How to control your dog's skin problems
With a little perseverance your dog’s itchiness can be resolved. Michael Hallam advises on how to bring skin problems under control.
If your dog is suffering from skin problems it can drive you to despair. Watching him scratch, and knowing he is uncomfortable can leave you feeling helpless and upset. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Even if your dog’s skin complaint cannot be cured it can be controlled so he leads a happy and healthy life. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to treating skin problems as each dog responds differently to different treatments. A tailored approach is needed for every individual dog. With commitment from you and your vet that is what your dog can have, meaning he’ll soon be comfortable in his own skin again.
Diagnosing a skin problem
Getting to the bottom of your dog’s skin complaint is the first step to an itch-free pet. It can also be the trickiest part.
Many different skin complaints have similar symptoms and some can cause secondary problems which can make diagnosis more difficult. It can take some detective work to uncover the problem.
Your vet will first check your dog over and ask you about all his symptoms. The history, age, and breed will be taken into account. As fleas are the most common cause of skin problems, your vet will ask if your dog’s flea treatment is up to date. There is a range of different tests a vet may use to confirm a diagnosis or eliminate possible causes:
- Skin scrape: This is where a scalpel is used to scrape away skin so it can be examined under a microscope. Often used to check for sarcoptic and demodex mites.
- Skin biopsy: A full thickness of skin is cut away under anaesthesia and examined under a microscope. Deep-lying mites may be seen or abnormal cells discovered which indicate other problems.
- Skin test: An area of fur is shaved away and the skin injected with tiny amounts of common allergens. The areas which become inflamed and swell up give an indication of what a dog may be allergic to.
- Allergy testing: As well as skin tests, allergies can be detected by testing the blood for the presence of antibodies to various common allergies.
- Exclusion diets: Sources of proteins and carbohydrates which your dog is unlikely to be allergic to are given as your dog’s only food source for four to six weeks. If the skin problems resolve this indicates your dog is allergic to some food source. Further trialling may be required to discover exactly what this is and long-term changes to your pet’s diet made.
If the vet suspects your dog’s skin complaint is actually a symptom of an underlying problem or disease, further tests might be used to check for these. If your dog’s problem is complicated or quite severe your vet may refer your pet to a dermatology specialist.
Getting rid of parasites
Fleas are the most common cause of skin problems in dogs. If your dog is infested both your dog and home will need treating with a safe and effective fl ea treatment, which we looked at in the June issue.
Sarcoptic and demodex mites can cause mange, a skin disease characterised by itchiness and hair loss. Sarcoptic mange leads to severe itchiness but can usually be cured with a spot on treatment or occasionally a medicated shampoo if a spot on is not successful.
Demodex mange is more difficult to get rid of and is often associated with an underlying predisposition to demodex mites. It usually requires lengthy spot on treatments, medicated shampoos, and antibiotics to cure any secondary skin infections.
Though rare, if your pet becomes infested with lice they can be treated with a spot on too.
Spot ons can also protect against ticks — blood-gorging parasites that can cause skin irritation and transmit diseases. Check your pet regularly for ticks, particularly after walks through fields and long grass. If you find a tick it needs to be removed otherwise infected fluids could pass into your dog’s bloodstream. Use a tick removal tool which is designed to get ticks off your pet safely.
There are several different ones available but the O’Tom Tick Twister is often recommended by veterinary professionals.
Pemphigus is an autoimmune skin disease that can cause ulcers, crusting and redness of the skin, and pus-filled sacs.
There are four varieties of the disease which are usually treated with steroids to suppress the immune system. Non-steroid medications can often be used longer term to reduce the potential side effects. Owners should not expose their pets to strong sunlight for long periods as this can aggravate the condition. Dogs can go into remission for long periods, although treatment remains lifelong.
Certain health problems can cause skin problems. In these cases skin complaints are a symptom of the underlying problem, rather than the affliction itself. If your dog has scratched and irritated the skin it may still need some attention but this should diminish as the underlying problem is treated.
Your vet will often detect the underlying problem from symptoms that are not usually associated with skin disease and by other tests, such as blood tests.
Keeping allergies at bay
Dogs can be allergic to almost anything that is in the air (inhalant allergies), in their food (food allergies), or that they come into contact with (contact allergies).
If a food allergy is confi rmed following an exclusion diet (see diagnosing a skin problem) your vet will recommend a diet that avoids the allergen.
Skin tests and allergy testing can detect if your dog suffers from common contact or inhalant allergies but many of these can be impossible to avoid. While you may be able to reduce scratching by avoiding contact allergens such as disinfectants or by reducing levels of inhalant allergens such as dust by vacuuming more often, it can be impossible to avoid these contact and inhalant allergies all the time.
As allergies cannot be cured, they will need lifelong treatment to keep them under control so dogs can lead comfortable lives. There are a range of treatments which can be used. Your vet may suggest just one treatment or a combination of treatments for your dog.
Skin supplements contain essential nutrients that boost skin health and some vets may recommend more specialised supplements to deal with certain conditions. Medicated shampoos can also be used to soothe allergies.
When an allergen is detected by a dog’s body, chemicals called histamines are released to initiate an allergic reaction. Antihistamine tablets can be given to suppress this reaction and reduce the effects of the allergy.
Steroids — given topically or by injection — can improve skin problems dramatically. However, they are reserved for severe skin disease as they can have side effects and over used can impact on long term health.
There are also some drugs which suppress the immune system that have less long term side effects than steroids. These include cyclosporine, a more targeted immunosuppressive drug, and oclacitinib, a new enzyme-inhibiting drug which stops itching with almost no side effects. Unfortunately, it is currently in very short supply.
Instead of suppressing a dog’s allergic reaction, immunotherapy can be used to build up a dog’s resistance to allergens. Dogs are injected with tiny amounts of what they are allergic to over a period of usually between nine and 12 months. Gradually the amounts of allergens are increased as the over active response to the allergen decreases.
Skin complaints can cause your dog to damage the skin through excessive scratching and lower the skin’s natural defences, meaning secondary problems such as bacterial infections and hot spots can occur.
Secondary problems usually need treating to make your pet more comfortable. Medicated shampoos and antibiotic tablets are used to treat bacterial infections and fungal infections such as ringworm.
Seborrhea, a condition where the glands secrete too much oil on to the skin, can either be a secondary condition or an incurable primary condition. Both can be treated with medicated shampoos and secondary seborrhea should clear up when the underlying problem is treated.