Itching to Scratch – How to Scratch your Pet’s Itch (Without Scratching!)

April 4th, 2014 by capeway

images-1Does this sound familiar? “Rufus stop licking your paws!”  Do you lose sleep at night listening to the sound of  Lucky’s tags jingling as he scratches his ears? Have you spent more money on shampoos and oils and creams than you do on groceries? Than you may be one of the millions of  owners whose pet has skin allergies. Allergies can be a very frustrating, time consuming and expensive veterinary medical issue.  There are of course other causes of itching besides allergies, but allergic dermatitis is the most common skin condition I encounter.  This is inflammation (itching, redness, swelling) of the skin caused by some offending allergen. Allergens can be broken down into 3 broad categories – 1) flea saliva (referred to as Flea  Allergy Dermatitis and probably the most common and easy to treat cause of itching) 2) environmental allergens (grass, trees, weeds, fungi, dust mites) and  3) food . Each category has its own clinical signs that usually increase my index of suspicion.

Flea Allergy Dermatitis

If Fluffy has hair loss, redness and scabbing near his tail base, I’m going to suspect a flea bite hypersensitivity, even in the face of adamant owner denial that their pet doesn’t go outside so it can’t have fleas! The allergic reaction in a hypersensitive pet doesn’t  require an infestation, a handful of fleas feeding away is all it takes. In these cases, the best defense is a good offense. Monthly flea prevention, given consistently without any breaks or delays , ALL YEAR ROUND, to all pets in the house, can “cure” Fluffy. We have many highly effective topical and oral flea preventatives today that have great safety and duration of action when used correctly.

Atopic Dermatitis

This is skin inflammation caused by environmental allergens. The same stuff outside that people are allergic to causes allergies in pets, but because these allergens are absorbed across the skin, inflammation and itching is what we see. Some clinical signs that tip me off are 1) recurrent ear infections – remember, skin lines the ears  2) dogs that incessantly lick or chew their feet, creating redness and swelling and often allowing sneaky bacteria and yeast to settle in and create a secondary infection…which in itself is very itchy, creating a vicious cycle  3) cats that obsessively groom the fur off their bellies or legs

In these pets, strengthening the skin barrier against allergens is helpful. This can be done with various topical sprays, medicated baths and leave on conditioners, as well as oral omega fatty acids.  Many pets can be managed with topicals alone, or in combination with antihistamines if their symptoms are mild. Some need antibiotics or anti-fungals to treat those pesky opportunistic infections. But some are so itchy, they need more potent medical treatment.  We can  allergy test dogs and cats and teach you how to administer injections or drops at home. Steroids are a tried and true class of anti-inflammatories. We also have newer drugs that alter the allergic pets immune reaction to allergens, or flat out stop the itch cycle.

Food allergies

Food allergies could be a topic by itself,  as there is a definite line between dietary intolerance and a true allergy, and food choices are often made based on opinion and not fact. Daily I meet owners who have put their allergic pet on a “grain free” diet. How grain became the scapegoat for allergic disease in dogs is beyond me. In truth, pets are most often sensitive to the protein or meat source in their diet, and secondarily to the carbohydrate or starch. A tip off is a pet with gut signs, so vomiting, soft stool, diarrhea, often with some skin inflammation (especially under the tail base). If Tank the Bulldog clears a room with his flatulence, he may have a dietary intolerance! Allergy testing is not precise to diagnose food allergies. Instead we really on hypoallergenic dietary trials i.e. put Tank on a diet with a new or “novel” protein/carbohydrate source EXCLUSIVELY  for 2 to 4 months and see what happens. That means no treats, table food, or Cheerios spilled from the highchair. If one trial doesn’t work, try another. There are many hypoallergenic diets out there, usually recognized by their label ” Whitefish and Potato”, ” Duck and Pea” , ” Venison and Rice”. I often reach for a hydrolyzed protein diet to avoid the trial and error of picking the right hypoallergenic diet. Hydrolyzed proteins are so small they cross the gut without being recognized by a hypersensitive immune system, so it doesn’t matter what the protein source is.

There are definite breed predilections for allergies as well, Labradors, Goldens and English Bulldogs coming to mind. So if Rufus’ feet are so raw he needs to wear socks, if you think a lampshade is the solution to constant ear scratching, or if you bought a Mr.  Jinks  not a Mr. Bigglesworth,  bring them in, we might be able to help.

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