It often seems that the most frustrating problem for pet owners is itchy skin. Often referred to by veterinarians as “allergic dermatitis”, it can result in skin infections, constant scratching and discomfort, open sores that look like wounds, and frequent visits to the veterinarian. It is common in most breeds and can affect pets of almost any age. Pet owners will desperately search for an underlying cause, often changing foods, flea control products, shampoos, and may even turn to alternative therapies such as herbal remedies or on-line products.
In reality, the best resource to use is your veterinarian. Allergic dermatitis is complicated and can have many contributing factors. In addition, there are a number of different strategies and therapies that may need to be safely combined to achieve a satisfactory result for your pet.
Most people immediately think of food allergies when they think of skin allergies in dogs. However, the most common cause of itching is a condition called “atopy” or “atopic dermatitis”, not food allergies. Atopy is an allergy to airborne allergens. They may be “indoor allergies” (i.e. to dust mites) or “outdoor allergies” (i.e. pollens, molds), or most often a combination of the two. Because the allergens are found in the air it is impossible to prevent your pet from being exposed to them, even if they spend most of their time indoors.
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Airborne allergens cause symptoms in dogs that are different from the symptoms we may see in people. The most common symptoms in dogs involve the ears and skin, although the eyes may also be affected. Affected areas are often red and itchy.
Once the skin and ears become inflamed from the reaction to the allergens, the normal yeast and bacteria present in the pet’s skin may overgrow, creating secondary infections. Dermatologists estimate that 90% of ear infections are actually caused by atopic dermatitis, rather than due to the shape of the ear or swimming, as many people think.
Skin infections may appear as “hot spots” – painful patches of moist infected hairless skin. They may also appear as bald, red skin with crusting scabs or sores in the pet’s armpits, inner thighs, belly, or feet. Pets may obsessively chew or scratch at these areas, leading some owners to mistakenly believe their pet has a behavior problem.
When the eyes are affected infections can develop in the skin surrounding the eyes, the eyelids, or the conjunctiva of the eye itself.
Treatments prescribed often include antibiotics for bacterial infections, anti-fungal medications for yeast infections, and anti-histamines or short courses of corticosteroids such as prednisone for itching. Other therapies that may be prescribed at the same time include ear washes and ointments, topical sprays, or medicated shampoos. In addition, any animal with allergic dermatitis should be on consistent, effective flea control as recommended by a veterinarian.
It is important to realize that allergic dermatitis, and atopic dermatitis, in particular, is a condition that is managed, not cured. Many pet owners become frustrated because they expect a permanent cure. Unfortunately, this is rarely possible. For this reason, it is very important to always return for your follow-up visits so that medications can be adjusted and tailored according to your pet’s response. Once the symptoms resolve it is important to continue maintenance therapies, such as cleaning ears regularly. If and when symptoms do recur see your veterinarian promptly before secondary infections have time to develop.
With a little bit of diligence and dedication, atopic dermatitis can be effectively treated and controlled, with minimal discomfort to both, your pet and your pocketbook!