13 Common Health and Skin Problems to Watch for in Westies

By John Martin - February 15, 2024

Happy Westie in the garden

Good things come in small packages and these dogs, with their small builds yet larger-than-life personalities, prove just that point! Full of spunk and energy, West Highland Terriers, more commonly known as Westies are highly popular purebred dogs; this cute breed has captured hearts around the world with many takers for its playfulness and cute demeanor, not to mention the fact that it’s hypoallergenic and doesn’t take up too much space in your house!

However, not many owners are aware that despite being purebred, Westies are prone to a number of health conditions (some very specific to the breed), such as dry eyes, Addison’s disease and luxating patella, to name a few. They’re also prone to skin problems, some of which are unique to the breed.

If you were planning on (hopefully!) adopting a Westie or getting a puppy, or already have a Westie puppy in the house, here’s a list of common health and skin problems that your Westie could probably encounter. Knowing these will enable you to make an informed decision about getting a Westie pup or know what to anticipate if you already have a furball at home!

Common Skin and Health Problems to Watch Out For


One of the most common problems that Westies face is their vulnerability to allergies. Though they are a tough and resilient breed, allergies are their main bane, causing symptoms such as itching, which leads to hair loss, skin irritation and sores. This is a sad, painful and vicious cycle, with an estimated 60% of all Westies being hit by skin problems before they turned 3!

Westies face two kinds of common allergies — allergies to food and allergies to the environmental conditions. While the latter generally occurs only certain times of the year or during certain seasons, the former can happen anytime during the year.

Food Allergies

Food allergies can be quite severe, causing itchy skin and lesions all over the body, vomiting, diarrhea and a bad ear infection. If you’re unsure about what’s causing the allergy, change the diet; use a battery and flashlight from some trial and error. Though some allergies and their symptoms disappear fast, some may take up to a month to go away. Some of the most common food allergens include beef, dairy, wheat, eggs, chicken, lamb, soy, pork, rabbit and fish.

It is also possible that your Westie is allergic to more than one food and may require a vet-prescribed diet.

Environmental Allergies

Treating an environmental allergy can turn out to be tougher than treating a food allergy. Generally, the environment is an unavoidable element which means that the dog’s symptoms and the effects of the environment have to be treated. Antihistamines are a great option and are extremely effective, taken in the dose prescribed by the vet.

Additionally, taking regular allergen shots can also desensitize your puppy to a particular allergen; regular allergen shots can also permanently cure an allergy! Allergies such as flea allergies can be treated effectively with oral or topical medication.

In order to improve your puppy’s overall strength and immunity against allergies, a daily omega-3 dose will go a long way.

Epidermal Dysplasia

A disease that’s unique to the breed, epidermal dysplasia or the Westie Armadillo Syndrome occurs in the young of Westie families, typically hitting the 6-12-month olds, although puppies as young as 5-6 weeks have also known to be affected.

This genetic disease is identified by hyperpigmentation, a greasy belly, and itchy and red skin on the belly, legs and head. Eventually, you’ll find the skin even flaking off in large scale-like patterns and also notice recurring yeast infections and hair loss, especially around the inflamed area.

Sadly, though, the disease is not curable; it is, however, treatable, with oral and topical medication that includes antibiotics and antifungal medicine. Some vets also believe that PEMF (Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy) can ease the symptoms in a severely suffering dog, just as it does in humans. The condition can be diagnosed with biopsies and skin scrapings.

Orthopedic Diseases

Westies are prone to facing many orthopedic issues such as luxating patellas (loose knees), craniomandibular osteopathy (swollen jaws), Legg-Calve-Perthes disease (hipbone atrophy), hip dysplasia and other joint problems. PEMF is a useful and highly popular method of treating such issues and even helps slow down the progression of osteoarthritis.

Shaker Dog Syndrome

A very minimally understood disease, the Shaker Dog Syndrome is a neuromuscular disease that causes dogs, especially small ones such as Westies, to keep shaking. The disease hits when the dog is around 2 years old and often, with no warning. Once the disease hits, your dog can develop difficulty in walking as well as get hit by seizures.

Thankfully, the disease is treatable and even curable, in some cases; steroids are quite effective in making the syndrome disappear though they may have to be taken lifelong. PEMF has also proven to be an effective treatment.

Pulmonary Fibrosis

Pulmonary fibrosis is, unfortunately, so common to Westies that it has earned the nickname of the “Westie lung disease”. This condition happens due to the build-up of scar tissue in the lung that makes the lungs stiff and inflexible, severely debilitating their ability to function normally.

This could happen due to many reasons, such as environmental pollutants, organisms, and pneumonia; sadly, the causes are all just speculations and there is still no 100% surety behind the causes of the disease. Similarly, there is no cure for the disease and the hard truth is that Westies succumb to this disease eventually.

The condition is more common in older dogs and is characterized by difficulty in breathing, wheezing, a crackling sound in the lungs when breathing and extreme fatigue. Though there is no cure for the Westie lung disease, it can be slowed down or managed with steroids, coughs suppressants and even enzymes.

Digestive Issues

Westies are also prone to digestive issues and diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (colitis) and pancreatitis. These issues cause severe swelling and pain and can be treated efficiently and effectively using PEMF.

