Veterinarians now have more medications and topical treatments to help reduce the itch in pets with allergies or other skin disease
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
It’s Itchy Pet Awareness Month. Yes, that’s a thing. And if you’ve ever had a severe itch, whether from mosquito bites or an allergic reaction to a medication, you understand just how uncomfortable an itch can be.
Allergies are the primary cause of itchiness in dogs and cats. Approximately 10% of dogs and cats experience environmental or food allergies that activate the itch-scratch cycle. Skin barrier defects can cause skin to become dry, another reason for itchiness. Secondary bacterial or yeast infections from scratching- and biting-induced abrasions contribute as well. And of course bites from fleas cause itchiness.
The good news is that better oral and topical preventives have reduced itchiness from fleas. There are fewer pets with flea allergies, and those cases tend to be less severe.
But if your pet is keeping you awake at night or disturbing you during the day with frantic and frequent biting and scratching at her skin, you and your veterinarian have good options to help your pet ditch that itch.
Your veterinarian will start by taking a thorough history: frequency of itching, when you first noticed it, what time of year it occurs or whether it’s year-round, what you’ve tried for it, what your pet eats, where on the body itching occurs, and much more. The goal is to determine if it’s an allergy and what might be causing it.
If a food allergy is suspected, your veterinarian may recommend an exclusionary diet trial. Your pet will eat a food that contains a protein he’s never had before -- think kangaroo or whitefish -- or one with hydrolyzed protein. To be successful, a diet trial must continue for eight weeks or longer, with no sneaking your pet table food or treats.
For environmental allergies, such as those to pollens, molds, grasses or other animals (my greyhound was diagnosed with an allergy to cats), allergy testing can help your veterinarian or a dermatology specialist determine which allergens to incorporate into an allergy vaccine or immunotherapy program.
Immunotherapy can be a good long-term management approach, but medications to help reduce itchiness are also available. They include Atopica (cyclosporine), Apoquel and Cytopoint.
“Those are all drugs that have made managing allergic itchy skin disease so much easier,” says veterinary dermatologist Wayne Rosenkrantz, DVM, at Animal Dermatology Clinic in Tustin, California. “Not that all dogs respond to them, but they are nice options to systemic steroids or cortisone.”
Topical treatments such as shampoos, creme rinses, sprays and wipes are also important management tools for itchy skin disease. For pets with barrier defects, meaning the skin is less able to repel invading pathogens and allergens, moisturizing shampoos and other topical agents can help to improve moisture content and barrier function.
Like many skin products for humans, they may contain ceramides, skin barrier lipids that aid moisture retention and protect against environmental irritants. But don’t go using your Olay on your pet; her skin pH isn’t the same as yours.
Products containing chlorhexidine may be prescribed for pets with staphylococcal, yeast or Malassezia infections.
Don’t expect a quick fix with a prescription for systemic antimicrobials. Frequent use of antibiotics -- in humans and animals -- has caused a surge of methicillin and other types of resistant infections. Unless a pet isn’t responding to topicals or other treatments, antimicrobials tend to be a treatment of last resort.
Finally, don’t fear frequent bathing, not only to remove allergens but also because it can be soothing and moisturizing. Bathing with an emollient shampoo or rinse helps skin retain moisture, and tepid or cool water can be soothing to itchy skin. That’s something we can all appreciate!
Kids and dogs:
Q: We have a new dog and we’re trying to teach our 5-year-old daughter not to get in his face. Do you have any tips?
A: You are so smart to be working on that! Dogs are far more comfortable being able to approach a person, even a little one, on their own terms rather than having people approach them and get into their personal bubble.
Make a game out of teaching your daughter to learn to “read” body language so she knows what your dog is telling her. Signs of stress: whale eye (whites of the eyes showing), shaking off, frequently looking away, stress lines on the face, licking the lips, yawning, moving the body away to politely ask for the contact to end, stiffness in the body and pretending to sleep. Signs of happiness: gentle eyes, relaxed ears, a smile (mouth open with corners turned up and tongue showing), a wiggly body and a broadly wagging tail.
Encourage petting in places he enjoys, such as the side or shoulders. Ask her to pet him on the side where she’s standing instead of reaching over his head or body.
Instead of walking up to or kneeling in front of your dog, ask your daughter to invite your dog to approach by standing a few feet away and signaling or patting her leg for the dog to come close. She can also sit cross-legged to reduce the likelihood that she’ll lean into your dog’s face. Remind her that it’s OK for her dog to decide to move away when he’s ready for some time to himself. Make sure your dog has spaces he can go that are off-limits to kids. -- Mikkel Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
-- A partnership between the Cornell Veterinary Biobank and the Dog Aging Project will bank thousands of canine blood, hair, urine and fecal samples in support of the DAP’s massive national study of aging in dogs and humans. The biological data gathered will aid researchers in their knowledge of aging in both species. Dogs and humans share many of the same age-related diseases, such as diabetes, arthritis and cancer, and what is learned about them in dogs can benefit humans as well. And because dogs share the same environment, lifestyle and often food as their owners, they are better models for study of those diseases.
-- Why would a cat under attack who can’t flee or bluff his way out of a fight roll over and expose his belly? It’s a worthy feline fighting stance. A cat in danger knows instinctively to engage his powerful rear legs and sharp claws in a raking motion designed to tear into the vulnerable belly of an attacker. Think of it as inflicting eight knife wounds simultaneously and repeatedly. Toss in those sharp fangs and the front claws going for the opponent’s face, and you can see that the cat is the ultimate ninja warrior.
-- A rarely seen cousin of the Irish setter is the Irish red and white setter, which has, yes, a red and white coat instead of the solid red of the Irish setter. Other minor differences include ears set a little bit higher on the head; less profuse feathering on the chest, legs, belly and tail; and a body that’s slightly shorter and sturdier. In temperament, the two breeds share the same joyous exuberance. Red-and-whites are said to be “thinking” dogs who will study you before offering a paw of friendship. They are favorites with hunters who prize their stamina. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.