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My Scratching Dog
by
Anthony Coyne MVB MRCVS


Probably the most complex, the most frustrating and the most annoying clinical condition in the dog.

"My dog will not stop scratching!" What can we do to help?

There are many causes of scratching in the dog. Only by a thorough work up of the scratching patient can an exact diagnosis be made, and then the appropriate treatment can be started.

One of the first things to eliminate is if there are any external parasites present. Fleas and lice which may be visible or those invisible parasites that bury in the skin and cause intense itching, mites, which can only be detected by microscopic examination of skin scrapings.

Your veterinarian will recognise these obvious causes of scratching and will be able to advise on appropriate treatment. In most cases when the cause of scratching is parasitic the response to treatment is excellent. However the elimination of the parasite from the environment is just as important, as re-infestation of your pet will cause recurrence of the symptoms. For example; Fleas require year round control.

Bacterial skin disease is another common cause of scratching. The presence of bacterial infection on the skin is usually secondary, but may be primary. Common predisposing causes are skin parasites, poor nutrition, unhygienic environment, allergic skin conditions, hormonal disease or long term steroid treatments. Bacterial skin disease is usually characterised by the presence of pustules, crusts, itching and there is usually varying amounts of hair loss. Some dogs may be lethargic and depressed.

Treatment for bacterial skin disease usually requires antibiotics and medicated shampoos. It is recommended that antibiotic therapy is continued for seven to ten days after resolution of the clinical signs. If response to antibiotic therapy is poor, then bacterial culture and antibiotic sensitivity tests should be considered.

This leads us to probably the most common cause of skin disease - allergies!

One such allergy is food hypersensitivity. This is where your dog becomes sensitized to some component of its diet resulting in skin disease. Common foodstuffs that have been implicated in food hypersensitivities are beef, dairy products, wheat, eggs and even chicken. Some dogs that experience food hypersensitivity also demonstrate gastrointestinal signs . Food allergies may cause intense itching, they may also be involved in ear infections as do most skin allergies.

Your vet will advise on an appropriate diet to test if food hypersensitivity is involved. These diets are known as hypoallergenic diets and may be home made or may be commercially available. Mutton, rice and fish are examples of some food components that appear to be less allergy stimulating. These diets may need to be given for four to eight weeks before complete resolution of signs is seen. Then it is possible to reintroduce foods that you are suspicious of to the diet and observe if the signs reoccur. This way the guilty food can be identified and can be totally eliminated from the diet in the future. Failure to clear up the skin condition may indicate other allergies are present apart from food based allergies.

Contact based allergies are another cause of skin disease. This is where the dog becomes sensitized to something in its environment where it is lying or sleeping. The feet and under side of the body are frequently affected. This form of irritation may also be caused by an irritant substance and may not be allergic in nature. An examination of the bedding and places that your dog is lying should be examined. Blankets, feeding bowls, carpets etc should be given scrutiny. To test this allergy , the dog should be removed from suspect rooms and if possible change the bedding in its sleeping area to something which is known not to irritate or induce allergies. Paper is an ideal bedding for these dogs and can be used to test if there own bedding was guilty in causing skin irritation. If no improvement is seen after rigorous avoidance of suspect floor coverings and beddings then this form of allergy can be eliminated from the investigation.

This brings us to the most common cause of allergy based skin disease, atopy! This is where the dog becomes sensitized to environmental allergens. These allergens cause skin disease after being inhaled. This form of allergy may be seasonal or year round. The house dust mite and certain pollens are frequently implicated as causes of atopic skin disease. Certain breeds of dog appear susceptible such as the West Highland White Terrier, the Cairn Terrier, the Shar Pei but any breed of dog may develop the condition. Cases present with itching of the face, feet, underside of the body, possible ear infections and they may be running from the eyes or show a combination of these symptoms. In general these dogs are eighteen months plus before they develop this condition.

So what can we do about the treatment of allergies. Unfortunately it is not very easy. By using skin reaction tests, it may be possible to determine the exact causes of the allergies. This is of great benefit when the cause is something we can eliminate from the environment. However frequently the allergen such as pollen or house dust mites are impossible to eliminate from the environment and in these cases we have to rely on the symptomatic relief of the patient. This involves the use of an arsenal of various anti-inflammatory drugs.

Anti-histamines help in moderate cases. In difficult cases the use of oral glucocorticoids (steroids) may be necessary to control the symptoms. The combination of supplementation of the diet with essential fatty acids has proved to be very beneficial. Reduction in your pets sensitivity to the allergen by methods of immunotherapy, where the pet is exposed to the allergen in a different form, has helped many cases also, especially pollen related allergies. In treatment it is always the aim of the vet to keep the use of steroids to a minimum so he/she will use combinations of other drugs to reduce their dosage. In some cases there will be no choice but to use steroids and I personally feel this is always better than a pet who is in constant discomfort and does`nt get the quality of life it deserves.

Due to the difficulties I have mentioned, over the past years, I investigated the use of herbal medicines as another mode of therapy to help aid the symptomatic relief of the scratching dog. In many cases I have been able to control the itching with herbs alone. Some few cases required the use of other drugs at lowered dosages in combination with the herbs. The use of herbs to control itching does take time but the benefits once the goals are achieved makes it very worthwhile as they are safe and free of side effects and thus give your pet the chance of a longer, healthier and more comfortable life.

In summary the control of itching in these dogs can be very difficult, so be patient with your vet as he/she endeavours to get the scratching and underlying conditions under control.

About the Author
Anthony Coyne MVB MRCVS is a qualified veterinarian with extensive experience of working in both small animal and specialist equine practices in Ireland, England, Germany and America.


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