Dr. Cynthia Maro
Pets get itchy or pruritic for a variety of reasons. Most of the time pets are itching for medical reasons, and not just because they want attention.
An occasional itch can be the result of a bug bite, some matted fur or even getting some mud or a stick between the paw pads, but repeated itching, biting, licking, over-grooming, rubbing on furniture or rolling incessantly in the grass can be a warning sign of more serious problems.
Pruritus or itchiness can be a sign of any one or a combination of the following health problems:
- Atopic dermatitis/inhalant allergies
- Contact allergies
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Skin mites
- Flea bite dermatitis
- Staphylococcal hypersensitivity (allergic reaction to the Staph bacteria which enters the deeper layer of the skin when inflamed)
- Bacterial dermatitis (inflammation of skin secondary to infection)
- Fungal or yeast infections, including ringworm
- Dry skin
- Dietary deficiencies
- Hormone imbalances, including thyroid disorders and adrenal gland imbalances
- Nerve damage, inflammation or chiropractic subluxations
- Very rarely: OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
If your pet begins itching intensely and it happens suddenly, be sure to check the area for welts (swollen and inflamed areas of red skin). If you see a localized area of swelling, use a cool compress on the area or a cool water rinse of the skin to give immediate comfort to your pet. If this resolves the matter, no further treatment may be needed.
In some cases, hives will be found all over the body. When this occurs, seek veterinary attention for your pet to prevent progression to more serious symptoms, including respiratory distress from an acute allergic reaction.
If your pet is drawing blood while chewing on himself, and cool compresses are not effective, an emergency visit to the vet is warranted.
Many pet owners will assume that itchiness is related to flea bites, and though it may be the case, the worst thing pet owners do is to use a pyrethrin-based shampoo or a cheap flea remedy. Many over-the-counter flea products that contain permethrin or pyrethrins can intensify an allergic condition.
When itching involves the ears, owners frequently assume their pets have ear mites. Applying ear mite medication in an infected or allergic ear condition often causes a significant increase in swelling and itching.
The best course of action for the itchy pet is to make an appointment with your veterinarian.
I recommend owners bring their pets’ foods, treats, shampoo, vaccine records (recent vaccines can trigger allergic reactions), any topical medications and shampoos, flea and tick meds and all supplements. Be sure to tell your veterinarian about changes in your household, new carpets, construction or table foods that your pet may have been given. If your pet sees a groomer, get the names of all shampoos, ear washes and products they apply and share that info with the vet.
To get to the bottom of a skin problem, your vet will not only perform a physical exam but may also suggest some of all of the following tests:
- Cytology and skin scraping tests
- Skin cultures
- Fungal exam/testing
- General bloodwork
- Thyroid profiles and Cushing’s disease testing
- Nutrient testing
- Allergy testing
- Dietary/Food trials
Once a thorough evaluation is performed, your pet’s doctor can get him on the road to recovery by prescribing oral and topical medications to control inflammation and all secondary infection that can accompany allergic dermatitis.
In order to avoid excessive use of steroidal drugs for allergies, many vets will prescribe dietary changes, supplements and immunotherapies, in addition to allergy control medications. Newer treatments like Cytopoint have gained popularity as effective treatments for allergies.
When owners increase the use of medicated shampoos (over bathing with drying shampoos can damage the skin, but appropriate medicated shampoos can heal the skin and restore the protective skin barrier), effective flea and tick control, along with immunotherapy, the need for drug treatments is often reduced.
Alternative treatments for allergies and skin infections are very effective. NAET and homeopathy, along with diet changes to limited ingredient diets with no or minimal processing can also eliminate the need for steroids and antihistamines.
It may take several veterinary visits to completely diagnose and effectively treat a pet’s pruritus, but following up with your vet at the recommended recheck exams is the best way to assure your pet gets back to full health and comfort.
Dr. Cynthia Maro is a veterinarian at the Ellwood Animal Hospital in Ellwood City and the Chippewa Animal Hospital in Chippewa Township. She writes a biweekly column on pet care and health issues. If you have a topic you’d like to have addressed, email [email protected]