Skin issues have to be one of the most common complaints veterinarians are asked to address. In fact, an entire specialty – veterinary dermatology – has thrived in recent years as people seek help for common skin problems in dogs. My family is intimately aware of the effects of every single item below and we are currently treating one dog with mange issues and another dog who gets frequent skin infections.
So how do you tell if your dog’s itchiness is normal or if there is an underlying problem? This is a good question because a certain amount of scratching is normal and if a flea or two happened to pay a visit then itching and scratching is a guarantee. The information below provides further details about a few common skin problems that take itching and discomfort to a new level and how to address them.
Dogs, like us, are susceptible to many forms of allergies. They can react to ingredients in food, inhaled allergens, and materials that their skin comes into contact with. Allergic inhalant dermatitis is very common in dogs and can affect about 10% of the population. Those who are affected are usually genetically predisposed to be sensitive to something in the environment.
Inhalant allergies are usually seasonal and can first begin between 6 months and 3 years of age. Severe itching, also called pruritis, is the classic characteristic of this disorder and is most common around the feet, face, ears, armpits, and abdomen. Noticeable lesions can develop if the itching is severe enough to cause the dog to harm itself through excessive scratching, biting, or licking.
The primary methods of treatment for this are avoidance of whatever triggers sensitivity, symptomatic treatment during the active season, and immunotherapy.
Also called pyoderma, these infections can be present by themselves or can be secondary to other conditions like the allergies mentioned above, internal endocrinological diseases, or parasitic diseases like the mange mentioned below. The most common cause of these infections is the bacteria Staphylococcus intermedius – commonly referred to as a simple staph infection.
Symptoms of an infection can include hair loss, pustules, and crusty skin. Any area of the body can be affected but areas that tend to be moist and less open to the air (such as facial folds, neck folds, in between toes, and armpits) offer an ideal location for bacteria to grow. Severe cases can often play a role with acral lick dermatitis – sometimes referred to as hot spots.
A veterinarian can definitively determine the presence of specific bacteria and treatment can include a course of oral antibiotics. In some cases your vet might also recommend topical antibiotics and/or shampoo therapy to maintain appropriate skin health.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis
This can be referred to as FAD or as flea bite hypersensitivity and is the most common skin disease of dogs in the United States. Interestingly, dogs who are not exposed to fleas and have never been bitten or are rarely bitten, tend to show a more pronounced reaction to flea bites than dogs who are continually exposed to flea bites. Itchiness in affected dogs can be very intense and may not be localized to one area of the body. Classic signs of FAD include lesions on the lower back, tail head, posterior, and inner thighs.
Dogs with FAD tend to exhibit signs of extreme discomfort and restlessness and, in very affected dogs, self trauma can occur. Treatment of this issue includes all the methods for treating flea infestations that are outlined in this post. Control of the flea population is vital to addressing FAD but complete elimination of fleas is usually not possible so this is a skin issue that may reappear every year when fleas are at their worst.
A common form of mange is caused by a tiny little mite – Demodex canis – that naturally lives on your dog’s skin. Usually these mites are not noticeable and do not cause problems but when a dog is under stress or becomes immunocompromised they can experience an overgrowth that causes severe hair loss, crusty skin lesions, and thickening of the skin. This is sometimes what makes some homeless or rescued dogs look so absolutely horrible.
Two forms of this disease exist – a localized version that appears in dogs that are younger than one year and a generalized version that can appear at any time. Diagnosis of demodectic mange must be made by a veterinarian and is usually done by obtaining a skin sample that they examine under a microscope. The localized version of the disease is usually treated with a topical ointment and can clear up on its own spontaneously as the dog ages.
The generalized form of the disease is more severe and can manifest as hair loss, pustules, or crusty lesions. A secondary bacterial infection also often occurs and if left to progress long enough, this disease can cause systemic illness. The only treatment for the generalized form of demodectic mange is a series of full body dips accompanied by treatment of any secondary bacterial infections and additional skin scrapings to test for the continued presence of mites.
There are many other factors and agents that can cause skin problems but these are a few of the big hitters. The good news is that, for the most part, these issues can be controlled or resolved. Our family has a Jack Russell Terrier who battles chronic recurrences of demodectic mange due to an underlying autoimmune disease but treatment of the underlying disease keeps his mange outbreaks at bay.
I have the most trouble with our Airedale who suffers from airborne allergies. The allergies are difficult to control in our area and she is prone to secondary skin infections so we have to tackle her problems in several ways. We give her an antihistamine for the allergies, baths for the skin infections, and topical treatments for more severe areas. She is a bit of an ongoing battle but at least she’s cute.
If you think your dog is suffering from any of the issues above it won’t hurt to see your veterinarian. In many cases it will require their expertise to obtain a definitive diagnosis of the problem and they will be able to offer prescription treatments if needed.