The Itchy Pet

MY DOG/CAT IS SO ITCHY BUT HE DOESN’T HAVE FLEAS!

So ‘Scruff’ has suddenly started scratching like a mad thing: waking you up in the middle of the night, not spending any time chasing his favourite toys but rather looking as though he’s dementedly about to chew his toes off or scratch his armpits out of existence. You get your magnifying glass out and search for those little jumping parasites, but try as you may, there just aren’t any and there’s no trace of flea dirt either? ‘Scruff’ is only 8 months old, so it can’t be a skin allergy? Or can it….

As has been noticed in the human population in first world countries, animals appear to be developing more and more allergies. Most commonly in animals, we see these allergies expressed in skin conditions which vary remarkably on clinical presentation. This group of conditions is broadly referred to as Atopic Dermatitis/Allergic skin disease.

So, why has my dog/cat got atopy?

Well, there are a couple of factors which culminate in an animal developing atopy. Firstly, they usually have a genetic predisposition i.e. they have to be genetically prone to developing a problem. Secondly, they have to be exposed to the particular substance (antigen) in order to mount an allergic immune response. This means that not all animals that are genetically predisposed to developing an allergy will always develop one. For example, a dog that is genetically predisposed to developing an allergy to a particular washing soap can not develop an allergy if it never comes into contact with the soap itself or fabric washed in that soap.

Furthermore, a single allergy on its own may not always cause an obvious reaction but in combination with another allergy or other irritation e.g. bacterial skin infection may cause a severe clinical disease.

So, what does atopy look like?

In dogs, it’s usually a very itchy skin condition mostly focused on the face, feet, belly and armpits and around the bottom. In cats, it can be a bit more variable but the itchiness usually involves the face, ears, neck, feet and underside of the body but could involve the skin all over the body. Your pet may be so itchy that he/she chews its skin until it bleeds; they may pull their hair out or rub their faces raw. They may have patches of fur missing and develop secondary bacterial or yeast infections. Some animals will have pink or red patches, some will have lumps and bumps, some may have drier scales or weeping wounds.

Atopy is most classically diagnosed in animals between 1-3 years old but can occur in pups and kittens as young as 6 weeks or adult animals older than 7 years old. It’s often seen as a recurring skin or ear problem that may flare up at a particular time of the year. There may be opportunistic secondary infections causing smelly feet or ears.

How is atopy diagnosed?

Unfortunately, atopy is not always a quick and easy diagnosis to make, but along with the vet’s physical exam of your pet, any information that you give will provide clues as to whether it’s atopy or something else. Some of the questions you may be asked include:

  • Is this the first time your pet has had this or has he had a similar condition in the past?
  • Does it recur at a particular time of the year?
  • Has it improved with medication in the past? What medication was used?
  • Where does your pet scratch itself?
  • Does the itching wax and wane or does it seem to be pretty consistent?
  • Do you use flea preventatives? How often?
  • Is it worse when your dog eats a particular type of food?

Sometimes other conditions need to be excluded first e.g. a skin scraping may need to be done to exclude a mite infestation. A food trial may be warranted and sometimes a biopsy may be necessary to rule certain things in or out too. A medication trial may be required to see how the condition responds in order to confirm the diagnosis.

How is atopy treated?

There is no quick fix for atopy/allergies. Because it’s usually difficult to identify the specific allergen, treatment is usually focussed on managing the condition rather than curing it. Your vet will formulate a long-term plan tailored specifically to your pet depending on the clinical signs and occurrences of the itchy episodes. The plan may include clearing up any secondary infections with a course of antibiotics;  identifying any concurrent flea or food allergies; dietary supplements like Omega 3 fatty acids; washing with a special shampoo; avoiding irritants; using anti-inflammatories and possibly even immunotherapy.

So, what’s the next step?

Most importantly, give us a ring (07 3266 9992) to make an appointment to see your dog or cat. It’s not normal for a pet to itch all the time! Even though these conditions do not usually completely go away, your pet’s quality of life can be improved significantly, which in turn improves your relationship with your little pal too. There have been recent significant exciting developments in the treatment of itch in dogs so come and talk to one of our vets!

Written by Dr Bronwen Thompson for Northgate Veterinary Surgery

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