provide mild benefits for some itchy pets. Be aware, however, that not all pets should have high fat diets, due to additional calories or sensitive stomachs (obesity, diarrhea, and pancreatitis have been linked to high fat, calorie-dense diets), so talk with your veterinarian first before switching. One option that may potentially help your pet, but is unlikely to cause harm, is to try fish oil as a source of omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation in the skin. Your veterinarian can help ensure your pet is receiving the correct type of omega-3 fatty acids (the plant-based omega-3 fatty acids are not effective in dogs and cats), optimal dose, and a brand with good quality control. Some pet foods have omega-3 fatty acids already in them, so your veterinarian can help you determine how much you should supplement in addition to the diet (if any) to see if this can help with your pet’s itchy skin. Though it is fair to try this approach, unfortunately, omega-3 fatty acids are typically only have mild benefits for skin problems and are unlikely to resolve the issue if your pet has an underlying medical cause to their itchy skin. Many other supplements have been marketed to help with skin, but studies showing benefits in dogs and cats are currently lacking. In most cases, we recommend seeing a Board Certified Veterinary Dermatologist if your pet has chronic skin itching or infections (https://www.acvd.org/tools/locator/locator.asp?ids=16_Find_Dermatologist) for chronic or more serious cases of itchy skin and other skin problems.

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Deborah E. Linder, DVM, MS, DACVN

Dr. Deborah Linder, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, is the head of the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals and has had articles appear in Eating Well, the Boston Globe, AARP, SHAPE, and XM Sirius Radio Doctor Channel. She has spoken at national and international conferences and a Capitol Hill briefing, and is an expert in pet obesity, nutrition communication, and in the human-animal bond. 

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