If you notice that your old dog is losing hair, it’s natural to become concerned. Senior dogs can lose their hair or fur for a variety of reasons. Hair loss can be normal (what we commonly refer to as shedding) or it can be abnormal (health related). But why is your old dog losing hair? Here, we’ll explore the many reasons why your old dog is losing hair in patches or all over their body, or why your old dog is shedding a lot—and what you can do about it.
Why Is Your Old Dog Losing Hair?
One reason for old dogs losing hair is seasonal shedding.
“Hair loss, [or] shedding, in dogs is under the control of many factors,” says Jon D. Plant, DVM, DACVD, founder of SkinVet Clinic in Lake Oswego, Oregon. “These include the length of light exposure—including artificial light—ambient temperature and hormonal changes.”
If you notice that an old dog is shedding a lot, note that seasonal shedding can be quite dramatic, with dogs losing a lot of their coat in just a few weeks of time. Once or twice a year, certain breeds go through massive seasonal sheds. These big sheds are sometimes called “blowing coat,” and during this time it’s normal to find hair all over your clothes and hair clinging to your couch.
You can invest in home cleaning solutions, like the Bissell Pet Hair Eraser handheld vacuum and FURemover extendable pet hair removal broom, or lint rollers, like the Evercare Pet Plus Extreme Stick lint roller, to combat the issue.
Even if a dog doesn’t massively blow coat, shedding may increase slightly in the spring and summer months as the weather becomes warmer.
“Dogs in North America generally replace hair and shed the most in spring, and hair growth is maximal in the summer,” Dr. Plant says.
After blowing coat, a dog’s hair will appear less fluffy and full than it did before, but you shouldn’t see patchiness or balding.
“When pets undergo normal shedding, hair will fall from the skin uniformly all over, leaving no bare spots,” says Daryl Conner, a certified Petcare DermaTech Specialist, a master pet stylist meritus and owner of Fairwinds Grooming Studio in Appleton, Maine. “So, if the coat looks very thin or bare in spots, it is something that should be addressed.”
Abnormal hair loss in senior dogs that results in baldness (alopecia) may be a sign of a hormonal abnormality like Cushing’s disease (where the dog’s cortisol levels are too high) or hypothyroidism (where thyroid levels are too low), according to Dr. Plant. Addison’s disease is another hormone-related disease that can cause hair loss, per PetMD. Female dogs might also lose a lot of hair after giving birth or nursing a litter of puppies.
In addition to skin and coat changes, other signs of hormonal issues may include lethargy and weight gain without appetite changes, per PetMD.
Old dogs may start losing hair because of illness.
“Infections of the hair follicle with bacteria or mange mites can appear as excessive shedding,” Dr. Plant says.
Other illness-related causes of hair loss in dogs include ringworm or other fungal infections of the skin and allergies, per the Merck Veterinary Manual. Signs of skin illness and allergies include excessive scratching, licking or biting at the skin.
An inadequate diet that’s lacking the correct balance of nutrients can lead to hair loss in dogs. The nutritional needs of dogs may change as they age, requiring a diet switch or additional supplements, as recommended by your veterinarian.
“A malnourished dog will divert energy and protein from hair growth to other parts of the body,” Dr. Plant says.
If you’re noticing that an old dog is losing hair in patches, it could be due to the manifestation of parasites. Infestations of fleas, ticks or mites can cause hair loss as the dog scratches and bites their itchy and irritated skin. Flea bites in particular can trigger allergic reactions in dogs, leading to further skin inflammation and hair loss. Parasites may be visible on the skin (as in the case of fleas and ticks) or may be invisible to the naked eye (as with skin mites). Dogs infested with parasites are often very itchy and may obsessively scratch or lick their skin.
“Some geriatric dogs will develop alopecia or hypotrichosis (thin coat) in the normal course of aging, without identifiable underlying hormonal disease,” Dr. Plant says. “This may reflect a shift in priorities for the aging dog’s physiology (for instance, an underweight dog) or an exhaustion of the hair follicle germinal cells.”
How to Identify Hair Loss in Senior Dogs
To get an idea if your senior dog’s hair loss is simply shedding or something more, take a close look at the coat.
“If there is seemingly a lot of shedding, but the hairs are replaced just as quickly, without resulting in alopecia or hypotrichosis, it is often normal,” Dr. Plant says. “If one can grasp a tuft of hair and pull nearly all of them out easily, that is more likely to be abnormal.”
If you’re not sure, ask your groomer.
“Groomers are often on the front line when it comes to noticing any changes in the pet’s physical appearance,” Conner says. “In many cases, groomers see the pet every six to eight weeks—far more frequently than the average pet sees their veterinarian. In addition to this, they see every inch of the pet as they bathe, dry and groom them.”
How to Treat Senior Dog Hair Loss
The first step toward treating senior dog hair loss is figuring out what is causing it by taking your dog to the veterinarian for an exam. The vet will take a comprehensive history, asking you questions about the dog’s symptoms.
“Screening for hormonal diseases will include a blood panel,” Dr. Plant says. “The veterinarian may also review the dog’s nutritional status.”
Depending on your dog’s symptoms, other tests might be recommended.
Once the cause of an old dog losing hair has been identified, they might be treated in a variety of ways:
If your dog has an infection, disease or other medical issue, such as Cushing's disease or hypothyroidism, medication might be prescribed to address the root cause of the hair loss. Sometimes simply addressing the underlying medical issue will also address the hair loss.
Medicated shampoos might be required in the case of skin infections or allergies. If the dog’s skin is itchy and/or dry, your veterinarian might recommend bathing them with a moisturizing shampoo. There are even shampoos that help decrease shedding, such as FURminator DeShedding Ultra Premium shampoo for dogs.
If your dog’s veterinarian is concerned about nutritional deficiencies, they might recommend a diet change.
“A good quality food that provides a high plane of nutrition is important for dogs that have lost substantial hair, which is made largely of protein,” Dr. Plant says.
Blue Buffalo Wilderness Chicken Recipe dry dog food and VICTOR Hi-Pro Plus Formula dry dog food are two best-selling high-protein dog foods that you might want to consider discussing with your veterinary.
If your old dog is shedding a lot and the cause of hair loss is normal seasonal shedding, daily brushing and monthly bathing with a moisturizing shampoo can help cut down on the amount of hair trapped in the coat, and remove shed hair before it ends up all over your house. Specialty grooming products like grooming mitts, such as Mr. Peanut’s hand gloves for dogs and cats, and de-shedding tools can help remove the shed hair.
“A warm bath with a mild shampoo, followed by a conditioner, will help release shedding coat,” Conner says. “After the coat is dried, continued brushing and combing will also further the process. Many pet owners find that having their pet professionally groomed during shedding season makes a huge difference.”
Certain supplements may improve skin and coat quality. “Fish oil supplementation is sometimes recommended to improve coat quality, but has not been shown to speed up hair growth,” Dr. Plant says. Always talk to your veterinarian before adding supplements to your dog’s diet.
If your old dog is losing hair or shedding a lot, help is available. Work with your veterinarian to determine the cause of the hair loss so you can implement a plan to get their skin and coat back into tip-top shape.