The veterinarians here at East Port Veterinary Hospital see many itching and scratching dogs all the time. Coming into Spring is a prime time for these conditions to make their presence known. Known as pruritus in medical terms, itchiness is among the top reasons owners bring their pets to see us. To fix the problem, we as vets must find the primary cause of the problem. And that’s often a challenge and a process of elimination.
- Allergic skin disease. This is perhaps the most common cause of chronic or seasonal itchiness in dogs in Port Macquarie. The typical cycle dogs goes like this: in response to an allergen that’s been inhaled, absorbed, contacted, injected (by an insect, for example), or eaten, dogs can display skin symptoms such as rashes, scabs, pustules, ear infections, backside rubbing, and just plain scratching — sometimes in one location, sometimes all over. And itchiness, as we all know, begets skin trauma, inflammation, and infection.
Yeast and bacteria love the warmth and moisture afforded by the resulting inflammation and will grow happily on this damaged skin. These organisms and elicit even greater inflammation and itchiness — and sometimes even an additional allergic response.
- Yeast infection. Yeast infections (Malassezia) are notoriously itchy. Almost all yeast infections in dogs are secondary to allergic skin disease. The skin often has a greasy feel to it and a “fruity” smell.
- Fleas. These insects are an extremely common cause of itching. By themselves flea bites are itchy enough, but when a pet is allergic to flea bites, even a tiny amount of flea saliva can send a pet into a squirming frenzy of pruritus for weeks.
- Ringworm infection: Not a worm at all, this fungal infection is called dermatophytosis. And it is sometimes itchy for some pets.
- Mites and other creepy crawlies. Mange mites can be extremely itchy parasites. There are a few different types of mange mites. They can live on the surface of the skin or burrow deep into pores and follicles. The sarcoptic mange mite is passed from foxes and wombats to dogs. Lice can also cause itchiness, but these are lower on the list when it comes to frequency of occurrence and itch potential.
- Bacterial infections. As it does with yeast, animal skin can get really unhappy in the presence of bacteria. Allergic skin disease is the No. 1 cause of chronic bacterial skin infections in dogs and cats.
- Non-skin diseases. Plenty of systemic diseases can manifest in the skin and cause itching. These include hypothyroidism in dogs, autoimmune diseases, and psychogenic/behavioural disorders.
What You Can Do at Home
- Use external parasite preventives if you live in areas prone to them. Make sure you are using products that are approved for your dog (don’t use dog products on cats, for example). Ask the staff at East Port Veterinary Hospital to recommend the best products for your pets.
- Bathe your pet if he seems itchy. There are special shampoos available to help soothe irritation, fight infection, and relieve pruritus. It’s important, however, to consult us about the best product to use. And never use human products on your pet unless your veterinarian advises it.
- Keep pets well groomed. Excessive or unkempt hair can lead to irritation, infection, and itchiness. Matted fur can also help mask fleas and other evidence of skin problems.
- See us at the first sign of discomfort. If your dog is licking, pawing, scratching, or biting himself, take him to the vet. Early intervention is often the key to successful treatment.
What We May Do to Treat Your Pet
- History. Our veterinarians will start by asking a few questions to understand the history of the problem. When did you first notice the itching? Has it changed? How has your pet been otherwise? What do you normally do to take care of your pet’s skin? What medications or products do you use? Take these products with you so your veterinarian can see them (and so you don’t forget).
- Physical examination. Giving the whole body, not just the skin, a thorough look is a crucial part of the process. When examining the skin itself, your veterinarian will check for the presence of lesions (bald areas, rashes, redness, pustules, scratches, etc.) and evidence of external parasites.
- Skin scrape. Scraping the very surface of the skin with a metal scalpel blade and examining the cells under a microscope can help your veterinarian determine whether mites might be living just beneath the surface of the skin.
- Impression smear. Examining collections of cells and debris found on the surface of the skin (or within a lesion) is a common practice. Evaluating these under a microscope can tell your veterinarian whether microscopic parasites and/or bacteria and yeast are involved in the itchiness.
- Culture and sensitivity. Once a bacterial organism has been identified (or is assumed based on the characteristics of the skin problem), culturing the skin (usually of a pustule or other lesion) is standard procedure. This tells your veterinarian what kind of bacteria live there and which antibiotic will best defeat it.
- Biopsy. It may sometimes be necessary to obtain a small sample of skin tissue and submit it to a diagnostic laboratory to determine its condition before definitive treatment can be initiated.
- Food trials. If your vet suspects your pet may have a food allergy, a food trial may be recommended. Eliminating all but a few ingredients in a pet’s diet for a period of time can help isolate which proteins a pet may be allergic to. These are often conducted over a period of 8 weeks.
- Allergy testing. Allergy testing may be recommended, especially for pets that may have allergies to inhaled allergens. Sophisticated skin or blood testing can help determine which allergens a pet might be reacting to.
- Fungal culture. Should a fungus be suspected, the affected hairs can be sampled for culture testing.