THE INTEGRATIVE CARE OF AN ITCHY PET
PROBABLY THE MOST COMMON CONCERN OF DOG OWNERS ON THE CENTRAL COAST IS THEIR PET’S ITCH. As your integrative veterinarian in SLO, we can help you in both the accurate diagnosis and the most effective treatment of the itchy pet. Let’s spend a few minutes discussing the most common reasons for that itch, what you can do about it at home, and when you need to bring your itchy pet in to see us at Mission Animal Hospital.
Allergies and fleas probably cause 95% of the itchy pets we see around here. We also see skin disease caused by excessive exposure to the sun and other problems, but we’ll shelve that for now.
Fleas have been the bane of our pets’ existence for as long as there have been pets. The first thing you should remember is that FLEAS ARE AN INFECTIOUS DISEASE. If your pet is lucky enough not to have fleas now, the only way they’ll get them is by crossing paths with an animal that does have fleas. The hard part is that—while this animal is usually another dog or cat—it can also be a squirrel, coyote, deer, or bird. The cheapest way to avoid fleas is to keep your pet in a home or an area impenetrable to birds and your neighbor’s cat—but how practical is that? Usually, not very. So we typically use drugs. At Mission Animal Hospital we carry the very best drugs around. For dogs, this means oral Comforts, NexGard, and Bravecto. For cats, Revolution. Bravecto works for three months per pill, and the rest of them are all used once monthly during the warmer months of the year.
While fleas are a problem mostly during the summer and fall, allergies are present year around. Broadly speaking, most pets—just like humans– develop allergies either to things they eat, they touch, or they inhale. And some pets are lucky enough to have all three at the same time.
The basic cause of any allergy– wherever symptoms appear– is an exaggerated response of the immune system to allergens such as pollens, molds, dietary ingredients, chemicals, and other environmental toxins. The traditional treatment of such allergies is… ideally…. identification and removal of the offending substance. The hard part is that this is practical in only a small percentage of cases, leaving us to try instead to suppress a pet’s immune system
Dietary allergies are very common in both dogs and cats. While dietary allergies can cause itch over the whole pet, it is usually worst around the head and ears. In fact, they are the single most common reason for inflammation in BOTH a pet’s ears. You can run into foxtails and infections in one ear, but if both ears are irritated a dietary allergy is the most likely cause. Dietary allergies can also cause GI signs like vomiting and diarrhea, especially in cats. As an aside, if you have a cat who is absolutely healthy and not losing weight but vomits—they are usually allergic to their food.
Inhaled allergies usually cause the same hay fever-like symptoms they cause in humans, including sneezing, runny eyes, and coughing.
Contact allergies create symptoms worst where your pet touches the offending substance, most commonly on the paws and along the belly. If you have a dog who is constantly chewing its feet, chances are they are walking on something they are
allergic to. Remember that this can be vegetation, but it can also be your rugs or bedding… and what those rugs or bedding are cleaned with.
In the majority of cases, allergies are a stand alone problem. However, some dogs may have underlying health issues like thyroid problems, diabetes, or Cushing’s disease which can cause your pet’s skin problems.
There are five different approaches to treating most itchy pets, so here we go. Of course, if fleas are involved, they need to be solved to stop your pet’s itch.
1) EVERY ITCHY PET SHOULD BE GIVEN DAILY FISH OIL, to provide 50 mg of omega 3 fatty acids per pound body weight.
2) PUT ON YOUR DETECTIVE HAT AND TRY TO FIGURE OUT WHAT THEY ARE ALLERGIC TO, THEN AVOID IT … IF POSSIBLE… FOR TWO WEEKS. If it doesn’t work, try a second hypothesis, and a third. In the case of dietary allergies, the most common causes are either the meat or the grain (especially corn) in the diet. You can buy grain-free diets at most retailers, and at MAH we have lists of those diets available at local retailers. If your pet is allergic to the typical lamb or poultry based foods, you may have to find a diet based on salmon, duck, kangaroo, or rabbit—things the average pet in our area has never eaten before. In my experience, you should stay away from bison if you have an allergic pet—it is too similar to beef. Bear in mind two things—first, a dietary change will take UP TO TWO MONTHS to work, so you have to be patient. Secondly, you have to be RELIGIOUS—if your pet gets into another pet’s food, or eats a bite of a sandwich, or gets into your neighbor’s cat’s food—you’re sunk. So no treats, no walks except on a leash, etc.
