There is no doubt about it, skin allergies are frustrating for both pets and their owners, and are one of the most common reasons for bringing a dog to the vet. Skin allergies cause irritation and itching, often resulting in scratching hair loss, skin damage, grazes and bacterial infections. Cats often lick and overgroom rather than scratching, but the end result is the same.
Allergies are probably the most common cause of itchy skin in dogs, however they are not the only cause, so if your pet is itchy or has skin problems it is worthwhile having them fully checked and treated by your vet first.
To get a little technical, an allergic reaction occurs when the immune system responds excessively to a normal substance, such as a pollen, dust mite or spore. This reaction results in the skin becoming irritated and inflamed, which in turn damages the natural protective skin barrier, allowing further irritation and in some cases bacterial infections. This can then set up a vicious cycle of itching and scratching. Unfortunately, the hot and humid climate in Hong Kong may increase the chance of both allergic reactions and secondary infections.
Commonly affected areas include the feet, ears, armpits, and belly. In some cases, signs can also be quite subtle - a dog or cat that is frequently seen licking or biting their feet or a pet with recurrent ear infections may well have an underlying allergy causing the problems. Allergies can occur in any breed, but some breeds such as Poodles, Shih Tzus, Schauzers, Pugs and Golden Retrievers and Persian cats are more likely to develop skin problems, and signs are frequently first observed in dogs and cats between 6 months to 3 years old.
There are several types of skin allergy in dogs: environmental allergies, food allergies, contact allergies and allergies to insect bites. It’s often difficult to determine the exact type of allergy based on just the signs, but it can be important in helping to eliminate or avoid the cause of the allergy.
Environmental allergy (also called atopy or hayfever) is by far the most common cause of skin allergy in dogs, and is due to sensitivity to normal particles called allergens in the air. Common environmental allergens include dust mites, pollens and molds, and signs may often be more common at certain times of the year, such as the start of summer. Allergens are impossible to completely eliminate, even in the cleanest of houses.
Contact allergies tend to affect only the part of the animal that comes in contact with the allergen, often the belly and armpits. Contact allergens may include carpet fibres, washing powders or anything the dog closely touches. Allergens can often be reduced by changing cleaning products or rinsing floors or clothing thoroughly with water.
Insect bite allergies, especially flea bite allergy, can also be a big problem. Some animals can react much more strongly to a flea bite, resulting in intense itching and irritation. For this reason, all dogs with itchy skin should be taking flea prevention.
Lastly, food allergies make up approximately 10-20% of skin allergy cases. Food allergies can cause an upset stomach, loose stools and gastrointestinal irritation, but in many cases the only sign of food allergies is itchy skin, especially around the mouth and feet. Food allergies are often present all year round, unlike environmental allergies, and commonly involve beef, wheat, dairy, egg and chicken. One of the best ways to help with food allergies is to cut out any snacks or treats and monitor the response. This will need to be done for 6-8 weeks in order to give time for the skin to adapt.
Similar to allergies in humans, allergies in pets are difficult to permanently cure. However, with a little care and planning we can greatly reduce allergies and also minimise the use of medication.
Important steps include:
The first step in helping an allergic pet is to keep them clean and regularly bathed. I would normally recommend washing an allergic dog every 10-14 days in a shampoo designed for sensitive skin, such as Aloveen, PAW Sensitive skin Shampoo and Divine Pets Tea Tree Shampoo. Many allergic dogs develop a secondary yeast infection, resulting in a greasy coat and a really “doggy smell”. In these dogs I will alternate the skin-soothing shampoo with an anti-yeast shampoo such as Malaseb or MediDerm Gentle Medicated Shampoo. Reducing skin allergens and yeast is one of the biggest steps to treating many allergy cases.
Regular washing of the bed and household cleaning of pet areas by natural cleaning products will also help reduce the levels of dust mites, spores and other allergens. Divine Pets - Tea Tree Kennel Wash is 100% natural and safe for pets.
The next step is to choose a healthy, balanced diet. Although only 10-20% of dogs and cats are specifically food allergic, feeding a healthy, balanced diet will greatly help improve skin health in any dog. Dogs with food allergies should use a hypoallergenic diet such as Royal Canin Hypoallergenic or Hills Prescription Diet Z/D . Cat hypoallergenic diets include Royal Canin Hypoallergenic and Hills Prescrption Diet Feline Z/D. Dogs and cats who are not specifically food allergic (such as those with inhaled or contact allergies) ，can have regular, good quality commercial or natural food. There is more information on pet diets here :
Remember that pets with a food allergy also need to cut out treats and snacks – any source of allergens can set their skin off.
The other natural treatment that I use with my own pets is an Omega 3 skin supplement such as Nutravet-Nutra Coat , Naturvet Omega 3 or Grizzly Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil for adding on the food . These reduce the level or itching and scratching by preventing inflammation, and they also help keep the skin and coat glossy.
Itchy pets should also be on flea and tick treatment – if you’re flea allergic no amount of healthy food or bathing will take the itch away. Good flea and tick prevention medications include Bravecto , Seresto and Frontline Plus.
I would always recommend an itchy, allergic pet is checked by your vet. There are a number of issues which can cause itching, and in some cases they may need medical treatment. Animals who are very itchy may also require medications to reduce the allergy, and in some cases to treat secondary infections. The good news is that there have been some real breakthroughs in treatment of skin allergies over the past few years, and some of the new medications have been life changing for many pets, as well as being much safer than the older steroid-based treatments.
Allergies can be difficult to tackle, and we normally have to approach the problem from multiple angles, including skin cleanliness, diet, supplements, flea prevention and in some cases medication, but with a multi-faceted approach there’s no reason to be itchy and irritable any more. Please let us know if you’d like to discuss further.
By Dr David Gething
Creature Comforts Veterinary Housecall Practice & East Island Animal Hospital