Around springtime we often see a surge in the number of pets we see with allergies. A classic sign of an allergy is itchy skin - you may see your pet licking, nibbling or gnawing at their feet, scratching their ears or generally over-grooming. Some pets may do this in secret, when they’re alone or at night, so we have to look for clues like red skin, hair loss or brown saliva staining between their toes.
Itchy skin is a very common problem, especially dogs. Unfortunately, it can be a very frustrating problem too - it’s not nice to see your dog uncomfortable and scratching, and sadly there’s not always a ‘quick fix’ treatment.
In order to figure out the cause of your pet’s itchy skin our vets will go through a step by step process to ensure the best care for your dog or cat, and to make sure not miss anything.
The first step is to rule parasites; parasites are one of the most common causes of itchy skin in both dogs and cats, so it’s always important to rule them out at an early stage. The vet will comb your pet’s hair looking for fleas or flea dirt. Sometimes this can be hard to find, especially if your pet is grooming a lot, they can accidentally eat the evidence when licking their coat! Some pets can have an allergy to flea saliva, which makes them very itchy, even if they only have a few fleas. The vet may need to do some other tests, such as a tape strip, hair pluck or skin scrapes to examine under the microscope to look for mites.
Ensure your pets are up to date with an effective prescription anti-parasitic treatment - the vet will be able to recommend the most suitable product for them. There’s a large variety available in either spot-on medicines or tablets. It’s helpful to also treat the house too as a large part of the flea population is actually hiding or dormant in the environment, not just on your pet.
Before a diagnosis of a skin allergy can be made the vet will check for any evidence of skin infection, which can also be very itchy (whether they are caused by bacteria, yeast or fungi). Often they can be diagnosed easily based on their appearance, but sometimes samples may need to be taken for a proper diagnosis. Sometimes quite long courses of antibiotics are necessary to thoroughly tackle the problem.
Pets can develop hypersensitivities or allergies to environmental allergens (for example, pollens, weeds, trees, grasses, moulds, dust mites etc) as well as food hypersensitivities. To rule out a food hypersensitivity, we may suggest an elimination food trial, with a prescription hydrolysed hypoallergenic diet - for a minimum of 8-12 weeks. This is a diagnostic test in itself.
Allergic skin disease or ‘Atopic dermatitis’ as it’s known, is a chronic skin disease associated with allergies. There is no one test for the condition itself but is a likely diagnosis if everything else has been excluded. Pets can be sensitive to many different things in the environment. If based on your pet’s history and clinical signs and pattern of itching the vet is suspicious of atopic dermatitis, then they may suggest an allergy blood test to identify the cause.
There are a variety of treatment options available. Some treatments work by suppressing the immune system to reduce the inflammation or itch (such as steroids and immunosuppressant drugs), while others involve training the immune system to react differently (immunotherapy - producing a vaccine specific to your dog’s allergens). As with any medicines, each option comes with its pros, cons, and costs, so this is something your vet can discuss with you to find the best option for you and your pet.
If you have any concerns that your pet may be suffering from itchy skin and may have an allergy, then make an appointment for them to see the vet.