A Message from the Vet - August 2010
So Your Pet Is Scratching...

This is one of the most common complaints I see as a veterinarian. Sometimes it manifests as the slow scratch of a hindleg on an ear that progresses to a constantly shaking head. Or perhaps compulsive licking that causes dramatic hairloss. Or vigorous scratching across the chest like one playing the ukulele. The jingle of collar tags in the middle of the night and the frantic digging against raw skin is often the signal to owners that something is wrong! Our pets itch and they can't help but scratch. Why? What is it about an over-stimulated immune system that gets under your pet's skin?

What causes the itch? It is the body's response to a stimulation, a release of histamine that causes the skin to redden, swell, and tell pain receptors to wake up! The most common triggers are parasites: fleas, sarcoptic mange, demodex mites, cheyletiella mites, brown dog ticks, and stick tight fleas. These social diseases come from casual contact with other animals, sharing spaces (beds, grassy areas, play areas, etc), outdoor exposure, or may even be brought home by a na´ve owner on their person. Infectious agents including bacteria and yeast can be a highly irritating cause of itchy skin that usually are opportunists in compromised skin.

And then we have allergies. What a pain! Many pet owners assume food to be the cause of their pet's itch. Advertisements, salespeople, and other advice givers are constantly claiming one food as better than the others. You may go through a variety of different foods, add in nutritional additives, and try multiple special shampoos without relieving your pet's itch. It may often seem as if you are attacking the itch haphazardly, throwing everything within reach at it. As frustration mounts, the professional may finally be called to solve the itch.

The physical examination of your pet is the first step in a rational approach for diagnosis and control. A thorough history of your pet's lifestyle and home surroundings sheds (no pun intended) light to help resolve the cause of the itch. We will seek to identify parasites and infectious agents that need to be eliminated and treated, and determine whether it is appropriate to change your pet's diet.

How do we treat an itchy pet? Our goal is to identify and treat the underlying cause of the itch. Meanwhile, we also want to make your pet comfortable by minimizing the itch, and may recommend antihistamines, medicated shampoos, or diet adjustments and supplements. Prescription medications are likely to be helpful in treating the underlying cause and stopping your pet's self-damage, which allows an approach for long term success. Some pets' allergies are so severe they demand the use of immune system suppressants.

If a diet change is indicated, we may recommend an 8-week "food trial" with a novel ingredient or hydrolyzed protein diet such as Hill's Prescription Diet D/D or Z/D. Z/D is a diet specially formulated for food allergic pets, in which the proteins are hydrolyzed into molecules that are no longer recognized by the immune system or trigger the body's allergic response. The food trial is often a challenge as you have to be very strict to allow your pet to eat ONLY the special food. That means no other treats or scraps from the table that may trigger the allergy!

In cases where your pet is not responsive to medical treatment or diet change, we recommend more advanced diagnostic testing such as a skin biopsy, or we may refer you to a veterinary dermatologist for intradermal skin testing against environmental and food allergens. In some cases, this may allow identification of the problematic allergens and direct appropriate lifestyle changes or formulation of a special "allergy vaccine" that may help desensitize your pet's immune system. While this does not work for all pets, it has yielded excellent results for some.

All in all, the caring veterinarians at our clinic will work with you to achieve your pet's comfort and your peace of mind.

John Haddock, DVM

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Last updated 2014 May 10.