Oct 30 2019

Why does my dog lick and scratch so much?

Allergies in pets

As many allergy sufferers know, fall can be a challenging time of the year.  There are increased allergens in the environment from pollens and molds.  Even dust mite exposure can increase when home heating is turned on and settled dust is stirred up.

Just like in people, pets with allergies often experience worse symptoms in the late summer and fall.  While human allergy sufferers develop runny eyes, nose and sneezing, pets commonly develop itchy skin. 

As pets scratch and chew at their inflamed, itchy skin, they assist surface bacteria and yeast in infecting the deeper layers of skin, which can lead to skin and ear infections.  These secondary infections can make the itching even worse, causing a snowball effect.

What can be done?

Dogs and cats that experience allergies for a few weeks or months of the year are commonly managed with anti-itch medications to help reduce inflammation in the skin.  This in turn reduces scratching and leaves pets feeling more comfortable. 

In many cases, secondary skin infections will need to be treated as well.

Your veterinarian can recommend an appropriate combination of medications to manage your pet’s condition by examining your pet’s skin and performing tests to examine for yeast or bacterial infections.  In some cases, skin scrapings or bacterial and fungal cultures will be conducted to look for mite infections or more serious bacterial or fungal infections.  Flea medication may be recommended if fleas are suspected.

In addition to oral medications, medicated shampoos, and topical treatments like sprays and ointments can be used to treat skin inflammation and infection.

Can allergies be cured?

It is difficult to completely eliminate a pet’s reaction to allergens.  However, the severity of the allergic reaction can be reduced over time through gradually exposing an allergic pet to small amounts of the allergen.

This gradual exposure is achieved by administering “allergy shots” or allergen specific immunotherapy (ASIT).  These injections are prepared to target an individual pet’s specific allergens.  Therefore, in order to determine which injections an individual pet needs, a blood or skin test must be conducted first.  The test reveals the specific allergens to which a pet reacts.

The allergy injections are given over several months and it some cases it takes a full year to start to see improvement with the infections.  In the meantime, traditional treatments like anti-itch medications may still be needed.

What about food allergies?

Food allergies are managed differently from environmental allergies.

Although there are commercially available tests for food allergies, the results of the tests are not reliable.  Most veterinarians prefer instead to conduct food trials if a food allergy is suspected.

Food trials should be considered for pets that seem to suffer from itchy skin year-round, regardless of seasonal patterns. 

To conduct a food trial, one of two types of approaches can be taken.  The first is to select a novel protein diet.  A novel protein diet is a unique type of diet that does not have either the protein or carbohydrate base of the pet’s current or past diets.  Common novel protein diets are duck, salmon, venison, or kangaroo based with potato or oatmeal as the carbohydrate.

If a pet has tried lots of different proteins already, a second option is to feed a hydrolyzed protein diet.  In hydrolyzed diets, the traditional protein (often chicken) is fragmented into tiny pieces that should not be recognized by the pet as an allergen.

Regardless of the approach taken, it is crucial that the pet is not exposed to ANY other foods or treats, including table scraps and even small bits of cheese or peanut butter to give medications.

If there is improvement in the skin after 6-8 weeks on the exclusive trial diet, it can be assumed that a food allergy to the previous food is likely present.

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