3) EVERY ITCHY PET WILL BENEFIT FROM A SOOTHING SHAMPOO, such as one that contains aloe vera and oatmeal. Just make sure that you rinse them WELL with cool water, as there is nothing that will make a pet itch more than soap suds after a bath. Consider a cleansing shampoo followed by a steroid-based rinse in an effort to minimize the use of oral steroids– it will be healthier for your pet!!
4) IF YOUR PET’S SKIN STINKS, IT IS BECAUSE THERE IS AN INFECTION PRESENT. This can be a primary problem, but is usually due to your pet’s scratching and biting. In either case, your pet will not stop itching until you have the infection controlled. Mild, local infections will respond well to lotions containing aloe or lavender, or to NeoSporin-type ointments. You can also try baths consisting of 1 part white vinegar to 4 parts water, sponged liberally over your dog and let dry in place. More widespread infections will require antibiotic therapy.
5) WE NEED TO SUPPRESS THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM– YOUR PET’S HYPERACTIVE IMMUNE SYSTEM. We can do this in FIVE different ways:
1) WITH INTEGRATIVE THERAPY:
-Every itchy pet will benefit from CURCUMIN at a dose of 50mg per lb body weight once daily, preferably with fish oil.
-Other integrative therapies include….
-Nutritional Therapy: Beta-sitosterol has been proven to help regulate the immune system without the side effects of steroids. The recommended dose is 1 mg per 2 lb body weight, given once daily.
-Western Herbal Therapy: Herbs that may benefit an allergic pet include skullcap, nettle leaf, licorice, and astragalus. We can help you find them.
b) WITH ANTIHISTAMINES— we can try antihistamines for pets, but our pets’ immune system differs from ours in that the substance histamine is not nearly as involved in their allergies as ours– so anti histamines are much less effective in pets than in humans. However, they are safe, may provide some benefit, and can have mild sedative properties– not necessarily a bad thing for an itchy pet. Benadryl is the old standby, and should be dosed at 1 mg per lb body weight, given twice daily. Zyrtec was recently shown to improve 28% of itchy pets, which is a much better response than Benadryl, and it should be dosed at 1 mg per 2 lbs body weight, given once daily. In either case, you can use these in combination with any other approach.
c) WITH STEROIDS, THE TRADITIONAL (AND A VERY EFFECTIVE ) REMEDY. If you want an immediate stop to your pet’s itch, you need to use prescription steroids like prednisone. It is one of the few drugs that I can give a guarantee to. The problem is that steroids can create some side effects. If we use it just for a few days, these side effects are mild and mostly behavioral—some dogs will pant, drink more water, and can show mild urinary incontinence (which resolves as soon as the pills are stopped). However, if we have to use steroids long term they can create liver inflammation, hypertension, and other issues. As with any other medication, we simply need to weigh the pros and cons, then use the smallest effective dose for the shortest time.
d) WITH APOQUEL. The new kid on the block, Apoquel is AS EFFECTIVE AS STEROIDS, BUT HAS NO SIDE EFFECTS. This is the SAFEST and MOST EFFECTIVE drug we have ever seen in controlling itch.
e) WITH ATOPICA. This is a very effective (and expensive) drug that can benefit even the itchiest patient. While it has fewer behavioral side effects than do steroids, it is SUCH an effective immune suppressant that it can actually raise the risk of some geriatric diseases. Again, pros and cons.
Simple, right? But at Mission Animal Hospital, we’re here to help you—however we can. Just let us know….