By Arden Moore
Dogs and cats are by nature fastidious creatures, always grooming and licking, or scratching and chewing away this itch or that.
But if your pet spends a good chunk of his day tending to himself--to the point where you find yourself nudging him to quit it--odds are that something else is going on under his skin.
"It is not normal for a dog or cat to chew its paws, lick excessively, or constantly scratch," says Lowell Ackerman, DVM, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist in the Boston area.
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Skin problems rank among the top reasons a person books a veterinary appointment for their pet. Most often, your pet is experiencing an allergic reaction to fleas, dust mites, pollen, molds, or even certain foods. However, red sores, missing patches of fur, or skin with an odor may be due to a bacterial or fungal infection or parasitic infestation. Or he could be battling a combination.
Untreated, the symptoms can worsen. The itching, chewing, or licking may lead to serious sores and infections. Although there is no cure for allergies in pets (or people), the conditions can be controlled and managed with medications and special diets and by eliminating the culprit from the household environment.
Start from scratch.
"One of the most important steps in helping us pinpoint the cause is what an owner tells us," says Craig Griffin, DVM, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist and co-owner of Animal Dermatology Clinic in San Diego. "The more specific an owner can be in describing the symptoms, the better we are able to narrow down the possibilities." Pay close attention to your pet. Here are four key actions to look for.
Identify the sequence.
Did your pet start scratching before a rash developed? Or did a rash appear first, then the scratching? Knowing the order of actions can help a vet narrow down the possible causes. Scabies, a contagious form of skin parasite that can infest pets and people, usually begins with a rash, then an itch. "When pets have skin problems, people need to be aware that it may be contagious," says Dr. Ackerman. Atopic dermatitis (hypersensitivity to pollens, dust mites, or mold spores), however, usually starts with an itch and then develops into a rash.
Location, location, location.
It's very rare for a skin disease to start all over the body. Zero in on the body part most affected. Flea allergies typically tend to appear at the base of the tail and in the rear end regions. Atopic dermatitis usually causes a dog to lick his paws or scratch his face and ears.
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Check the calendar.
Some skin problems, such as allergies to house mites, occur year-round. Others are seasonal, such as mold allergies, which commonly appear in early spring when the snow melts or in the fall when the ground is littered with wet leaves. "If someone tells me that every fall, their dog starts itching like crazy until there is a solid frost on the ground, the cause is often a reaction to ragweed or another major weed that is pollinating at that time," says Dr. Ackerman.
Track diet changes.
Did the scratching begin when you introduced a new brand of food? Chicken, wheat, corn, beef, milk, and eggs can trigger an adverse food reaction in dogs. Fish is the top problem for cats.
To identify the cause, your veterinarian will take a detailed medical history, conduct a physical exam, perform a skin test, and take a blood sample to determine your pet's sensitivity to a host of common allergens, including weeds, house dust, and foods.
The easiest treatment option, of course, is not exposing your pet to the allergens triggering the reaction. It's simple: If you know your pet can't tolerate wheat, you eliminate that food from his diet. Short-term remedies include antihistamines and corticosteroids. One long-term treatment is allergy shots, or immunotherapy, which involves injecting your pet with increasing amounts of the allergen to help his immune system develop a tolerance.
Always work with your veterinarian to keep your pet's skin and coat its healthiest. For mild problems, Carlo Vitale, DVM, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist from San Francisco, recommends these skin soothers.
--Oatmeal bath: tames the itch and irritation.
--Witch hazel: acts as a natural astringent for moist hot spots.
--Tea tree oil: doubles as a skin soother and anti-itch aid.
--Black tea: Make a strong brew, let it cool, and put it in a mist bottle. Spray on your pet's coat to dry up moist spots and relieve the itch.
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Any dog, pedigree or mixed breed, can develop allergies, but these breeds are sensitive to skin problems:
--Golden and Labrador retrievers