HealthVet's Corner

Westie Skin Issues – When to Cope and When to Ask for Help

Dr. Sue Paterson talks skin problems, support, and scientific evidence.

Whilst anecdotally many people have suggested that the Westie is predisposed to skin problems there is now strong evidence to show that this has a scientific evidence base to support it. A study from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 2019 which looked at over 6,000 Westies presenting to primary care vets showed that dental disease was the most common reason for a veterinary visit  but after that in order, ear problems, over grown nails and allergic skin disease were the most frequent (1). The tables below show a more precise breakdown of the incidence

Table 1 The most common reasons for vet visits (Data taken from O’Neill et al 2019)

Disease% of WHWT in study affected
Dental disease15.7
Ear Disease10.6
Overgrown nails7.2
Allergic skin disorders6.5

Table 2 The most common groups of disease leading to vet visits (Data taken from O’Neill et al 2019)

Grouped disorder% of WHWT in study affected
Dental                                            17.8

The second table suggests that one in every three Westies that goes to the vet has either a skin or ear problem. Some authors have suggested that more than 60% of all Westies develop skin disease at some stage in their life.

So, what can be done to reduce the risk of skin problems and how can they be managed?

Choose your Dog Carefully

As a Trustee of Battersea, I would of course always encourage people to rehome a dog from a rescue centre when they can. However as many of these dogs are signed over to rescues because of their skin problems it is really important to go in with your eyes open. The environment within a rescue centre is often very sterile and whilst dogs are of course kept in comfortable accommodation, their kennelling usually comes without the trappings of carpets, soft furnishings and central heating. The net result being that any skin problem can worsen once the dog moves to a loving home. If you want to buy a puppy or mature dog from a breeder, seek a registered breeder and ideally one from the Kennel Club Assured breeder scheme.   

Use Natural Skin Care Products

The symptoms of allergic skin disease can range from mild redness and scaling to very severe irritation with excoriation, hair loss and thickening and darkening of the skin. One of the keys to preventing the “allergic march” of the disease is to spot mild signs early and manage them to prevent the escalation of signs to more severe dermatitis. Dogs with skin allergy are known to have poor quality skin. Many have a reduction in the natural oils within the superficial layers of the skin, which means more water is lost through the skin making it drier and therefore more sensitive. In addition, the cells in the outermost skin layers of allergic individuals lose their regular arrangement to provide a poor-quality external barrier. This allows the normally innocuous things, like pollens, moulds and house dust mites, to induce an allergic reaction on the skin which manifests as itching, scratching and licking. The poor barrier function also increases the dog’s susceptibility to infection with bacteria and yeast which can present with redness and soreness on the feet and on the underside as well as the back.

Routine shampoo therapy can help to correct many of the imbalances seen in allergic skin. Allergens can be removed from the coat by the use of a soothing wipe or a wash down after a walk. Moisturising shampoos can help to replace the natural oils within the coat. For routine use the environmentally friendly soap bar enriched with natural oils such as olive oil, coconut oil or shea butter is recommended. Where a dog is prone to infections, then natural antiseptics such as tea tree and apple cider vinegar may be useful to help reduce the burden of bacteria on the skin surface.

Reach for Veterinary Grade Products if Things Get Bad

Whilst natural antiseptics and moisturisers are hugely beneficial there are occasions when a pet’s skin condition deteriorates beyond the point of routine care, and it is necessary to reach for veterinary topicals. When the redness turns into spots and scaling, where the itching, licking and scratching is more than occasional then intervention needs to go up a gear. There are a range of veterinary quality shampoos, mousses, sprays and wipes which can be purchased without prescription either directly through your vet or via an internet pharmacy. Veterinary grade antiseptics such as chlorhexidine are not as environmentally friendly as tea tree and apple cider vinegar but their use can avoid the need for antibiotics, so early intervention with these types of products can be really helpful. Shampoo therapy with chlorhexidine has been shown to resolve infection as effectively as antibiotics (2) and has also been shown to reduce the risk of a dog developing a “superbug” such as methicillin resistant staphylococcus. As well as its antibacterial properties, chlorhexidine has also been shown to have residual activity, remaining active on the skin for many days. This means the shampoo does not need to be used every day. The use of shampoo twice weekly combined with a chlorhexidine leave-on spray and/or mousse to maintain high levels of antibacterial activity between applications could prove useful. These products can be used on a long-term basis on dogs but equally they can be alternated with more environmentally friendly products or used intensively if a skin problem flares.    

Speak to a vet if things aren’t getting better

The tell-tale signs that things are really going wrong is the behaviour of your dog and the changes in the skin. Constant scratching, whining, restlessness as well as mood changes, signal that the skin problem is getting worse. Once the skin develops areas of soreness, extensive regions of hair loss or where the skin is becoming thickened or darker then it is time NOT to reach for Doctor Google but to speak to a vet. This may be your primary care vet, or a dermatology Internet vet help line. A vet is in the best position to assess the skin changes to decide if infection is present or something more severe is going on such as an autoimmune problem or a skin cancer, both of which can look like an allergy. They will be able to guide you on the best sort of diet to help with the skin and whether special tests such as skin scrapings, biopsies or allergy tests are needed. Specific tests at this stage to pin point a diagnosis mean specific therapy can be employed to stop the skin becoming severely damaged. Vets have access to much more specific anti-inflammatory and anti-itch drugs as well as specialised allergy vaccines that cannot be obtained on the Internet.

So, for the take home message. It is important to be proactive with your dog. Use high quality natural products for routine care. Switch up to veterinary grade products if you think things are getting out of control and speak to a vet, even if it is a virtual vet, for telehealth advice if things are really going downhill.

  1. O’Neill DG, Ballantyne ZF, Hendricks A, Church DB, Brodbelt DC, Pegram C. West Highland White Terriers under primary veterinary care in the UK in 2016: demography, mortality and disorders. Canine Genet Epidemiol. 2019;6:7.
  2. Valentine B. Treating pyoderma without the use of systemic antibiotics. Can Vet J. 2019;60(12):1361-

 Dr Sue Paterson is a Veterinary Dermatology Specialist

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