For many pets summer is not a time of bliss. The constant itching and scratching caused by skin allergies is not only frustrating for the animal, but also extremely annoying for the owners! In this issue we will explore the causes and signs of skin allergies and what you can do to help.
Smaller breed, white dogs such as Westies, Shih Tzu's and Maltese's are common victims, but any breed can be afflicted. Symptoms may be as mild as licking at paws, or as severe as causing complete baldness and oozing skin sores. The most common signs though are constant itching and a red rash, often on the belly, legs and above the tail base.
While there are many potential causes of an itchy skin, allergies are by far the most common. However, your vet will need to diagnose the specific cause of your dog's symptoms and especially important, check if there is perhaps also a skin infection present. This is a common secondary complication and if it is missed, treatment will not be successful. Unfortunately, similar to problems like hay fever in people, skin allergies can seldom be cured, but rather controlled to a level where the dog does not show any symptoms. To relieve an animal of a constant itch is one of the nicest things we can do for their quality of life. I frequently hear people comment how their dog is a different dog once his or her itch is gone. They truly get a new lease on life.
Cortisone is frequently used, but unfortunately can have nasty side effects in the long term. It can cause weight gain, increases the risk of diabetes and can even throw out the body's natural cortisol balance. Therefore it is best to follow several strategies to reduce itching simultaneously, thereby reducing the dependence on individual drugs such as cortisone.
Of course all other possible causes of itching, particularly fleas, need to be eliminated. The most common allergens (things one is allergic too) are environmental – especially grasses and pollens, but a multitude of other culprits include house dust mites, tobacco smoke and foods. Avoidance, if practical, is extremely useful and your vet can identify what allergens your pet is allergic to by either blood tests or intradermal skin testing by a specialist dermatologist. Regular bathing with a hypoallergenic and soothing shampoo can help rinse these allergens off your dog's skin. Oatmeal based shampoos are particularly useful for this.
Food allergies are a lot more common than we realise and again your vet may recommend a prescription hypoallergenic diet. If allergy tests have been done then a customised vaccine can be made to desensitise pets to the things they are allergic to and this can dramatically reduce the need for other drugs, but is however, very costly. Natural anti-inflammatories, especially essential fatty acids such as Evening Primrose Oil and Cod Liver Oil, can be very useful too – they reduce the level of itchiness your pet experiences. If despite all these measures your dog still requires long term Cortisone treatment (also called Prednisolone) it may be worth asking your vet about a revolutionary drug called Cyclosporin. It is a very effective medication and avoids the side effects caused by Cortisone, but is quite costly.
So in summary skin allergies can be managed – it's not something you have to put up with. By combining treatments such as medicated shampoos, desensitisation, essential fatty acids, antibiotics, cortisone and avoidance of allergens, itching can be a thing of the past. And very importantly, always maintain excellent flea control and feed the highest quality diet you can afford, preferably one specifically formulated for skin complaints.
With Dr Kevin Cruickshank BVSc, BSc(Hons), a South African trained (Onderstepoort) and qualified vet living and practising in Australia