It is hard to imagine, but your pet's skin (and yours, for that matter) is covered with bacteria. For the most part, these are "friendly" germs that don't cause any problems. But sometimes they slip into a hair follicle in the skin and begin multiplying. If they multiply fast enough, they can cause a painful, pus-filled boil (also called a furuncle). Dogs are more likely than cats to get boils because they are more prone to skin infections of all kinds, says Donna Angarano, D.V.M., professor of small animal surgery and medicine at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Auburn, Alabama.

Along with bacteria, dogs play host to a tiny parasite called demodex. This is a mite that normally lives peacefully inside the hair follicles. But when the immune system is weak because of stress, for example, or because of physical problems such as diabetes, the mites thrive, possibly causing boils or bald patches on the face, forelegs, and around the eyes, says E. Ann Lystrup, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Pets that spend a lot of time outdoors will sometimes get boils between their toes. This usually occurs when something irritating -- a grass seed, for example -- sticks into the skin. When they try to lick away the annoyance, they will sometimes drive tiny hairs under the skin, causing deep infections, says Tiffany Tapp, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Garden Grove, California.

See Your Vet If...

  • Boils are accompanied by bald patches in the fur
  • Your pet spends a lot of time outdoors
  • Your pet is shedding or scratching more than usual
  • He has scales, bald patches, or a rash
  • He has severe dandruff or dry skin
  • His fur is greasy or smelly even after baths
  • Your pet has broken out in hives and is having trouble breathing
  • He has a bad sunburn
  • There has been a significant change in skin color, or the skin seems loose
  • There is a lump or swelling beneath his skin
  • Your pet has a sore on the skin that won't heal
  • The skin of the lips, abdomen, or rectal area is yellow
  • There are red or purple dots or splotches on his skin

Copyright 1999 Rodale Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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