If your dog is itchy or has irritated skin, it could be a yeast infection. Look for these signs and symptoms so you can treat it quickly.

By Kristi Valentini
August 24, 2020
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Have you noticed your dog shaking his head, dragging his butt across the carpet, or obsessively licking his paws? These are all signs of a pup who’s dealing with discomfort. One of the most common causes of these issues could be a yeast infection, which tends to develop on the paws and in the ears, armpits, skin folds, and your dog’s hind end. An overgrowth of yeast is considered a fungal infection. It’s not contagious, but it makes skin incredibly itchy and will get worse if it isn’t treated.

What Causes a Dog Yeast Infection? 

Malassezia is a type of yeast that naturally lives on a dog’s skin, in his ears, and in his anal sacs. Normally, it’s kept in check by a healthy immune system. When the yeast grows out of control, it irritates the skin and causes yeast dermatitis (inflammation of the skin). 

Some dog breeds are more prone than others to yeast infections, including:

  • Basset hounds
  • Chihuahuas
  • Dachshunds
  • Lhasa apsos
  • Poodles
  • Shetland sheepdogs
  • Shih tzus
  • Spaniels
  • Terriers
  • West Highland white terriers

But they’re not the only dogs who can get a yeast infection. In fact, any pup can get a yeast infection, which can be caused by something that lowers the immune system response or disrupts the skin’s natural balance, causing yeast to multiply and spread. Common causes of yeast infection in dogs can include:

  • Allergies: The most common cause of a dog yeast infection is allergies to fleas, food, or substances in the environment. Allergies can lead to skin irritation and make skin oilier. Some dogs can also develop an allergic reaction to the yeast itself.
  • Steroid Medications: Vets often prescribe steroid medications to treat dogs with autoimmune disorders and allergies. These conditions are an overreaction of the immune system. Steroids weaken the immune system, but also make dogs more susceptible to yeast infections. Their immune systems are less able to fight off germs.
  • Antibiotics: Just like yeast, good bacteria are also naturally present on the skin. They help keep yeast levels in balance. Antibiotics wipe out all bacteria, both good and bad. With bacteria out of the way, yeast numbers can grow out of hand.
  • Underlying Medical Conditions: Some medical conditions like diabetes and seborrhea oleosa (overproduction of oil on skin) create an environment that promotes yeast overgrowth. 

Signs and Symptoms of a Canine Yeast Infection

Just like yeast infections for us humans, yeast infections can make your dog miserable. Incessant itching and scratching is a telltale sign your pup could be dealing with an overgrowth of yeast. Here are a few other signs your pup is feeling itchy in the early stages of a yeast infection:

  • Biting an area (along with scratching and licking)
  • Scooting his butt along the carpet
  • Rubbing his body against furniture
  • Shaking his head vigorously
  • Tilting his head

As the yeast infection progresses, you may also see the following symptoms:

  • Red, irritated skin or rash
  • Smelly odor
  • Discharge from ears
  • Sores from scratching
  • Brown discoloration of nails
  • Darkening or thickening skin (may look like elephant skin)

“Ear infections caused by yeast are very common,” says Nancy Kelso, DVM, medical director of VCA Columbia Animal Hospital at Hickory Ridge in Columbia, Md. “But we also see yeast infections in skin folds, such as where the legs meet the body and around the face and neck as well as on the vulva, anus, and paws.”

How Your Dog’s Yeast Infection is Diagnosed 

The only surefire way to tell if your dog has a yeast infection is to take him to the vet. Your vet will take a sample from your dog’s infected ear or skin with a piece of tape, by swab or scrape, or by simply pressing a microscope slide along the skin. Reviewing this sample under a microscope reveals if your pup has yeast and how much of it there is. 

In addition, your vet will analyze the sample for other issues. “Frequently, dogs with yeast also have bacterial infections or skin mites (mange),” Kelso says. “In these cases, treating only the yeast won’t solve the problem.” 

How to Treat Your Dog’s Yeast Infection

There are two kinds of treatments for a dog yeast infection: antifungal pills and topical products like shampoos and ointments. 

If the yeast infection is mild or limited to one or two small areas, topical treatment may be enough. But if the infection is severe or widespread, your dog may need oral medication. Your vet may also recommend a combination of treatments.

Topical Treatment for Ear Yeast Infections

Veterinary Partner says yeast infection is the most common type of ear infection in dogs. The treatment for these itchy ears is a medicated ear wash that helps break up buildup and scale back the amount of yeast. Most come in the form of a bottled solution that you squeeze into your dog’s ears. This is easier said than done. Your pup will probably not be too excited about having liquid squirted into their already itchy ear, so follow your vet’s specific instructions for how to administer the treatment at home.

Once you’ve applied the liquid solution into your dog’s ears, you’ll massage the base of the ears to distribute the medicine. Your vet may also prescribe a medicated ointment to apply to the ear afterward. If your dog isn’t too fond of the treatment, try distracting him with treats to help get the right amount of the liquid into their ears.

Topical Treatment for Skin Yeast Infections

Topical treatments for canine yeast infection on the skin include shampoos, ointments, and wipes. Kelso says that using them will typically involve a few steps:

  1. If their skin or fur is oily, waxy, or scaly, wash your dog with a degreasing shampoo. This removes the filmy buildup that blocks topical medications from working.
  2. Massage an antifungal dog shampoo into the skin for 10 minutes before rinsing well. Vets usually recommend using a product that contains chlorhexidine (a disinfectant that kills germs) once or twice a week.
  3. Apply a prescription lotion, cream, spray, or wipe on the infected area daily. Common antifungal medications include miconazole, clotrimazole, ketoconazole, climbazole, and terbinafine.  

Oral Treatment for Dog Yeast Infections

Kelso points out that sometimes topical medications just aren’t effective, especially for dogs that hate bath time or have long, dense coats that make it hard to get topical treatments on the skin. In these situations, oral treatment may be the only option. 

Taking an antifungal pill can also be better for more advanced yeast infection cases because it kills yeast fast. But prescriptions like ketoconazole, fluconazole, itraconazole, and terbinafine aren’t without a downside—they can also cause stomach upset and affect the liver. According to Kelso, monitoring your pet with regular blood work is necessary during oral treatment. 

The itch that was driving your pup nuts should get better within a week of treatment. But keep following your vet’s treatment plan to make sure the infection doesn’t come back. Fungal infections like yeast can be very persistent, and a full recovery may take several weeks or months.

How to Prevent Yeast Infections from Happening Again

Some dogs are prone to yeast infections—whether because of their breed or because of another medical condition. Good ear care at home can help prevent ear infections, so try to make it a habit of giving your pup regular ear washes with over-the-counter products

Considering a natural home remedy for your dog’s yeast infection? They may work to help suppress yeast growth, Kelso says, but the best thing you can do for your pet is to figure out what caused the problem in the first place. Most acidic agents like vinegar can help slow yeast growth but don’t kill it.  

“To prevent a recurrence, you have to identify and treat the underlying disease, such as allergies or diabetes,” Kelso says. “It’s just as important as treating the yeast.” So while these at-home remedies can be useful in preventing yeast infections, they don’t resolve them on their own. 

In addition to vinegar, other herbal products like tea tree oil have mild antiseptic or anti-inflammatory properties which can help too—but be careful: tea tree oil is toxic to dogs, and only should be applied externally when diluted and never in a spot that your dog can lick.

As with any medical condition, your best bet is to consult your veterinarian who can help treat your dog’s yeast infections safely and effectively.