One of the most common conditions we treat in veterinary medicine is skin disease. Dermatitis or inflammation of the skin can be caused by many things.

Parasites such as fleas, mites, or lice are quite common and often one of the most easily managed problems. Many dogs and cats have an allergic reaction to flea bites. Endocrine disorders such a low functioning thyroid or overactive adrenal gland can have effects on the skin.

The most likely cause of recurrent skin problems is allergies. The immune system overreacts to different antigens either in the environment or in a pet’s food.

What is considered an allergen?

Allergens can be plant pollen, dust mites, grain storage mites, mold, or even human dander. Allergens in food are generally caused by proteins (beef, dairy, chicken, and fish are common sources of protein in pet foods). As with humans, pets are individually sensitive to different allergens. Unlike humans who show symptoms of sneezing and itchy eyes, pets get itchy skin. There are some breeds that are more commonly affected by allergies.

Secondary to the inciting cause, many pets develop skin infections, both bacterial and/or yeast. These can require antibiotics or antifungals.

What to do if your pet develops a skin issue

Options for managing allergies should start with a clinic visit for a thorough history and physical exam which may include tests to rule out other causes for skin disease.

Allergy therapies for mild cases utilize non-invasive techniques such as wiping down the face and paws after playing outside and using a medicated shampoo or topical lotion to relieve itching. More severe allergies where pets are losing fur, developing infections, and seem to be more uncomfortable may require more aggressive therapy. Antihistamines are effective in some dogs and cats. There are several other daily medications that can be tapered to the pet’s needs. Pets can be allergy tested and receive ‘allergy shots’. Chinese or Western herbs are helpful for some patients. There is a newer injectable alternative method for dogs using immunotherapy which involves monoclonal antibodies. This therapy is specifically targeted to the pathway that causes itching and inflammation, doesn’t affect other immune function, and typically has few side effects. As with any therapy, it’s important to discuss the risk and benefits with your veterinarian.

Ruling out food allergies

To rule out food allergies, a food trial is needed. Food trials require complete elimination of all treats and table foods and usually require prescription hypoallergenic diets as over-the-counter diets often contain trace amounts of other products. Owners can also prepare home cooked diets for their pets. This completely eliminates preservatives and the ingredients can be adjusted to suit the pet, it just needs to be nutritionally balanced. In a perfect world, this is how we would prepare our pets’ food (and ours!).

The most important thing to remember when finding the best therapy for your pet is that we can never ‘cure’ allergies, only manage them. As you can see, there are many possible treatments and it will take some time and trials to find the best solution for your pet.

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