Adolescents of many different species are afflicted by the common and upsetting skin condition known as acne. So-called ‘spots’ are more visible in humans, because of our hairless faces. In pets, the red, swollen blotches of acne are hidden under a coat of fur, so they are disguised, but they still happen.

The definition of acne

What is acne, anyway? It is defined as ‘inflammation of the follicles’, which doesn’t mean much to most people. Our skin surface appears smooth, but in fact it contains many tiny holes (or “pores”) that open into narrow tubes. These tubes are called “follicles”, and they are associated with microscopic glands that produce the oily secretions that keep skin waterproof, smooth and supple. Some follicles also contain hairs, especially in animals.

Sometimes, the normal secretions inside follicles accumulate and then block up the follicle. These plugs of dried secretion may have dried crusty tip protruding, creating a so-called “comedone” (known colloquially as a “blackhead”). If these secretions become infected, then the follicle becomes inflamed (in other words, red, swollen and sore). The classic human teenager’s “spot” is the result of an infected, inflamed follicle.

Acne in dogs and cats

acne in dogs

Dogs and cats develop acne in a similar location to humans. The chin, beneath the lower lip, is a prime site. Less commonly, it may be seen around the upper lips, and even on either side of the muzzle. Under the short hairs beneath the chin, the skin looks red, swollen, bumpy and sometimes shiny. Sometimes specific “spots” can be seen. It is not normally a painful problem, although it can be itchy.

I remember a friendly eight-month-old English Bull Terrier called Becky. She was a classical case of canine acne, with a swollen, bumpy chin caused by multiple “spots”. After a biopsy had confirmed the condition, she was given the standard treatment, using tablets and shampoos.

Treatment of acne

The tablets were a potent antibiotic. The redness, swelling and irritation of acne is associated with the body’s effort to eradicate the bacteria accumulating inside the diseased follicles in the skin. Antibiotics kill the bacteria, and so the immune system no longer needs to fight them. The angry redness of active inflammation then subsides.

Becky’s shampoo contained special chemicals that also had an anti-bacterial effect. In addition, the shampoo possessed so-called ‘follicle-flushing’ properties. The unpleasant, irritating contents of Becky’s swollen follicles were flushed out, like a ‘miracle drain cleaning solution’ used by a plumber to clear blocked pipes.

Becky’s chin was shampooed every day for two weeks, and it was soon obvious that she was responding well to treatment. A month after her treatment, her owner was able to reduce the frequency of shampooing to twice weekly. By the time Becky was a year old, she was only being shampooed once a week. By the time she was two years old, she was completely better, and she now no longer needs any treatment at all. In animals, as in humans, acne often resolves with adulthood.

Acne in cats

Cats can also suffer from acne, with the chin being most commonly affected. The condition can sometimes be linked to an allergic reaction to something in the cat’s environment, such as a plastic food bowl or a particular type of food. Sometimes changing to a stainless steel or pottery bowl can help, as can giving a different type of diet.

Pets, at least, are not aware of their own appearance

One of the worst effects of acne in humans can be the psychological impact on sensitive young people. Dogs and cats are not aware of their own appearance, and so at least they are spared this aspect of the condition. On this rare occasion, life is perhaps a little easier for dogs and cats than for us humans.