Demodex is the short name for Demodectic Mange. Demodex is caused by an overgrowth or infestation of mites on the dog’s skin. Most dogs (and even some people and other mammals) have these mites on their skin and in their hair follicles. The mites themselves are not a problem, and most dogs never experience any signs that they are even there.
The actual problem is when the dog’s immune system becomes compromised which allows the mites to grow out of control. Many people do not understand the actual issue (compromised immune system) and instead of treating that, they want to treat the symptoms (the mite overgrowth). Unfortunately, the treatment that many vets recommend to treat the symptoms, actually do more harm than good to the true problem.
There are many reasons that a young dog’s immune system can become weakened. Sometimes it is genetic; he may have inherited a poor immune system from his parents. However, even a genetically healthy puppy can often have environmental issues that affect his immune system. Some of these things can include vaccinations, poor diet, chemicals (such as flea preventative or heartworm medicine), a female coming into heat for the first time, extra stress (going to a new home for example), surgery (spay/neutering), etc…
There are two types of demodex – localized and generalized. Localized is the more common type and normally happens with young dogs or puppies. Localized demodex normally shows up on the dogs face, front legs or chest area in small patches/spots and does not spread over the rest of the body. This is usually what people experience with their dogs. The hair will fall out around that area and the skin may become rough, irritated, scaly, with scabs and maybe even weepy. Often it just looks like a small “bald spot”. While it can look bad, it is not terribly uncommon (especially in some breeds) and should go away within a few weeks or months.
Generalized demodex is more serious and can affect the dog’s entire body. Often generalize demodex shows up in older dogs when there is a more serious issue going on internally, such as cancer or another disease.
If you think your dog may have demodex, the vet can do a skin scraping to confirm it. As with any health concern, you should always consult with your veterinarian, however please be sure to do the research on your own as well. Many vets want to jump right into chemical treatments for demodex to kill the mites. Common treatments include chemical dips, injections and oral medication. While these treatments may kill the mites, they also continue to hurt the dog’s immune system (and remember THAT is the real problem!). There are other ways to handle localized demodex and usually it will simply clear up on its own if you just leave it alone.
Remember, you want to boost the immune system, not hinder it. Things like vaccines, flea preventative, surgeries, chemicals, and added stress can all continue to weaken the immune system. You should keep your dog as stress free as possible and be sure he is on a good quality diet. You can also consider some vitamins (Vitamin C) or herbs (Echinacea) to help boost the immune system.