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All things itchy! Skin stuff explained

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Why is my dog itchy?
Ongoing skin issues are one of the trickiest things to deal with and treat effectively. Not only is the constant scratching annoying for us, it is even more annoying for the poor pooches enduring it.  If the itching is not caused by parasites or a food allergy its most likely what's referred to as "atopy", which may as well translate to "allergic to air".  Of course, this is not exactly the case; it's the things within the air that are causing our canine friends to scratch.

How do I know if my dog has atopy?
Atopy in dogs is comparable to human hay fever.  Whilst hayfever causes a runny nose and sneezing for us, it causes itchy skin for our dogs. There is no test to say "yes, your dog has atopy", it is diagnosed by a vet who has analysed your pets individual history and symptoms and is based on the findings of a physical examination.

However, there are some indications that your itchy dog might be suffering from atopic dermatitis:

  • the areas of itchiness are mostly the feet and lower legs, the "armpits", across the abdomen and around the eyes and mouth.
  • head shaking/inflamed pinna which can indicate recurring ear infections.  A dog's ear is essentially a tunnel of skin so problems with skin often go hand in hand with persistent ear infections.
  • symptoms most commonly begin occurring in young pets of 1-3 years old.

Which dogs most commonly get atopy?
Common breeds to suffer from atopy are Boxers, Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Poodles, Irish Setters, Lhasa Apsos, Bulldogs and most terriers but it can occur in any breed (even mixed breeds) and also cats.

How is it treated?
A medication commonly used to treat dogs with ongoing skin issues is corticosteroids such as Prednisolone.  A fast response to these drugs is another indication that your dog may be suffering from atopic dermatitis. Whilst these drugs are VERY effective at controlling your dogs itch, they should be seen as a quick fix only as they are not suitable for long term use. These kinds of drugs suppress the immune system and can cause more problems than they solve when used consistently for long periods of time.

The second medication most commonly used in atopic pooches is antihistamines. Like those of us that suffer from hay fever, popping a Zyrtec can often relieve a lot of our symptoms. Unfortunately for dogs, less than 20% of them will respond to any given antihistamine. Fortunately, most human antihistamines are safe to give to dogs and trying a few different ones might mean you find the perfect one for your pet (just be sure to get the correct dosage from your vet before giving your pet any medication). It's important to remember that antihistamines can cause canine drowsiness too, so no operating heavy machinery!

What else could it be?
Taking to your dog to the vet with itchy skin will result in them first ruling out the most obvious thing that causes itching; parasites like fleas and mites. Some dogs can be allergic to flea bites which causes a rash that is referred to as flea allergy dermatitis (or FAD for short). This rash is not dissimilar to the one seen with dogs suffering from atopy, hence it can be a complicated diagnosis to reach, as fleas can be very good at hiding! A skin scraping can be done by your vet to determine whether there are mites present in your dog's skin which can also cause itching and a skin rash.

Is there anything I can do at home?
Medications are not the only thing that can help heal our poor pooches skin. There are several other things you can do at home that can help:

  • add flaxseed or coconut oil to your pets food or supplement their diet with fish oil capsules.
  • wipe down your dog after a walk with a warm, damp cloth (including feet) to remove any airbourne allergens they might've been exposed to.
  • bathe your dog once a week with a nourishing shampoo such as Aloveen (there is also a conditioner).
  • support your dogs skin barrier with topical spot ons like Essential 6 or an oral supplement like PAW Dermega.
  • running the air conditioner or air filters can help lessen the load of airborne allergens.
  • feed a vet grade hypoallergenic or skin support diet (Royal Canin).
  • trial a few different anti-histamines to see which gives the most relief.

If a combination of suitable medication and other treatments still don't grant your dog the comfort it deserves, there is some further testing and treatments available, but they are expensive, can be complicated to administer and can often not achieve the desired results, so proceed with caution!

There is no cure for atopy and every dog is different. Try different things to find what works for your dog, keeping in mind that it could be a combination of several allergies that your dog suffers from (food, inhaled or contact) and only further testing can indicate what it is your dog is allergic to.

** At the time of writing, there is a new drug for itchy skin being developed that works effectively without all the side effects of the other drugs used at the moment. It is expected out later in the year- see your vet for more information.

About the author

Kate Opitz is a qualified Veterinary Nurse with many years experience working in the Pet Care industry. Originally from Melbourne, she has travelled far and wide across Australia, living in the Northern Territory whilst working with dogs in remote Aboriginal communities and then managing a small vet hospital in Darwin.

The proud owner of a beautiful boxer, Kate has a true and equal love for not only cats and dogs, but all living creatures. She has spent time volunteering overseas with everything from bears to monkeys to tigers, and has always been involved with rescue groups here- fostering and caring for animals in need.

Kate now spends her time travelling in her van, working in vet clinics around Australia, but plans to eventually settle in Melbourne with her family- both human and furry :)


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