Ask the Vet: Why Do Dogs Get Blackheads?

Dr. Ivana Crnec

Dogs get blackheads just as humans do, but the underlying causes may be different in dogs compared to humans. Unlike humans who get blackheads mostly on the nose, chin and forehead area (the so-called "T zone"), dogs tend to get blackheads mostly in their backs and belly areas. On top of this, something to consider is that what may seem like blackheads in dogs may be something totally different. A vet visit is therefore in order to determine exactly what may be going on. In this article, veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec discusses blackheads in dogs, their causes and treatment.

Can Dogs Get Blackheads?

Blackheads and pimples are every teenager’s worst nightmare. Remember? They are unpleasant to look at and have a really bad timing (tend to appear when they least should). The only good thing about blackheads is squeezing them. As weird as it may sound, blackheads are a guilty pleasure to squeeze.

Now that you are all grown up, you might think those teenage problems are far behind you. Well…if you are a dog parent, chances are, there will be many blackheads ahead of you. Actually, it is your dog that will have the blackheads, but you will have to squeeze them. To be honest…not exactly squeeze them but definitely take care of them.

This pretty much gives the answer to the above question. Can dogs get blackheads? The simple answer is YES. But how can we define blackheads from a medical perspective? How do they form? Should dog owners do something about blackheads on their dogs? And…ultimately, are blackheads always just blackheads?

Understanding Blackheads in Dogs

Blackheads, (medically known as comedones), are in fact clogged hair follicles or skin pores. They are filled with dirt, and as time passes by, they start protruding. If squeezed, a black, paste-like substance comes out.

Blackheads got their name based on appearances. Namely, the accumulated mix of oil, dead cells and dirt is normally white-grayish. However, when exposed to air, the mixture oxidizes and turns black.

What's the science behind blackheads' formation? Blackheads develop when dirt, shed dead cells and natural skin oils, build up within the hair follicles. This accumulated mixture puts pressure on the follicle walls thus leading to follicle distension. Although human and dog blackheads have different etiologies, one of the most important contributing factors that lead to blackheads formation is the same for both humans and dogs. That factor is poor skin and coat hygiene.

Young dogs going through puberty are very prone to blackheads formation in the chin, lips and muzzle area. Young Boxers, Great Danes, Doberman Pinschers, Bulldogs and Rottweilers are particularly predisposed to blackheads. As long as the dog is young and the blackheads distribution is limited to the above mentioned regions, there is no room for concern. The process is biologically normal and self-limiting.

Blackheads – human versus dog, what are some differences? Some people have easy-clean follicles in which dirt, cells and oils do not tend to accumulate. In other people, the accumulation tendency is higher and blockages are much likely to occur. All in all, blackheads in people are a purely cosmetic issue. Keep in mind that your dog’s blackheads are generated by your dog itself. They cannot be caught from another dog or from a person.

Causes of Blackheads in Dogs

Unlike in people, blackheads in dogs can be an indicator of a more serious problem occurring elsewhere in the body. More often than not, blackheads are a symptom rather than a diagnosis. Generally speaking, the increased incidence of blackheads in dogs can be associated with three conditions:

  1. Grease production imbalance (seborrhea) – oil overproduction leads to blackheads formation. Logically, the blackheads are concentrated in the areas where oil glands are abundantly present (along the back line, under the chin, ventral chest, belly and prepuce area).
  2. Demodex mites – which live deep inside the hair follicles. In case if a blackhead formation, the demodex mites play the role of a cork in a bottle.
  3. Cushing’s disease – the hormonal imbalance leads to immune system weakening and skin thinning associated with blackheads formation.

Schnauzer Comedone Syndrome

The Schnauzer comedone syndrome is a hereditary condition found in young to middle aged Schnauzers and mixed dogs with Schnauzer origins. Namely, predisposed dogs are prone to developing itchy and bumpy blackheads accompanied by pustules and scabs. They are usually distributed on the dog’s back and rump. Unless the dog’s coat is clipped, the blackheads are hard to spot.

Other Copycat Conditions

Is it a blackhead or something else? There are two main conditions that a layperson can easily confuse with blackheads:

  • Lentigines (freckles) – these are naturally pigmented black spots. Lentigines are almost exclusively found on the dog’s belly. Normally, lentigines do not require medical treatment. However, they should be monitored in case they undergo changes.
  • Flea dirt – heavily infested dogs usually have flea dirt incorporated in their hairs. At a glance, the flea dirt may resemble blackheads.

Now That You Know...

Determining the presence of blackheads is easy, but working out whether there is an underlying condition can be rather challenging. A big question remains: Blackheads in dogs, to squeeze them or treat them?

Restrain your urge to squeeze your dog’s blackheads. Squeezing the blackheads can get them infected. Plus, squeezing spreads the accumulated material thus prompting another breakout.

Blackheads need to be appropriately addressed. That is because, if let on their own, the follicles will keep on distending and the debris will keep on accumulating. Once enlarged, the clogged follicles put too much pressure on the surrounding hair follicles thus inhibiting their normal functioning and eventually impairing the normal hair growth.

Simple blackheads can be treated at home with special "follicle flushing" shampoos containing benzoyl peroxide. During the first 2 weeks, the dog should be bathed twice per week. Then, once per week is enough. 

To loosen the debris on the surface of the skin, it is advisable to use a soft-bristled brush. Keep in mind that the medicated shampoo must remain on the skin for at least 5 but preferably 10 minutes. Never assume that it is safe to use human blackhead products on your dog. Human blackhead products are way too strong for dogs.

Blackheads can get infected. An infected blackhead warrants a trip to the vet’s office. In addition of medicated shampoos, the treatment usually includes a long course of oral and topical antibiotics, steroids and clipping the affected area.

If dealing with complicated blackheads (secondary to other conditions), the treatment plan depends on the underlying cause.

Cost of blackheads treatment

The cost of the treatment depends on the underlying cause. Typically, it varies between $50 and $1500.

Dog Blackhead Prognosis

The prognosis for simple blackheads is good. Although not completely curable, this cosmetic issue can be successfully controlled. The prognosis for complicated blackheads depends on the underlying cause.

Blackheads Prevention

Since poor skin and coat hygiene is a valid contributing factor, keeping your dog’s skin and coat clean and well-groomed is the best prevention. 

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