Allergy season is officially here. The warmer weather does not only bring with it the outdoor adventures but also the flea burden, risk of mites and/or tick infestation, and the unavoidable exposure to a multitude of pollen and grass.
It can be quite stressful watching your dog obsessively chewing his/her feet or scratching his/her flank.
If you have ever had to take your pet to a vet for a major skin issue, you would have been subjected to an intense interrogation process. The veterinarian would have asked you a range of questions some of which are included below in no particular order:
1. What do you feed your dog? Have you recently changed his/her diet?
2. Is your pet up to date with flea control? Yes, which one?
3. Do you live on a property? Any possible access to foxes or a range of plants/bushes?
4. Has your dog ever had any skin issues before?
5. Do you bathe your dog? How often? When did you do it last? What product did you use?
I always take a deep breath before embarking on a skin consult. My primary concern is overwhelming my clients with all my questioning. I do my best to explain why each and every question is relevant. It always seems easier handling a client with a dog that has had its first skin flareup. However, for those clients who are frequent flyers, some can be quite understandably fed up with the whole interrogation process.
I would really like to start by saying that a really good veterinarian will not offer you the quick fix solution.
That’s easy, they can give your dog or cat a cortisone injection and send you on your merry way with a 1-2 week oral course of cortisone. The itching will stop and you will feel instant relief. However, the underlying problem would not have been addressed. After the cessation of the cortisone, your pet will more often than not have a relapse and you are back to square one. You have to fork up money for another vet visit. I often wonder if owners are pre-warned about the significant side effects that cortisone can cause their much loved pets. Just like in people, cortisone leads to increased eating, drinking and retention of water. In dogs, it can also unleash aggression. The risk with cortisone is increased with prolonged and repeated dosing and can even cause iatrogenic cushings or diabetes which are serious medical conditions.
I don’t want to get on my soap box about cortisone being the enemy in treating skin issues. In reality, short term use of corticosteroids is definitely warranted in the early management of many skin cases like flea allergy dermatitis. Dogs that come in with self inflicted hair loss and thickening around the base of their tail combined with a flea burden will always need cortisone to dampen the overstimulated immune response. I often examine those flea allergy dermatitis cases after they have already been treated with appropriate flea control like Frontline, Revolution, Advantage or Advocate and they are still very itchy. These dogs are free of fleas but their body is still in a state of war against the previous exposure to a flea. Hence, the only solution is to cool off their immune system with some cortisone.
During these in-depth skin consultations, I often get unstuck when I get clients misunderstanding my intentions.
They think I just want to sell them flea control products or a new diet to make an extra buck.
I am secretly gratified when some of these clients are adamant their dogs don’t have fleas and I reveal to them a hidden stash of them on their pets. I often wonder if they actually think I planted these live fleas on their pets just to prove a point, hehehe. I personally have had to prescribe cortisone in many cases, some of which I wasn’t particularly happy about. The animal was clearly suffering from a severe itch and his/her owners could only afford the dirt cheap cortisone tablets.
Now I think it is crucial for me to point out and discuss very common misconceptions:
- If your dog stops itching when you have asked him/her to, then maybe he is just doing it out of habit. Yes some pets can become obsessive compulsive about chewing themselves purely from a medical behavioural point of view but those cases are not as common as you may think! Before you can assume it is a compulsive disorder, a full skin workup must be done to rule out any underlying skin condition.
- Food allergy isn’t always due to a sudden change in food. Your pet’s body may have been exposed to that particular allergen for some time and has suddenly developed a reaction to it. The most common age for dogs to develop food allergies is between 5 and 8 years of age. Veterinary dermatologists will ALWAYS ensure your pet has been on an appropriate food elimination diet (4-6 week duration) before they rule out food allergy as a possible cause forpet’s skin issues.
- We can’t always diagnose your pet’s skin condition in a single consultation especially if it has been long standing. Some cases can be quickly diagnosed in the consultation via a skin examination or skin scraping like flea or mite infestation. Others are often much more complicated and can be multifactorial and can take several weeks to months to definitively diagnose. Chaos below had a classical distribution of skin lesions indicating he was suffering from mange. We did some skin scrapings and were instantly able to diagnose him and start appropriate treatment.
- Flea collars and supermarket flea products don’t work effectively. Flea collars definitely stop fleas from jumping onto your pet’s head and neck. However, these cheeky fleas have learnt they can escape the collar’s potency if they chill out around your pet’s bottom end. Supermarket flea products are cheaper for a reason; the quality of the product pays the price. Please be careful not to use a supermarket dog applicant on your cat as it can kill your cat > read Poison is Poison about this issue.
- The cheapest and best option for your pet’s skin allergy is not getting him/her onto cortisone as soon as the skin flares up. The only means to truly nipping it in the bud is trying to get to the crust of the problem! Yes this may cost more upfront with the workup: skin scrapings or even biopsies, culture of specific lesions, food elimination trial, introduction of a healthier diet that better supports your pet’s skin & so forth. However, if you tally up the all up costs of cortisone and frequency of visits to the vets with the full skin workup & in most cases the diagnosis and appropriate management of your pet’s specific condition, you will realise it would have always been cheaper to properly workup your pet.
- If you bathe your dog enough, you can definitely rid him of that awful dog smell. That is so far from the truth! If anything, the more you bathe your dog, the more you rid him of his essential skin oils that support his skin barrier; this can make him/her prone to major skin flareups. You must always make sure to use a pet registered shampoo and keep in mind that your pet may potentially react to a specific shampoo. You shouldn’t bathe your dog more than once a fortnight or a month.
Stay tuned for more in depth discussions about the intricacies of managing some skin disorders in pets.
Next time, I will be talking all about gorgeous Lucy (pictured above), a 5 year old female de-sexed golden retriever, with some nasty dermatological issues . I am currently fostering and managing Lucy’s skin issues and will be giving you insight from both a veterinary and client perspective!