Put simply, the veterinary definition of mange is ‘a skin disease caused by mites’. Mites are miniscule organisms closely related to ticks and spiders. For many, the term mange will automatically evoke images of animals with scruffy coats covered in bald, crusty patches. 

My dog is well looked-after, surely he couldn’t get mange?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘mangy’ – in addition to its literal meaning to suffer from mange – can also be used to refer to something squalid, poverty-stricken or shabby. This perhaps explains why it’s often assumed that mange is a condition confined to the likes of foxes and neglected strays, not pampered pooches.

In fact, mange can just as easily affect our comfortably housed canine companions. Although, thankfully ,there are effective strategies available for both treatment and prevention in dogs. 

Sarcoptic Mange or ‘Scabies’

This article will primarily focus on sarcoptic mange, a highly contagious form of mange which, in dogs, is caused by the mite Sarcoptes scabiei var canis.

How do dogs catch scabies?

Sarcoptic mange, commonly referred to as ‘scabies’, is a highly contagious condition. The Sarcoptes mite is transmitted through direct contact with other infected dogs or foxes, or on materials which can carry infection such as shared bedding. It can occur at any time of year. 

What are the signs?

The mites seem to prefer areas of the body with less hair, meaning that the ears, elbows and tummies are the most commonly affected areas. The mites burrow into the skin, causing intense itching and irritation which almost always leads to a cycle of self-trauma. Whilst the severity of the reaction does vary between dogs, it is common to see hair loss along with red, scabby and crusty skin. Some patients may also suffer from a secondary bacterial infection.

How is it diagnosed?

Sarcoptic mange can be difficult to diagnose – the mites are extremely small organisms which can only be seen with a microscope, not to mention the fact that they live under the skin! Diagnosis is further complicated by the fact that many other conditions can present with similar skin lesions.

If your vet suspects your dog has sarcoptic mange, they may recommend something called a ‘skin scrape’ – this involves taking a small sample from the surface of the skin in order to look for the mites under the microscope. There are also blood tests available, although unfortunately neither method is completely reliable in detecting infection so sometimes a treatment trial might be recommended. 

Can it be effectively treated?

Fortunately, treatment is usually straightforward and there are a number of effective medications available for dogs including spot-on treatments, tablets and washes. If itching is severe, or secondary infection is present, your vet may also prescribe antibiotics or anti-inflammatories. In-contact animals should also be treated, and all bedding thoroughly washed to prevent reinfection. 

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Can humans be affected?

We can also suffer from sarcoptic mange, but in people the condition is usually caused by a different, albeit closely related, mite. Whilst human infections with the canine Sarcoptes mite can occur and cause irritation, they are usually short-lived in healthy adults, being most serious in children and the immunocompromised. 

How do I prevent my dog from getting mange? 

A regular parasite prevention plan can include protection against sarcoptic mange. Your vet will be able to advise on the best option for your dog. 

What other types of mange can affect dogs?

  • Demodectic Mange: Demodex mites also live under the surface of the skin. It is actually normal for healthy dogs to have small numbers of Demodex mites living in their hair follicles and glands on the skin. They do not usually cause a problem, but in some dogs – usually due to a genetic predisposition (often seen in young animals) or a compromised immune system – they can multiply and cause disease which may prove difficult to treat. 
  • Otodectic Mange – Ear Mites: Otodectes mites live in the ear canal and can cause itchy ears and a dry, waxy discharge. Infection is more common in young dogs. 
  • Cheyletiellosis – ‘Walking Dandruff’: These mites are just large enough to be seen by the naked eye and may look similar to flakes of skin, hence their nickname ‘walking dandruff’. They can cause itchy, flaky skin particularly along the back. 
  • Trombicula autumnalis – ‘Harvest Mites’: These mites are a seasonal problem, occurring in late summer and autumn. They have a distinctive red appearance and are big enough to be seen without a microscope. They are most commonly found between dogs’ toes, where they can cause irritation. 

Whilst some types are more common than others, ‘mange’ is a term which encompasses a number of specific conditions, many of which closely resemble other diseases not caused by mites. If you have any concerns about your dog’s skin or coat, it is always advisable to discuss these with your vet, who will also be able to advise you on the most suitable preventative strategies for your pet. 

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References

  • Hutchinson, T. and Robinson, K., ed. (2015) BSAVA Manual of Canine Practice. BSAVA Publications, Gloucester. 
  • Campbell, K., Scarff, D. and Godfrey, D. Skin: Sarcoptic Mange. In Vetstream Vetlexicon Canis. Retrieved from https://vetstream.com