The winter season presents a variety of challenges for people and pets. Dry skin is something we can all be affected by – two-legged or four-legged.
Dryness in the air, whether it be cold winter wind or dry heat indoors, can reduce or eliminate the moisture-locking oil barrier on the surface of the skin. Skin that is most exposed to the air is most vulnerable to losing this protective layer. We, as people, notice it most on our face and hands. For our pets, areas at most risk are dependent on how much hair they have and where it grows!
For any dog, the nose is always vulnerable as it is always exposed. Other areas at risk of high exposure are ears and bellies. Paw pads are especially vulnerable in the winter months because they are not only exposed to dry air, but also to ice, cold concrete, salt and rough terrain.
Some breeds are more at risk than others. Brachycephalic breeds (dogs with shortened/flattened faces; example, pugs) have difficulty licking their noses due to the anatomy of their face, so they are less able to wet their noses, putting them at even higher risk in dry conditions. Breeds that are short-coated, with more exposed skin on their ears and bellies (example, boxer) may experience dry skin in these areas as well. Finally, hairless breeds are fully exposed and many more areas can be affected.
There are a variety of strategies we can implement to prevent or treat dry skin in winter time.
Winter apparel can limit the exposure of some areas, but what about the areas that are difficult or not possible to cover up?
First and foremost, we must support the skin from the inside-out: with nutrition. It is important to support total nutrient requirements of the body. If some requirements are not met, the body will direct nutrients to essential body functions and may not allocate enough to the skin. This can compromise the health and function of skin.
Nutrients to pay close attention to:
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs): Essential omega-3 and -6 PUFAs are the most important nutrients for maintaining moisture in the skin. Essential PUFAs are assimilated into epidermal cell membranes and are an integral part of cell structure. They are also components in the extracellular lipid matrix – this is the oil barrier on the surface of the skin, and is directly related to moisture retention and permeability of the skin’s surface by preventing trans-epidermal water loss.
Vitamin A: important for cell reproduction and growth. Skin cells are continuously regenerating and it is important to support this process in order for the structural integrity of the skin to be maintained.
Vitamin C: strong antioxidant activity; plays a role in collagen production. Preventing oxidative damage and supporting skin structures are important for keeping the skin healthy.
Vitamin E: strong antioxidant activity. Vitamin E works alongside vitamin C in the antioxidant complex.
Vitamin B5: attracts and binds to water. Used topically on the skin, it can help to lock in moisture.
“Complete and Balanced” diets should provide enough of each of these nutrients for maintenance requirements. However, in dry conditions, requirements for some of these nutrients may be elevated beyond normal maintenance levels. Increasing feed rate is one way to increase nutrient intake without changing the balance of vitamins, but excess calories may not be tolerated by some pets. Sometimes supplements can be introduced.
The most important and safest supplements to introduce are fatty acid supplements. There is no concern with upsetting the carefully calculated vitamin balance in your dog’s commercial diet like there is with vitamin supplements (if you feel a vitamin supplement might benefit your pet, consult your veterinarian). Omega-3 and omega-6 supplements are readily available for purchase. Fish oil and flax oil are examples of high omega-3 sources; sunflower oil and chicken fat are examples of high omega-6 sources.
*A Note on Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is a popular go-to for dry skin but it may not be the solution your pet requires. Coconut oil is DEFICIENT in essential fatty acids and is composed of primarily SATURATED fatty acids, not the beneficial PUFAs, so it is not a good dietary additive to improve or prevent dry skin. It can be used topically to temporarily relieve symptoms of dry skin, but since it is a comedogenic oil (plugs skin pores), it should not be the long-term solution to dry skin.
Topical products to consider are those that moisturize and protect the skin without clogging the natural oil ducts.
Moisturizing shampoo followed with moisturizing conditioner can be beneficial to the whole body. A soothing oatmeal shampoo and conditioner can be a great start to a moisture-replenishing regimen by cleansing dirt and debris and leaving the skin clean and pH balanced (make sure to only use products that are formulated for pets, since the pH of their skin is different from ours). From this stage, moisturizing and protective products can be applied to treat or prevent dry skin. It is important, however, to limit bathing to once a month. Excessive bathing can end up having an opposite effect to what we desire, by stripping away natural oils, leaving the skin dry and unprotected.
Oils such as argan oil, olive oil, jajoba oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil and many others moisturize and soften skin without clogging pores.
Beeswax is a natural substance that seals in moisture and acts as a barrier to cold air without clogging pores in the skin so they can continue to function optimally. It is also antiviral and antibacterial which is especially important for dry, cracked skin that is more vulnerable to infection.
Paws are especially at risk during cold weather. Paw pads can become irritated and cracked in the winter not only because of dry air but also due to road salt, cold surfaces and rough/abrasive terrain. The best solution for this challenge is prevention and protection! Some dogs will tolerate boots, which offer the best protection against salt, cold and rough surfaces. However, many dogs strongly dislike the sensation of wearing boots. In these cases, paw balm is a great solution. It creates a barrier on the paw pad surface to protect against winter hazards. Natural combinations of wax and oils protect the surface of pads while allowing perspiration to escape (remember, dogs sweat through the pads of their feet so this is very important to maintain healthy pads and avoid infection). Antiseptic and protective beeswax is a great option for pads as a barrier and to encourage moisture retention as well as healing.
Moisturizers can be used short term to help cracked pads heal. Products with high oil content which are intended to soften skin should be avoided as long-term solutions because the function of the pads of the feet relies on toughness, not softness. The softer the pads are, the more vulnerable they are to cuts and abrasions – this is not ideal, especially when traversing frozen winter terrain. Once pads are healed, products intended to maintain moisture and protect the pads are best.
No matter what you and your pet like to do in the winter, it is important to give them what they need to be healthy and comfortable. Proper nutrition and protective layers ensure your pet can enjoy any winter activity, whether they are bounding through the snow or tucked in on the couch.