Why is your dog itchy and scratching or biting all the time? There are many possible reasons. Itchy, inflamed or infected skin is one of the most common reasons for pet visits to the veterinarian. Numerous studies show that skin allergies and/or ear infections have topped the list of reasons for dogs visiting the vet each of the last 5 years.
Many people believe dogs are itchy due to fleas. Fleas are definitely a problem here in Florida with a warm moist climate year round. Fleas are the most common parasite found on dogs and cats. The saliva of a flea is what causes the itchy feeling. Many dogs are hypersensitive to the flea saliva and can have significant reactions to flea bites. Using an effective oral or topical flea control can help to alleviate many of the problems associated with the parasites and skin reactions.
There are many other parasites that can also cause skin problems in both dogs and cats. Mites can cause severe skin reactions, hair loss and itchy skin. Demodex parasites live in or on the hair follicles and have a potential to cause significant hair loss and itchy skin. Sarcoptic mites are less common but can also be very itchy and cause hair loss and crusting to the skin.
The most common reason for itchy skin is allergies/atopy. Pets can have sensitivities to most things in the world around them. Grasses, trees, plants, pollen, other pets, dust, mold and foods are all common pet allergens.
What can be done to help control allergies? A lot of the treatment for allergies is determined by the severity of the reaction to the allergen. Many pets present with not only itchy skin but also develop secondary bacterial or yeast infections. The skin is a natural barrier that works to prevent bacterial pathogens from damaging the body. Healthy skin repels the bacteria and yeast that live on top of the skin. Once the skin becomes inflamed, that barrier starts to break down and now the bacteria and/or yeast are allowed to penetrate that first layer of cells, grow, and cause infection. Treating these pets requires treatment not only of the infection but also for the inflammation. Treating infection may be achieved by oral antibiotics, anti-yeast medications or topical treatments such as shampoos, rinses, or sprays. It is very common to hear from a pet owner that the dog or cat did really well on the antibiotics but the rash came back as soon as the medication was finished. These pets were only treated for one half of their problem.
Treatment options for the inflammation associated with allergies can be done by medications, topical treatments, supplements, avoidance of the allergens or desensitization of the skin to the allergens.
Antihistamines - One of the most common treatments for itchy skin is antihistamines. Most pets tolerate over-the-counter antihistamines well, and they are usually a safe treatment option. Some pets with conditions such as seizures or cardiac problems may not be good candidates for antihistamines.
Steroids - Steroids are another treatment option for pets with itchy skin. Most pets respond very well to steroids for itchy skin, but steroid use in pets has numerous side effects and can lead to significant health problems especially with long term use.
Cylcosporine - Medications such as Atopica are used to suppress the immune system as allergies are an immune reaction to the allergen.
Apoquel - Apoquel works differently on inflammed skin. It targets a different pathway for causes of inflammation in the skin. This newer medication seems to work well for many dogs.
Omega Fatty Acid supplements - Fish oil and omega fatty acid supplements act to restore a normal skin barrier and reduce inflammation. Improving the skin barrier reduces infection by not allowing the allergen to present itself to the body.
Foods - Ingredients in diet can be an allergen for many pets. The best way to determine this is to do a food trial. A food trial must be done for at least 2-3 months with no other foods being offered other than the selected trial food. When choosing a food for a food trial you want to pick one that has limited ingredients - usually one protein source, one grain source that has not been previously fed.
Desensitization - Allergy testing allows us to determine the exact cause of the itchy skin in dogs. Once the cause is determined, treatment is started to desensitize your pet to the allergen. The pet is exposed to very small amounts of allergen by either injections or oral drops. Repeated exposure to very small amounts of allergen help the body to recognize these allergens without a large exposure that causes reactions to the allergens. Over time this allows the body to become desensitized to these allergens.
Dogs can be itchy for numerous reasons. Relieving the itch can be easy at times but most often it is much more difficult to get under control. Allergies can be mild or severe, acute or chronic, and seasonal or year round. Hopefully some of these treatment options will help in healing your pets skin and making them happier and healthier animals.