Pets can itch at any time of year, but we definitely see more of them in the warmer and more humid months. There can be many, many reasons why your pet is scratching and sometimes it can make everyone miserable (not just your poor pet!) with the constant licking and scratching, the self-trauma that sometimes occurs and the frustration in discovering the exact reason why, or what works for them to help keep them comfortable and happy. Here we will cover just a few of the more common causes of itchy pets you (and we!) might come across:
Definitely number one on any itchy pet list because of one simple reason – it’s just SO COMMON! Flea infestations can be really insidious and not obvious until you have a significant flea burden, and cats often groom most fleas off so you may only ever find flea dirt in their fur. But if your animal has a flea allergy dermatitis (or FAD) then these couple of little fleas will cause a huge skin reaction! Mites (or mange) are fairly common in younger, or more immunocompromised animals, and more commonly seen in certain breeds. We find these guys using skin scrapes and examining them under the microscope. We rarely see lice anymore in clinical practice but they do pop up occasionally, and ticks can cause localised reactions but rarely overt itching. The good news? External parasite control products have come so far from the powders and topspots of last century, and most now have monthly or longer duration of effect, AND a heap of them are registered for mites as well! More and more products are being tested for ‘off-label’ use for exotics so we have options for these guys too. In short, external parasites are something that are really common, but so easy to treat and rule in or out as a cause of your pets’ skin disease.
Oh boy. This group encompasses just so many things but can be broadly broken down into three categories: environmental, contact, and food. Your pet can have more than one of these at the same time! How unlucky is that? Environmental allergies include things like dust mite and pollen allergies and are difficult to control without medications as it’s difficult to control exposure to something that can literally be in the air. Contact allergies include things like grass allergies, flea allergies and other compounds that cause a reaction only where they contact the skin locally (your dog chews her little pink feet after a walk on the freshly mown grass?? She might have a contact allergy). Food allergies are the least common, but can be some of the most severe. A food sensitivity is like inflammatory bowel disease – getting an upset tummy from eating the wrong thing for you. A true food allergy is like a seafood or peanut butter allergy in people where they get skin manifestations of the allergy such as hives and swellings and welts. Dogs and cats tend to develop signs around the heads and ears and they can be severe. A food sensitivity would benefit from a limited diet, a true food allergy requires a very special dietary change.
Most hormonal diseases cause changes in the strength, composition, thickness or elasticity of the skin. Some cause excessive sebum production from the follicles. These changes can lead to dry, flaky skin like that often seen with Cushing’ disease, or greasy, smelly skin often seen with hypothyroidism. Some hormonal diseases can lead to over-grooming which may look like an itchy animal but they are just grooming themselves bald! All of these things can then lead to a secondary infection of the compromised skin which in turn is itchy! Oh no! Luckily, correcting the hormonal disease often results in the return of normal healthy skin and fur. We diagnose hormonal diseases through blood tests.
Sometimes pets will have adverse reactions to topical things we put on them like shampoos, creams and the like. Whilst these technically fall under the category of a contact dermatitis I feel they are still worth a specific mention. The affected skin from these is usually confined to the area which the topical was applied so often they aren’t too hard to diagnose with a good history.
So what happens when we see your pet for skin disease, or dermatitis (which is just a fancy word for inflamed skin)? We will ask you a lot of questions about your routine, lifestyle, your pets’ diet, treats, parasite prevention and how regular it is and probably a lot of other questions. Whilst doing this we will be looking at the distribution of your pets’ unhappy skin, whether it is confined to the top layers, or deeper into the skin, if we can see obvious signs of infection or self trauma, or obvious parasites. We will be looking over the rest of the body for other clues about your pets’ general health. We may do some blood tests or look at some things under the microscope to rule in, or out, some diagnoses. This preliminary exam can narrow down the reasons why your pet is itching, or even pinpoint it for us. However a one-stop fix is pretty rare so it’s reasonable to expect a few consults in the initial month for follow-ups, assessing response to medications or diet changes, support and just general monitoring. Most animals with active skin disease will see a vet routinely every 3 months or more often.
But the most important thing to remember is that dermatology can be a really frustrating aspect of medicine, for both you, your pet AND us as we rule out possible causes one by one, find medications that work for your pet with no (or minimal) side effects (as lots of them will be given long term!), and tweak things as their environment changes which can lead to a sudden flare-up (and back to what seems like square one!). Your pet can have more than one skin problem that needs managing and this becomes a balancing act for you. Add in that most allergies are never cured, just managed to a satisfactory level and it can really overwhelming for some owners. However it pays to keep in mind that your pet will thank you for it (as anyone who has ever had a truly itchy dermatitis will attest to what a misery it is) and we at NEVS are always, always working for the best outcome possible for you and your pet.