Itchy skin is a frequent problem for pets, and many owners make mistaken assumptions about the cause. Inaccurate information about your pet’s itchiness can prevent your veterinarian from determining a correct diagnosis and prolong your furry pal’s discomfort. Our Madison Street Animal Hospital team wants to alleviate your pet’s itchiness as soon as possible, so we provide the truth behind common tall tales about itchy pets.
Tall tale: A food allergy is likely causing my pet’s itchiness
Truth: Food allergies are low on the list of possibilities when a pet has signs of itchy skin. The most common cause of pet itchiness is flea allergy dermatitis (FAD). Affected pets are allergic to the flea’s saliva, and a bite from a solitary flea can cause a severe itchy reaction. The second most common culprit of pet itchiness is atopy. This condition occurs when a pet is allergic to things in their environment, such as grass and tree pollen, dust mites, and mold spores. Affected pets have an inadequate skin barrier that allows allergens to penetrate and cause inflammation and itchiness.
Tall tale: Changing my pet to a grain-free diet will stop their itchiness
Truth: Many pet food companies tout grain-free diets as the perfect solution to relieve pet itchiness. However, most pet itchiness isn’t caused by a food allergy. In addition, if your pet does have a food allergy, the ingredients that most commonly cause reactions are proteins such as chicken, beef, dairy, and eggs. Another factor to consider is that grain-free diets are contraindicated for some pets, including Doberman pinschers, Great Danes, Irish wolfhounds, and Saint Bernards. Always ask our veterinary professionals before switching your pet’s food to ensure the diet is appropriate for their nutritional needs.
Tall tale: I haven’t seen a flea so my pet’s itchiness isn’t flea-related
Truth: FAD is an extremely itchy condition, and affected pets scratch, chew, bite, and rub excessively. This constant attack on their skin can remove the fleas either because your pet swallows the fleas during grooming or the fleas jump off to find a quieter environment. The absence of fleas can make you think other issues are causing your pet’s itchiness. A better strategy is to look for flea dirt (i.e., flea excrement), which looks like tiny black flecks in your pet’s coat and bedding. Finding flea dirt is a red flag that your pet has fleas. Another indication is the body areas that are affected. Most FAD pets have hair loss and skin lesions on their lower back, abdomen, and inner thighs. To treat FAD, every flea on your pet and in their environment must be exterminated. Steps include:
- Flea prevention — Year-round flea prevention is crucial to help prevent FAD reactions. Every pet in your household should be protected.
- Bathing — Bathing your pet can help remove fleas and flea dirt and soothe their itchy skin. Wait about 48 hours after administering flea prevention medication before bathing your pet to ensure the product has time to absorb thoroughly.
- Environmental flea treatment — Fleas have a complex life cycle, and you must kill them at every life stage to fully eradicate them. Throw out or wash bedding, sweep and vacuum your floor and dispose of the vacuum bag, and treat your home using an appropriate insecticide. You likely will have to repeat these steps multiple times until all fleas are gone.
Tall tale: Allergy testing can determine what is causing my pet’s itchiness
Truth: Allergy testing is a tool used when a pet has been diagnosed with atopy to determine the environmental allergens causing the problem. Diagnostics typically used include:
- History — We obtain a full medical history about your pet’s signs, when they started, if your pet has exhibited signs before, and if their signs have intensified. We also ask if your pet is on year-round flea prevention.
- Physical examination — Our team performs a thorough physical examination, assessing the location and severity of your pet’s skin lesions and looking for flea dirt.
- Blood work — Blood work, including a complete blood count and biochemistry profile, can help rule out other conditions and assess your pet’s overall health.
- Skin scrape — We perform a skin scraping to look for skin pathology and parasites such as mites.
- Culture — Skin infections commonly occur along with allergic skin conditions, and we may take a culture to determine the organism causing the problem so we can prescribe the appropriate antimicrobial.
- Steroid trial — We may recommend a trial on steroids because atopy typically responds well to steroids, while food allergies don’t.
Tall tale: Allergy shots can cure my pet’s itchiness
Truth: The information obtained from allergy testing is used to make allergy shots. This involves administering a gradually increasing dose of allergen to desensitize your pet to the problematic environmental allergen. This is considered the gold standard treatment for atopy, but other methods may also be used to address a pet’s signs, including:
- Flea control — Atopic pets commonly also have FAD, and year-round flea control is necessary to ensure fleas don’t aggravate the problem.
- Bathing — Bathing helps remove allergens from your pet’s skin. Between bathings you can use a wet cloth to wipe allergens from your pet’s coat after an outing.
- Steroid — Steroids are strong anti-inflammatories and are useful for controlling acute itchiness.
- Anti-itch medications — We also use anti-itch medications to help your pet.
- Antimicrobial — If a secondary skin infection is present, we prescribe an appropriate antimicrobial.
- Omega-3 fatty acids — These supplements reduce inflammatory cells in the skin, helping relieve itchiness.
If your pet is itchy, don’t let misinformation prevent you from seeking help. Contact our Madison Street Animal Hospital team so we can determine the true cause of your pet’s itchiness and devise an effective treatment strategy.
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