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Managing the Cause of Your Pet’s Itch

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Itching. Scratching. Biting. Rubbing. Rolling. Licking. Could you imagine experiencing these symptoms with no long-term relief? Neither can we!  

 When pet parents notice these signs of an itchy pet, the best way to help is by consulting with a family veterinarian or board-certified veterinary dermatologist. There are several causes for itching in dogs and cats – including allergies, parasites, and bacterial or yeast infections. The sooner these possible causes can be investigated and treated, the better the outcome! And the more specific your vet can be with your pet’s treatment, the more they can minimize side effects. This helps your pet live a long and less itchy life! So, if your pet is itching for help, here are a few tips on how to recognize the symptoms and to work with your veterinarian to manage the cause of your pet’s itch!

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Recognizing Causes & Symptoms  

It’s important for pet parents to recognize additional symptoms their pets may have and to discuss them with a veterinarian. By knowing all your pet’s symptoms and pinpointing the causes, your veterinarian will be able to create a more efficient treatment plan. Common causes and additional symptoms for itchy pets are:

  • Allergies
    • Allergies are the most common cause of itchy skin.
    • Additional symptoms include red skin and hair loss.
    • Blackened and thickened skin like elephant skin indicate a long duration of uncontrolled disease.
    • Allergic dogs also frequently develop ear infections. It is likely that the infections will recur unless the underlying allergy is addressed.
    • The two most common types of allergies are environmental allergies and food allergies.  
  • Bacterial or Yeast Infections
    • Infections from bacteria and yeast are common with allergies as the immune system is not responding properly to fight the organisms normally found on the skin. Additionally, dogs that chew, bite scratch, and lick disturb the top layer of skin that protect against infection. Licking and chewing also lead to a warm, moist environment – which bacteria and yeast thrive in.
    • Signs of a bacterial infection: Red and yellow bumps, scabs, scaling, hair loss, and/or increased itching.
    • Signs of a yeast infection: Darkened, red, moist, oily skin and/or increased itching. 

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Managing Environmental Allergies  

Of dogs with allergies, 85% have environmental allergies (dust, dust mites, grasses, molds, weeds, and/or trees). Not only is there no known cure for environmental allergies, but they also worsen with life. Fortunately, though, veterinarians can use allergy testing to diagnose your pet’s specific environmental allergen. Pet owners can use multiple therapeutic options to find the best allergic control with the fewest side effects, but only allergen-specific immunotherapy (allergy shots or sublingual therapy/drops) can slow progression and reverse a pet’s allergic signs.  

Allergy Shots and Sublingual Therapy 

This treatment option is a vaccine (given as a shot or as oral drops) that contains the environmental allergens that reacted on your pet’s allergy test. This is the safest option for controlling moderate to severe allergies. They work in 60-70% of pets, but may take several months up to a year to work. For the shots, pet owners can give them at home with the first few months being more frequent and then tapering to every 3 weeks for the rest of your pet’s life. The sublingual therapy (drops) is given once daily by mouth and absorbed through the gums.  

With every treatment option, it’s important to be aware of potential side effects. About 1% of dogs on allergy shots develop an allergic reaction to them with swelling of the face. If this occurs, seek immediate veterinary care. This is why it’s important to monitor your pet for 1-2 hours after giving them the shot. Some dogs are itchier after the shots are given, which often reduces with time.  

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Food Allergies     

In dogs, food allergies compose only 15% of dogs with allergies. However, a food allergy tends to be the easiest to manage as changing the diet often results in dramatic improvement. Food allergies are more common in young and old dogs, but can occur at any age. The most common allergens in a diet are from the protein source (chicken, beef, soy, eggs), but can be due to any ingredient in the food. Therefore, it’s important to make a diet history and know exactly what is in your pet’s food. The only way to diagnose a food allergy is to perform a strict food trial in which your pet can only eat a prescription commercial diet. If you suspect your pet has a food allergen, talk to your family veterinarian or board-certified veterinary dermatologist to see if a food trial is a good option for your pet.

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Your pet doesn’t have to live an itchy life! If you notice your pet is frequently itchy or is displaying any additional symptoms such as hair loss or red skin, schedule an appointment with your family veterinarian or board-certified veterinary dermatologist right away. The sooner your pet can be examined, the sooner your pet’s allergen can be identified and an effective treatment plan can be created to manage your pet’s itch! 

Learn more about Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota’s Dermatology Service here 

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