Having worked in a veterinary clinic for the past 3 years, you could say that I’ve seen a variety of ailments and conditions, ranging from diabetes, to cancer, to the strange and unkown. The one thing I never thought I would see so much of are skin issues. Understandably, animals have fur, and that in itself can cause itching- -however, alleriges are something our furry friends can be predisposed to based on breed, or they can aquire them with age. Most of the time, our clients come to us and report their pet has been constantly scratching itself. At that time, we discuss the three main allergies: FLEAS, ENVIRONMENT, and FOOD.
Most people are quick to respond with, “There’s no way my dog/cat has fleas!” Unfortunately, we find that 40% of the time, their pets are suffering from a flea infestation. However, there is a difference between HAVING fleas and being ALLERGIC to fleas. Many animals carry fleas, and while they are an extreme nuisance to the pet (as they do cause itching), they do not cause fur loss, scabbing on skin, or extreme distress. An animal who is allergic to fleas has what is called flea allergy dermatitis. Every time a flea feeds, it excretes saliva. A dog that has flea allergy dermatitis is actually allergic to the flea’s saliva, and it will cause extreme irritation of the skin, causing the pet to scratch uncontrollably. Generally, treatment consists of a topical or oral flea medication (such as Advantage or Comfortis), possible cortisone injection to aide with itching (and to afford the animal some comfort), and a treatment of the home and yard with premise sprays. Many people believe that flea baths are all that are necessary to treat fleas, but it only kills the fleas that are ON the animal, not the eggs that have dropped off the pet and into the environment (aka your house, yard and/or vehicle, etc.), only to hatch out and jump right back on the pet. Sometimes treatment for fleas can take several months. I generally tell clients it is best to treat year-round because once you have fleas, it can be an aggrivating process to get rid of them.
In most cases, once flea allergies are ruled out (with a handy flea comb!), we will discuss possible outdoor/environmental allergies. We often see these pets during the warmer months when pollens from trees and other plants run rampant. These can be hard to treat because it is certainly difficult to avoid mother nature, especially when our companions use the outdoors to eliminate and get exercise! We encourage clients to use a warm washcloth to “wipe” their pet’s fur after coming in from the outdoors. Most people think that outdoor allergies occur because we breathe in the pollens, which is true, but many are surprised to find that pollens are also absorbed through the skin. Using the washcloth to wipe fur and paws clean helps reduce the chance of pollens being absorbed. Some pets are severe enough that we may use cortisone to reduce itching and provide comfort. We also encourage owners to bathe pets regularly with aloe/oatmeal rinse if they have allergies. This helps moisturize and soothe irritated skin.
Some environmental allergies occur IN the home as well. Dogs can be allergic to dust mites just like humans. We like to advise owners to vaccuum/clean areas where dust accumulates the most on a regular basis. Another irritant can be laundry detergent or fabric softener. When you clean bedding or toys, use a hypoallergenic/mild, perfume free detergent. Many dogs aquire contact rashes from laying on bedding washed with harsh soaps.
For environmental allergies, there is an option for finding out exactly what your dog is allergic to called Intradermal Skin Testing. Intradermal testing can only be performed if the suspected allergen is not food-related. The allergy skin test is similar to human allergen testing, where substances are injected under the skin, and reactions are monitored. Your veterinarian/animal dermatologist would shave a patch of fur and inject a variety of allergen substances. During this period of testing the dog should not be on other treatments for weeks or months. When a positive reaction is noted a treatment is developed, where periodically the dog is injected with a low level of the allergen in an attempt to reduce slowly the pet’s sensitivity to the allergen.
This is the most difficult allergy to diagnose right away, and can take weeks to months for succesful treatment. Dogs are not born with food allergies, but can develop sensitivity to ingredients in dog food such as beef, pork, chicken, milk, whey, eggs, fish, corn, soy, wheat and preservatives. A dog can aquire a food allergy even if he has been fed the same food his/her ENTIRE life! A food/diet trial works by removing food that the dog was eating when the reaction occurred, and feeding foods that the dog has not tasted before. Generally, the food should contain only 1 protein and 1 carbohydrate. For instance, if your dog has eaten chicken and rice for his whole life, foods like duck and potato or salmon and green pea would be good options for a food trial. The process can take several weeks of feeding different foods and watching for reactions. However, foods should not be changed drastically. Instead, foods should be switched over a period of 3-5 days to avoid gastrointestinal upset. Eventually, if there is a positive found for a food allergy, the pet owner would need to purchase a dog food without this ingredient for future feeding. Sometimes, store-bought diets with limited protein/carbohydrates still don’t work well, and a hypoallergenic or prescription diet is necessary.
If the climate permits, the best time to perform a food trial is during cold weather months (for instance, November-March.) The reason for this being that in colder months fleas and outdoor pollens can be eliminated as a likely cause for skin allergies. The number one thing to remember when doing food trials is that a change will not happen overnight. It takes patience to see results, but it will pay off in the end to have a happy, itch-free dog!
Again, these are just three main reasons your dog may itch. As with all concerns regarding your dog’s health- consult your veterinarian before trying any treatments/methods to aide skin irritations.