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A vet’s guide to mange

A vet's guide to mange
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If your dog has been a bit itchy lately or has been suffering from hair loss, then you could well be wondering if he has mange. Many owners have heard of this condition but aren’t sure what causes it. 

If your dog has irritated skin, you should consult your vet who will be able to guide you further and help make a diagnosis. This article looks specifically at mange, but you should be aware that there may be other causes for your dog's symptoms.

What is mange?

Mange is a term used to describe a skin condition caused by tiny mites. The two most commonly seen parasites are the Sarcoptes mite and the Demodex mite. These mites have different life cycles and modes of transmission, and as such can cause different symptoms in your dog. Both mites however are microscopic which means they cannot be seen by the naked eye.

The elongated Demodex mite usually lives inside the hair follicles of dogs, buried next to the root of the hair. The more stocky and round-bodied Sarcoptes mite makes tunnels and buries in the outer layers of the skin surface causing itchiness, inflammation and crusting.

How do dogs get mange?

Sarcoptic mange (also known as scabies) is caused by an infectious mite called Sarcoptes scabiei. The mite can be transmitted between dogs, and less commonly via wildlife such as foxes. If your dog comes into contact with an infected animal or contaminated bedding and toys, they could pick up this parasite.

Humans can also catch sarcoptic mange from an infected dog, which causes itchiness and irritation. However, the mite cannot complete its life cycle so any infection usually resolves by itself.

Demodectic mange is caused by a mite called Demodex canis that is present in most healthy dogs, living in low numbers. The mite is usually passed on from mother to puppies at an early age, and in most cases, the dog’s immune system will keep numbers down. In puppies, their immune system isn’t fully developed yet, and so in some cases, this mite can multiply and cause issues. 

Some dogs with compromised immune systems can also experience problems with Demodex, so elderly or unwell animals are at increased risk too. If your adult dog is diagnosed with Demodex, your vet may need to investigate for any underlying health complaints.

Whilst Demodex canis isn’t contagious to humans, you might be interested to know that we have our own version of this mite.

What are the symptoms of mange in dogs?

Symptoms vary between dogs, but in general, the signs of sarcoptic mange differ from those of demodectic mange.

Sarcoptic mange:

  • Intense itchiness
  • Scabs, crusts and open sores are common
  • Hair loss can occur from scratching and nibbling
  • Usually affects areas with minimal amounts of fur such as the stomach, ear tips and armpits (axilla) initially, but can spread elsewhere in the body
  • Can affect dogs of any age

Demodectic mange:

  • More common in puppies, but can affect dogs with compromised immune systems too
  • Mild localized cases present with small patches of non-itchy hair loss
  • More severe cases can have widespread hair loss, which then becomes itchy due to secondary bacterial infections
  • Some breeds are more prone to Demodex infections than others, such as shar-peis and Staffordshire bull terriers

A vet's guide to mange

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Treating mange in dogs

There are many different possible causes for skin irritation and inflammation in dogs, of which mange is just one. Some dogs can have underlying skin allergies, hormonal conditions, or bacterial infections, so the diagnosis of mange usually involves taking samples from your dog.

Mites are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Skin scrapes involve using a small blade to gently scrape the skin surface to collect superficial layers of skin to put on a microscope slide. Plucks of hair can be taken for analysis too. If found under the microscope, the Demodex mite will be cigar-shaped with stumpy legs, whereas the sarcoptic mite has a round body and slightly longer legs.

Once a diagnosis of either demodectic or sarcoptic mange is made your veterinary surgeon can advise you on treatment options. These usually involve anti-parasite products that can treat mites. Tablets and spot on products may be effective, or in some cases, insecticidal washes are required.

Antibiotics may be required for secondary infections. These treatments are usually prescription medications and so your vet will advise you on what is best for your dog. Small, localised areas of demodectic mange in young animals may self-resolve as the dog’s immune system matures.

Tips on preventing mange

Most normal dogs will carry low levels of the Demodex mite. In most cases, your dog’s immune system will keep mite numbers under control. Puppies, with their less well-developed immune system, are most likely to be affected by this condition. If an adult dog is suffering from demodectic mange, then investigations may need to be carried out as to what is compromising their immune system.

Sarcoptic mange is different, and you should avoid allowing your dog to come in contact with any known cases as it is highly infectious between animals. Don’t allow your dog to share bedding and toys with an infected dog either. Keeping wildlife, especially foxes, out of your garden may help prevent mange in your dog.

You can further prevent your dog from getting mange by regular use of anti-parasite products, as some of these will be effective against mites. Your vet can advise you which products are best to use if your dog is at risk.

A vet’s guide to mange – conclusion

Mange is a condition caused by the parasitic mites, Demodex and Sarcoptes. These mites cause differing symptoms, but samples will need to be taken from your dog to get a definite diagnosis. In most cases, mange can be successfully treated, and your vet will advise you further on the most suitable product for your pet.