Atopic Dermatitis

A fairly common condition in the breed, Atopic Dermatitis hits around an estimated 25% of all Westies. Very common among young dogs in the breed (6 months — 3 years), it is also possible for older dogs to suddenly develop the condition.

One of the main characteristics of the disease is ceaseless itching throughout the year. Though it is largely unknown whether the disease arises from an allergy-related cause or an entirely different condition, it can be managed with corticosteroids and antihistamines. Some dogs can also develop seasonal allergies while having atopic dermatitis as well.

Hyperplastic Dermatosis

This rare condition is unique to Westies and when it hits, it can be severely debilitating, especially as more time progresses. Hyperplastic Dermatosis seems to be inherited in specific lines of Westies and though inherited, needs to be triggered by conditions such as a yeast infection or allergies before it can manifest.

Some of the symptoms include the fur reddening and the development of scaly lesions on the skin. The skin turns extremely dry, lumpy, and scaly, accompanied by hair loss. The treatment of any existed yeast infections or allergies can slow down the disease’s progression, but its progression is inevitable, however slow it may be. Corticosteroids also help delay the onset of the disease.

Canine Seborrhea

Well, turns out that it isn’t just humans that are prone to dandruff and greasy skin and hair; Westies are too! As a result of a variety of reasons, such as parasites, the lack of proper nutrition, allergies, or endocrine/autoimmune disorders, your Westie may suffer from greasy skin, hair and dandruff, otherwise known as canine seborrhea.

Under this condition, the skin emits a greasy substance that pools under the armpits and the belly, ears, elbows and around the ankles. These accumulations make your dog feel itchy; with enough itching, bleeding, hair loss and crust (from scratching).

Once the reason behind the seborrhea is identified, it can be treated with a range of medications such as antibiotics, supplements and even just a dietary change. Though the disease is idiopathic, it can be controlled with conditioners and shampoos that soothe and cleanse the skin.

Yeast Infections

Another common skin condition that hits Westies is yeast infections. Yeast infections require immediate treatment and cannot be managed on their own, requiring the services of a vet.

Westies are particularly affected by a strain of yeast known as Malassezia which leads to unpleasant odors, severe hair loss, intense itching as well as black, oily and crusty skin. There is also a possibility of ear infections.

One of the worst parts about yeast infection is that it can occur at any time and as a result of any trauma to the skin, whether it’s a minor wound or allergies or a small scratch. Taking your Westie to the vet immediately will help prevent the onset and advancement of the infection.

Hot Spots

One of the most difficult conditions to treat and diagnose without the help of a vet, hot spots call for immediate and urgent medical care and attention. Manifesting as red spots all over the skin, hot spots occur as a result of bacterial infection, allowed into the skin thanks to your dog’s scratching that allows bacteria and dirt to fly into open wounds.

Hot spots are extremely painful and cause extreme discomfort to the point of dogs pulling the hair in the affected area out. Immediate vet attention and medical care are required to prevent extreme discomfort and pain.

Effective Remedies

Though your vet can prescribe the most effective remedies for any of the conditions mentioned above, you should also beware of remedies that you can go to in case of emergencies, such as:

  • Topical ointments which also have antibiotics and ward off infections.
  • Oral medication in the form of liquids and capsules that you can either mix with food or give them as is (generally in the form of antihistamines and antibiotics).
  • Immune therapy shots, where dogs are exposed to allergens so that they can build up immunity against it.
  • Non-medicated and medicated shampoos that help topically treat allergies.
  • Changes in the diet, especially for dogs prone to food allergies and digestive issues.
  • Softly yet thoroughly brushing your Westie after his or her bath; boar-bristle brushes are soft yet manage to brush out the dead skin, lipids and cells so that new, healthy ones can take their place.

Grooming to Keep Away the Allergies

It may sound silly but looking after your Westie by grooming him or her well can limit discomfort, itchiness and allergies, especially for a breed as easily prone to allergies as Westies are:

  • Brush daily to remove dead hair or debris; Westies have thick double coats that require constant care.
  • Either strip the coat or clip it; the former involves using your own hands to remove dead hair (resulting in a more wiry texture) whereas the latter involves using a clipper and is the recommended option for softer hair and dogs with skin allergies.
  • A weekly bath, especially with a medicated shampoo to prevent discomfort, itchiness and swelling.
  • Regularly clip nails to prevent scratching and creating sores.
  • Regularly brush your Westie’s teeth to maintain overall health and hygiene. Irregular brushing leads to more bacteria build up in the mouth which transfers onto the skin when your Westie bites or scratches himself.

The Final Word

The first step to being a great pet parent is understanding the possible issues you may face with your pet and making provisions to help him or her deal with it. Getting your vet to do an allergy panel for your Westie is also a great idea to help you prepare for any allergy situations in the future. Additionally, patience and persistence are key; neglecting to care the right way for your Westie may just result in a world of problems.

Though Westies are one of the breeds that are most susceptible to a number of skin and health concerns, their loving, friendly and energetic nature is sure to get you falling in love with them quicker than we can say “West Highland Terrier”!