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Hyperkeratosis in Dogs: What you Need to Know!

Up close dog nose and eyes

Most pet owners are familiar with common skin diseases that are associated with things like fleas and allergies where redness, itching, and hives are some of the frequently occurring clinical signs. Dermatology, aka the study of skin disorders, is much more diverse. It is important to recognize clinical signs for other skin disorders.

An old wives’ tale is that your dog’s nose needs to be wet or cold for him to be healthy, but healthy dogs can have warm or even dry noses at times. However, excessively dry noses can be problematic and a sign of a condition known as hyperkeratosis.

What is Hyperkeratosis?

When thinking about your dog’s skin, it is important to know a little bit about its component parts. There are three layers the make up your dog’s skin: the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous layers. Theepidermis is the outer layer that is composed of various skin cells that create new layers of cells from the inside out. This combination of new and dead skin cells acts as a shield to keep fluid and nutrients inside your dog’s body while protecting him from infectious agents.  

Hyperkeratosis is a skin condition in which the epidermis becomes very thick over time. Cells calledkeratinocytes to release an excess protein calledkeratin, and these cells build up in areas like your dog’s nose or his footpads. They can also build up in response to outer pressure, similar to how calluses develop.

Besides external pressure, there are other disorders that can lead to hyperkeratosis. This excess thickening of the skin becomes so hard in these cases that the skin can crack and bleed, contributing to pain and secondary infections. Hyperkeratosis can start out small and then gradually increase over time.

What Causes Hyperkeratosis?

There are several different causes of hyperkeratosis in dogs. Certain breeds like Labrador Retrievers are prone to developing hyperkeratosis on their nose due to a hereditary condition. Irish Terrier and Dogue de Bordeaux breeds are prone to developing footpad hyperkeratosis. There are also numerous breeds who may have an increased risk of developing hyperkeratotic lesions over their body in large sheets.

Certain diseases can increase the likelihood of hyperkeratosis. Canine distemper virus is one such example and is rare due to routine annual vaccination against it. Leishmaniasis, which is caused by a protozoan that is transmitted through the bite of a sandfly, can cause hyperkeratosis and is endemic in regions like Central Asia and South America.

Autoimmune disorders such as pemphigus and systemic lupus erythematosus cause systemic illness, and hyperkeratosis develops once the skin is affected. Zinc-responsive dermatosis is another skin disorder that develops from poor diets, but certain breeds like the Siberian Husky have an increased risk for this illness.

Older dogs can have dryer skin than their younger counterparts, and so hyperkeratosis may come with age. This is especially prevalent for brachycephalic breeds like Boxers and English Bulldogs.

dog with very dry paws

Symptoms of Hyperkeratosis

As mentioned above, hyperkeratotic lesions appear rough and dry when they form. They tend to develop in areas under high pressure or frequent friction, especially on the nose or paw pads. They can also show up around the edges of the ears and over the belly. In some cases, the skin in that area will change color and may develop crusted lesions. They can be very hard to the touch.

Persistent hyperkeratosis can eventually crack and bleed which can be very painful for your pup, especially if it develops over the paw pads. Hyperkeratotic lesions can contribute to the kind of inflammation that results in limping. With nose hyperkeratosis, dogs may try to lick their noses, but this will only continue to keep their noses dry.   

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you see these or any type of skin lesion on your dog, contact your veterinarian right away. Often, it is easy to identify hyperkeratosis in dogs. However, because there can be other disorders present, your vet may talk to you about additional testing before treatment.

Skin impression testing involves pressing a slide onto your dog’s skin, and this slide is then stained and evaluated under a microscope. It can help determine if a bacterial infection is present, in which case antibiotics are usually recommended.

For other skin disorders, a skin punch biopsy will be necessary for definitive diagnosis, and baseline lab work such as blood and urine testing can be important in ruling out other causes. In cases of autoimmune disorders, your dog may need steroids and immunosuppressive drugs for treatment along with topical products.  

One of the great things about skin is that it is an organ where veterinarians can directly apply medications for various conditions. Many of the topical therapies prescribed for hyperkeratosis are moisturizers oremollients. These are used to soften the skin and will therefore aid in the absorption of other topical products. Keratolytic agents such as salicylic acid, sulfur, and benzoyl peroxide are found in ointments and medicated shampoos that will help to dissolve keratin.

Routine foot soaks are great for paw pad hyperkeratosis, and there are many different topical balms and oils available to help soothe dry skin and noses. If your dog has nasal hyperkeratosis, consider a lower, flatter food bowl to avoid frequent rubbing along the bowl edges.

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Hyperkeratosis and other Skin Conditions in Dogs

Hyperkeratosis can develop almost anywhere on your pup, but it predominantly affects the nose and paw pads. Mild symptoms are easily managed whereas moderate to severe signs can be difficult to manage, especially if there is an underlying cause that results in systemic illness. 

Talk to your vet right away if you think your dog is suffering from hyperkeratotic lesions and ask what you can do to help him feel better!

Meet The Author 

Dr. Erica Irish DVM


Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine.

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