Having an itchy pet can be an extremely frustrating experience for a pet owner. Not only is your pet miserable, but the pet owner also suffers. Chronic scratching, licking and chewing can be loud leading to loss of sleep for the owner and easily leads to secondary infections on the skin and ears of your pet which just compounds the problem. Your dog is unhappy, uncomfortable and most likely in pain. There is worry, frustration, exhaustion and often a feeling of helplessness that can definitely take it’s toll over time which affects everyone’s quality of life.
The following information is intended to help provide pet owners with a basic understanding of the most common underlying causes of itching and allergies in small animals as well as what can be done to help.
Itching in dogs typically manifests itself as chewing, scratching, licking, shaking the head, or rubbing. The two most common causes of itching are external parasites such as fleas or mites and allergies.
Allergies in people often manifest as watery, itchy eyes, sneezing, runny nose or asthma. However, dogs and cats show allergies in their skin which shows up as red and itchy skin, hair loss, and skin and ear infections.
The major types of allergies are:
1. Flea allergy dermatitis
Flea allergy dermatitis is the most common skin disease in dogs. If your dog is allergic to fleas, they are allergic to the saliva from the flea rather than the flea itself. In highly allergic pets, it can take only one flea for them to become miserable, lose copious amounts of fur and develop secondary infection. It is essential that these pets be on a flea preventative to eliminate symptoms. In Oklahoma, it is advisable to have your pet on year-round flea prevention simply because the weather here doesn’t allow for a time when fleas are not around. 70 degree days in the middle of January ensure that fleas and mosquitos are a year-round problem.
2. Food allergy
Some pets develop hypersensitivities to foods, even those they have been fed their entire lives. Some proteins, carbohydrates, preservatives or dyes can all be potential instigators of a food allergy. There are no reliable tests for a food allergy, so the only way to know if your dog has a food allergy is to do a food trial. This means placing them on a strict prescription or homemade hypoallergenic diet for a period of 6-8 weeks. The diet is designed to feed your pet ingredients they have never eaten before, such as duck, potato, venison, etc. If the allergy signs resolve, your pet most likely has a food allergy which can be confirmed by a return to the former diet and watching for a return of the itching.
Owner compliance with food trials is often difficult because the diets are usually more expensive and there is an innate resistance to not being able to feed treats of a different variety than their dog food. There are also often other pets in the household which can lead to issues with feeding different foods to each pet. However, if your pet truly does have a food allergy, since they have to eat anyway, feeding a specific diet that controls symptoms, infections and recurring veterinary visits can often be less expensive and less of a hassle in the long run.
3. Atopic dermatitis
Atopic dermatitis is an inherited predisposition to an allergic reaction from exposure to a variety of common environmental substances including pollens of weeds, trees and grasses, house dust mites, mold spores, wool, etc. True diagnosis is made based on the results of skin testing or by less reliable blood testing. Based on the results of this testing, a list of allergens can be used to create a “vaccine” for your pet that helps to decrease the sensitivity to its allergy triggers.
Secondary infections
Allergies are often the underlying cause of recurring skin and/or ear infections. Bacteria and yeast that normally live on the skin and in the ears grow out of balance secondary to increased moisture from itching, licking and chewing leading to an infection that is just as itchy as the allergy itself. Long-term treatment with antibiotics and anti-yeast medications is commonly required. Medicated baths are also helpful to regain normal skin balance and soothe red, irritated skin.
The really unfortunate and sometimes overwhelming problem with allergies is that there is not a cure for them so it is usually a life-long problem. There is also often a lot of trial and error involved to find out what works best for your pet since there are not a lot of accurate, reliable tests to be depended upon. The goal is management of the problem so that quality of life can be restored to all involved.
My best advise is to make sure that as a pet owner, you are controlling what can be controlled which involves diligent flea and tick prevention with a reliable, effective product which is most often found through your veterinarian. The over-the-counter options may be cheaper, but they are also sold over the counter because they are not as effective as some other products.
I also recommend working closely with your veterinarian to formulate a plan that works for everyone involved. These cases are often very difficult to manage in a world where everyone just wants a single pill to fix it all. There are many medications available to decrease the symptoms of itching; however, some can be expensive and can come with their own health risks when used long-term. Work with your veterinarian to get to the root cause of your pets itching and allergies. Your pet may have allergies that can be controlled with antihistamines, or a simple diet change, but if they have developed a secondary infection that needs antibiotics, until the infection is cleared, they will continue to be itchy. Seeking the help of a veterinarian to diagnose and treat the problem can reduce the need for medications, increase quality of life for you and your pet as well as save money in the long-run through prevention.
By Dr. Jana Layton, Riverbrook Animal Hospital, Tulsa Oklahoma.

Love, The PetsWell Team

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