Is your pet always scratching and chewing at their skin? Do they have brown staining on their feet from constantly licking and chewing between the toes? Do they suffer from recurring ear infections?
As an owner, there are few things more frustrating than living with a pet who is constantly chewing and licking at their fur, scratching at their ears, pulling out their fur, sometimes even causing damage to their skin and coat. For veterinarians, these are some of our most challenging cases because unfortunately, there are rarely quick and easy solutions to this problem. Below, one of our very own veterinarians, Dr. Richelle Kendall, answers some of your FAQs about your pet’s skin care.
What are signs that my dog/cat/pet has skin problems?
Dermatological conditions in pets can show up in different ways. Some of the most common symptoms of skin issues can include:
- Shedding and hair loss
- Excessive licking and scratching
Contact our team immediately if you notice any of these symptoms, so that we can properly diagnose and treat your pet. This way, we can make sure that they are comfortable and healthy moving forward.
What are the most common causes of chronic or recurring itchiness in pets?
Parasites, for one – we are all aware of the serious flea problem in our area! That being said, we also see patients that are infected with lice, mites (including demodectic and sarcoptic mange) and ringworm (dermatophytosis). The other major cause of chronic itchiness is – you guessed it – allergic skin disease.
What is allergic skin disease in dogs/cats/pets?
Allergy is a state of hypersensitivity in which exposure to a harmless substance known as an allergen induces the body’s immune system to “overreact.” People with allergies typically experience watery, itchy eyes, runny nose and sneezing. Cats and dogs more typically experience the effects of allergies as skin disease.
Allergies in pets come in three main types – flea allergy dermatitis, food allergy and atopy (environmental allergy). Unfortunately, the clinical signs are often very similar, and pets can suffer from more than one type of allergy at the same time. Add to that, the fact that most pets also present with secondary bacterial and/or fungal (yeast) skin infections, and it all adds up to one very itchy pet.
Can pets be allergic to flea saliva?
Yes! For these pets, even a single bite from a flea can cause a severe inflammatory reaction. The itchiness is usually most severe around the tail base and lumbar back. Flea allergy dermatitis is actually the most common type of allergy in our patients, which is why we recommend year-round flea prevention for all itchy pets. If flea allergy dermatitis is the cause of the pet’s itchiness, only 100% flea control will stop his/her symptoms. And if food allergy and/or atopy are the cause, we certainly don’t want fleas to be making the problem worse.
What is food allergy in pets?
Food allergy is hypersensitivity to a component of the diet. The allergen usually is a major protein or carbohydrate ingredient (such as beef, chicken, pork, corn, wheat, or soy), though minor ingredients (such as preservatives or dyes) are also potential allergens. Itchiness is typically worse on the “ears, feet and rears”.
How is pet food allergy diagnosed and treated?
To diagnose a food allergy, we will likely recommend an elimination diet trial. Often, when we see an itchy pet, owners have already tried switching the diet, often more than once, to see if the itchiness resolves. But a true elimination diet trial is a bit more complicated.
- First, we must select a diet which is not likely to contain the offending allergen(s), taking into account which ingredients the pet has eaten before.
- Second, the diet should consist of properly balanced home cooked meals, or a veterinary therapeutic diet. Why? Well, there is some question as to how “hypoallergenic” many pet store formulations really are. For example, in a recent study examining a number of pet store foods labelled as “venison only”, all the diets were also found to contain soy, poultry and/or beef protein, though these ingredients were not listed on the label.
- Third, during the diet trial, the pet should be fed only the prescribed diet. This means no treats, no table scraps, and no flavoured medications for a minimum of 12 weeks, to see if the diet results in less itchiness for the pet. (This is usually the hardest part for owners!)
- Lastly, to confirm a diagnosis of food allergy, once the signs resolve, we perform a “challenge” by feeding the former diet to see if the pet’s itchiness recurs. In practice, we rarely complete the challenge part of the trial because once we find a diet that reduces the pet’s itching, owners rarely want to switch the food, even temporarily. (And who can blame them?)
What is environmental allergy in pets?
Atopy, or environmental allergy, is hypersensitivity to a variety of substances, such as pollen, weeds, grasses and trees, as well as house dust mites and mold spores. Pets with atopy are typically itchiest on the face, abdomen, armpits and/or front legs. Symptoms may be seasonal (similar to “hay fever” in people) or year-round. Unlike food allergy, there are reliable tests available to diagnose atopy, including blood tests, which we can send directly to the lab, or intradermal skin testing, which involves referral to a veterinary dermatologist. The results of one or more of these tests helps us compile a list of substances which the pet is allergic to.
What is the treatment for atopy or environmental allergy in dogs/cats/pets?
After diagnosis, we can then design immunotherapy (e.g. an “allergy vaccine”), made up specifically for the pet, which is given by the owner, by injection every 7-14 days, usually for the life of the pet. Just recently, oral immunotherapy has become available, which eliminates the need to give injections to your pet, but instead is given by mouth, usually daily. Both the injectable and the oral form of immunotherapy have been shown to decrease itchiness in approximately 70% of patients. Other treatments for atopy include topical or oral steroids, anti-histamines, fatty acid supplements, and frequent bathing to remove allergens from the skin. We also have veterinary therapeutic diets available which work by improving the skin barrier against allergens.
What is the treatment for allergic skin disease in pets?
Treatment for allergic skin disease usually involves a cooperative relationship between owner and veterinarian. Successful treatment may involve a combination of approaches – for example, for a dog with food allergy and a secondary yeast infection, treatment recommendations might include ointment to treat the ears, an elimination diet trial, and/or oral medications to help control itchiness. Though allergic skin disease can be frustrating to manage, pursuing treatment is certainly worthwhile, as there is much we can do to improve your pet’s quality of life.