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Skin Allergies and Itching in Dogs

The itching, the scratching and more often than not, there is a foul odor noted with your dog. They seem miserable and uncomfortable most of the time, often requiring multiple visits to your veterinarian.  You’ve checked them for fleas.  Skin infections have been addressed, but the problem still persists. What is the cause?  Why do they scratch and why do they always smell irregardless of multiple baths?

Skin allergies are one of the most common clinical problems treated by a veterinarian.  In many cases, the skin allergies also manifest in other areas such as ongoing ear infections and even licking at the feet.  Allergies come in many shapes and sizes, not always being caused by the same things.  The added frustration with skin allergies is that they itch and cause the pet discomfort.  They are restless and often times seem irritable.  Skin allergies often lead to skin infections, due to the persistent scratching, which then compounds the issue and makes matters worse.

Causes of Allergies in Pets

There are many causes of allergies in pets ranging from molds to pollen, but also include fleas and even dietary ingredients.  One major form of allergies in pets is called Atopic Dermatitis, which is not much different than the same condition in people.  Most of these pets are allergic to some airborne allergen, which when inhaled, triggers and immune type reaction which is manifested on the skin level with itching and redness.  Many Atopic pets exhibit licking at the feet as well as scratching at the ears.  These allergens can include mold, pollen, scents used in the house, detergents and even some fragrances used by the owners themselves.

Another common allergy is flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) which generally presents with a pet scratching or licking at the hind end region, around the tail base.  This is different from a pet that has fleas as not all pets with fleas scratch in this particular region. Some pets are hypersensitive to the saliva from the flea bite, which then triggers and immune reaction, manifesting with scratching in this region.  The level or degree of scratching can range from minimal to severe, often with evident hair loss, redness of the skin and even pustules.  In most cases, fleas are readily seen, but this is not always the case.

Food allergies are another form that is quite common, manifesting with itching and licking generally localizing to the feet and ears.  This is not unlike Atopic Dermatitis and the two conditions must be differentiated for proper treatment.  In most cases, it is a protein found in the diet or it could be a preservative or even coloring agent or additive.  Most of these pets are put various food trials in order to eliminate the diet as the source of the problem. 

So What is the ODOR?

Many, but not all of these pets will present not only with scratching but if you smell closely, there is a distinct odor to many of them, often likened to the smell of dirty socks or athlete’s foot.  Some will even have a more greasy or oily feel to the hair coat.  This odor is produced by a yeast (Malassezia) which more often than not is what is termed an opportunistic organism, essentially setting up shop on the skin surface due to the environment being just right due to the allergies and secondary skin infections.  The yeast doesn’t just show up on the skin, but can be present in the ears with a discharge as well as in-between the toes.  The yeast not only causes an odor and oily skin, but also contributes to the scratching.

How Are Skin Allergies Treated?

Skin allergies are not necessarily treated, but more so managed to the best of our abilities.  If we can pinpoint the cause, in terms of the allergen, and remove it from the pet’s environment, then we can quickly correct the issue.  This is true in the case of fleas but is more complicated when it comes to pollen or even various scents used in a household.    The long and the truth of it is that unless we can eliminate the particular allergen, the condition can be hard to manage.

In most cases, given that an allergy signals an overactive immune system, we try to control the immune response through the use of corticosteroids or other immune modifying medications such as Cyclosporine.  They can be effective in the short term and provide needed results, but the reality is that many pets require ongoing medication usage which can have major health ramifications.  We have to remember that the immune system is a vital part of overall health.  These medications are effective, but they often lower the immune response, opening the door for other health problems and some of them directly impact liver function. Anti-histamines are another type of medication that can be used to control the immune response, but in my experience, they are often not that effective.

In addition to the usage of medications to control itching, we will use antibiotics to control secondary bacterial infections, topical medicated shampoos to help eliminate bacteria and yeast and in some cases use a specialized hypoallergenic diet.  These approaches are all symptomatic in my opinion, with most yielding results in the short term only.

Other Options

The truth is that many allergies actually stem from a poorly functioning digestive tract, whether if that is a primary problem or secondarily induced as a result of a particular diet.  Many commercial diets used inferior ingredients, loaded with preservatives, additives and even coloring that can harm digestive and immune health.  Many times, the immune system views many of these ingredients as being foreign material, mounting an immune response in the effort to eliminate it from the system.  This heightened immune system can then lead to an over-reaction to other allergens such as pollen or even fragrances.

As a veterinarian, my first concern is the welfare of the patient. I will more often than not use corticosteroids for the short term to gain control of the problem.  If I can eliminate the allergen, then I will, which will make controlling the problem easier.  If the problem is not resolved and becomes an ongoing issue, then we tend to dig deeper and address underlying issues.

The truth is that research often points to underlying gastrointestinal disease as being a major contributor to allergies.  The term ‘leaky gut syndrome’ is often tossed around and essential refers to damage done to the lining of the intestinal tract, which is a result of uncontrolled inflammation.  When the lining of the intestinal tract becomes ‘leaky’, then various food particles, dyes, additives and preservatives from a processed diet can actually enter the blood circulation.  The immune system then actually responds to these particles as they are perceived as being foreign.  This response can lead to a heightened level of inflammation and the end result can be an over responsive immune system, contributing to allergies on many levels.

Considering all of this, the diet is the first area that I will approach and in most instances persuade the owner to either home cook for their pet or use a commercial, organic whole food type diet.  In many cases, making this move can make a huge difference in overall health and allergies in 1-2 months.  Considering that gastrointestinal health and the immune response are also huge players, we can address both of these individually or together.  In most of our patients, I will use our Cur-OST® SA Immune formula, which provides a nice level of support for the immune response, while also supplying L-glutamine which aids in gastrointestinal repair.  When I combine this formula with a home made diet, sometimes the results can be dramatic and help us to not only improve the health of the patient, but aid in the reduction of medications needed.

Another approach that we have used in our horse patients is a formula called Cur-OST SA Total Support.  This formula was based on some research we conducted in the use of various herbs to reduce inflammation, support healthy digestion and aid the immune response in our equine patients with systemic allergies. The SA Total Support helps to support a healthy inflammatory response in pets, but also addresses underlying gastrointestinal issues through the use of Dandelion, Marshmallow and Parsley extracts.  This formula has proven very beneficial for a variety of allergy conditions in our patients over the years, when combined with a non-processed diet.

The bottom line is that allergies in pets are becoming more common and cause a high degree of discomfort not only for the pet but for the owner as well.  Standard therapies are effective but fail to manage the conditions adequately for the long term.  We need to look at these allergies as a signal of poor health and thus, find ways to optimize overall health though diet and supplementation.  Allergies can be hard to treat, but can be more easily managed with the initiation of a few basic strategies.  It can take some work, but in the end, your pet will thank you and your life will be enhanced as well!

All our best,

Tom Schell, D.V.M.

Nouvelle Research, Inc.

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