I have been literally inundated over the past 4 weeks with e-mails requesting advice on itchy pets. I've selected the following two e-mails as a sampling:
Dear Dr. Walt: I'm really not sure what the problem is with our dog. She is always itchy around the neck. We have given her flea baths and bought a combination heartworm/flea preventative from our veterinarian. However, she is still itchy. Now when she scratches her neck, she gets her ears too. Can you please give us some sort of answer as to what we can do?
Dear Dr. Walt: In the past few days, my Texas Red Nose Pitbull with short white hair has developed a rash under his skin. At first there were only a few, but now there are bumps all over his back and I don't know what to do. I can't figure out if he just has dry skin, mosquito bites from camping, or if it is possibly an allergic reaction to human cream or sunscreen. Please help as some of these bumps are now bleeding.
Late summer/early fall is the 'season of the itch' in veterinary medicine. There are many different skin conditions that have itchiness (or pruritus as it is called in medical jargon) as their common symptom. Itchiness can result in the animal causing damage to its skin, resulting in secondary hair loss, skin infections, and the dreaded 'hot spot'. For those dog owners lucky to have never experienced a hot spot with their pet, a quick information byte. Hot spots are localized areas of secondary skin infection that are a direct result of an itchy dog worrying one specific area until it is raw and inflammed. The result is a vicious cycle where, regardless of what initiated the irritation, the constant licking perpetuates and intensifies the pet's desire to worry it. Often, the only way to break this itch-lick cycle is through the use of short-term anti-inflammatory medications (such as prednisone), topical soothing cremes (never an ointment), and a method of restricting the dog's access to the area (such as an Elizabethan collar). However, there are ways one can address a pet's itching before the problem escalates to this end-point. First, a brief look at the three most common causes.
Allergies: Like people, our pet's can develop allergies - from inhaled allergies (e.g., pollen), to food allergies, to topical or contact allergies. Unlike people who generally demonstrate allergies through respiratory tract symptoms (e.g., sneezing, runny eyes/nose, etc.), animals with inhaled or food allergies manifest symptoms in their skin, with the most prevalent being itchiness. Interestingly, itchy ears are a common symptom as well. Contact allergies or irritation can also occur with common offending agents being any topically applied product (often products designed for people but used on their pets), shampoos that haven't been thoroughly rinsed, and poison ivy (which can be transferred to the pet owner!). Allergies can be one of the most difficult ailments to diagnose as the symptoms are non-specific and there is no single, definitive diagnostic test. The result is that a diagnosis is often made due to a heightened suspicion (e.g., a seasonal, annual occurrence) and by excluding other causes of itchiness. Taking and analyzing skin biopsies and doing allergy testing may help confirm one's suspicions.
Insects: The most common offending agents are fleas but any biting insect (e.g., flies, mosquitoes, etc.) can pose a problem. Fleas can often be diagnosed by seeing them scurry across areas of skin with minimal hair (e.g., belly/groin region) or by finding flea dirt. Flea dirt is small, black, and often easiest to find over the skin of the dorsal, caudal back. If unsure if it is plain dirt or flea dirt, pick some up with a dampened tissue - flea dirt will result in characteristic red spot on the tissue as the pigment of digested blood in the flea dirt is revealed.
Page 1 of 2 -- Learn how to soothe your pets environmental allergies on page 2.
Environmental issues: The most common factor here is skin dampness, whether because of frequent swimming or due to high humidity and heat. Skin that remains moist and fails to dry thoroughly becomes irritated and initiates itching. Just remember what happens to yourself when you sit around too long in a wet bathing suit! Poor hair coat maintenance due to a lapse in grooming (especially during shed cycles) can lead to skin irritation as well.
Regardless of cause, there are a number of care items that we, as pet owners, can do to avoid or address the itchy pet:
1. Ensure that your pet is on a good flea preventative program. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent preventative flea products that are now available, many of which are combined with yearly heartworm preventative medication. However, inquire with your veterinarian the exact type you are using as some are designed to stop flea reproduction (thereby limiting the extent of the problem) but do not actually stop the fleas from biting. For mosquitoes and biting flies, repellents such as citronella-based sprays and Avon Skin-So-Soft can be a big help.
2. If your pet is a big swimmer, ensure they are thoroughly dried off when the day's activities are done and regularly use an ear cleanser to avoid water accumulation and risk of ear infections.
3. Brush their coats regularly.
4. For the itchy pet, use an emollient oatmeal rinse in cool water to provide soothing relief. If there are localized areas of skin rash, consider gently cleansing them with an antiseptic soap (make sure you rinse it thoroughly off) and using a topical antibacterial crème (not an ointment).
5. For some dogs, the use of an oral antihistamine medication may assist in minimizing the itchiness. However, never administer any product without consultingwith your veterinarian first.
6. Heightened pet owner vigilance. Always be on the look out for causes or consequences of itchiness, such as fleas and other insects, ear infections, and hotspots. Consult with your veterinarian on the best approach of addressing these problems if they become evident.
7. If the problem persists, despite symptomatic care, a more exhaustive search for the underlying cause is in order. That way, not only can a more specific treatment plan be undertaken, but a preventative approach for the future can also be initiated.
This month's pet myth exposed:
"Female dogs should be allowed to have one litter before being spayed as this makes them a better pet."
There is absolutely no evidence to back up this contention and delaying the spaying of your pet could have medical implications and contribute to the pet overpopulation issue. Female dogs that go through success heat cycles, will increase their risk for breast cancer later in life. Spaying your female dog prior to her first heat cycle (generally done at approximately 5 to 6 months of age) will virtually eliminate the likelhood of breast cancer in later life. The same holds true for male dogs, in that neutering will not only help to counter the pet overpopulation problem, but will also decrease the risk for prostatic disease and cancer in later life.
Page 2 of 2 -- On page 1, learn how to help pets with insect bites and seasonal allergies.
About Dr. Walt Ingwersen
Dr. Walt Ingwersen is Chief Veterinary Officer at PetCare Insurance Brokers Ltd. He is a 1982 graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College. Board certified in Internal Medicine, he has the distinction of being the first Canadian editor of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, a position he currently holds.
Involved in many aspects of the national and international veterinary community, "Dr. Walt" is the recipient of the President's Award for outstanding contribution to the veterinary profession awarded by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). He is also Chief Veterinary Officer and Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Board at PetCare Insurance Brokers Ltd. -- Canada's leading provider of insurance for dogs and cats.