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Just as with people, dogs and cats itch and scratch for many reason. Discovering the cause of the itching and scratching can be a difficult and time consuming process. Careful attention must be paid to history, clinical examination, and laboratory findings. The most common diseases that can cause itching and scratching include bacterial infections, allergies, food hypersensitivities, sarcoptic mange mites, demodectic mange mites, fleas, yeast, ringworm infections, autoimmune diseases, and hormonal and metabolic disorders. Sometimes it is easy for the veterinarian to diagnose the cause of itching and scratching , for example, when a pet has fleas crawling all over his or her body At other times, as with allergies, the diagnosis can be much more difficult to arrive at . Consequently, pet owners should understand that their veterinarian may not always be able to diagnose and prescribe the total treatment for the pet’s itching and scratching on the initial visit.
One of the major reasons the diagnosis of a pet’s itching and scratching can be difficult is because more than one cause of itching and scratching can be present at the same time. For example, a dog or cat may have a primary allergy infection that allows a secondary bacterial or yeast infection to develop. Unless both the primary and secondary causes of itching are diagnosed and treated, the scratching may lessen but it will not stop completely.
To help sort out all the possible causes of a dog or cat’s itchy skin one or more laboratory tests are often needed. One of the most common tests performed on a pet with itchy skin is a “skin scraping”. The skin scraping is placed under the microscope and examined for the presence of mites and fungus. Another test called an “impression smear” is performed by pushing a glass slide firmly against the affected skin, staining it with a dye, and examining it under the microscope for bacteria, white blood cells, yeast and mites. A third test called a “trichogram” requires plucking hairs and examining them under the microscope for fungus and mites. If a fungus is suspected as a cause of the scratching, a ”fungal culture” is performed on hairs harvested from affected areas. If fungal elements are present they will grow in the culture within 3 weeks. For the very difficult cases, diagnosis may necessitate surgical removal of a small core of skin so that it can be sent to the pathologist for microscopic exam. This surgical procedure is known as a “key punch biopsy”. If a food allergy is suspected as cause of a pet’s scratching, a “limited ingredient diet” should be fed for several weeks to see if it results in relief from the itching. If airborne allergens are suspected blood or skin testing should be performed in an attempt to discover the specific offending allergen. Unfortunately both airborne and food borne allergies are often present at the same time.
To further complicate diagnostic efforts, understand that yeast and bacterial infections may be either a primary or secondary cause of a pet’s scratching, whereas allergies, mites or fleas are usually the primary cause. The reader should understand that getting rid of the most primary cause will not always stop the itching if the secondary cause is not addressed and eliminated. Furthermore, it is not always possible to find a flea on a dog with fleas or a mite on a dog with mites. If this is the case then “therapeutic testing “is necessary to make the diagnostic connection. For example, if giving a mite dip or flea medicine stops the pets itching then a diagnosis of fleas or mites is made by association. However, if the pet with fleas or mites has a secondary bacterial infection the scratching may only be reduced but not disappear.
When treating mites or bacterial infections the veterinarian must always consider the possibility of an underlying immune deficiency predisposing the animal to such infections. Consequently, a thyroid test should be run to see if a “hypothyroid” condition could be suppressing immunity. Also, consider that nutritional deficiencies could be producing an immune deficiency, so evaluating the pet’s diet is very mportant.
Besides the above more common causes of scratching there are a number of less common causes that include hyperadrenalcorticism, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, liver disease, Mast cell tumors, Cutaneous lymphoma, Inflammatory Mammary Carcinoma, and maldigestion.
Of course the treatment for pruritis (itching) depends on the diagnosis, however improving nutrition and reducing toxins will be beneficial regardless of the diagnosis. Along this line, feeding food with a minimal amount of grain will reduce the likelihood of the pet developing a leaky gut syndrome. A leaky gut will allow intestinal toxins and allergens to enter the liver circulation, overwhelm the livers detoxification capabilities and consequently enter systemic circulation. This will overstimulate the immune system and make allergic response more likely .
I addition to eliminating dietary grain, food trials that begin by feeding a limited ingredient diet consisting only of a single novel protein and single novel carbohydrate will help greatly in minimizing allergic skin disease. Feeding a limited ingredient diet will make it less likely for food allergens to be present. Once the allergy symptoms are controlled by this limited diet other food ingredients should be added one by onei n an attempt to identify what foods are allergenic and which are safe. This approach to treating allergic itching and scratching is know as a “food trial”. Once the allergenic foods have been identified a healthier diet can be formulated and used in place of the limited ingredient diet. For those not wanting to go through the above food elimination process predigested food are commercially available. By predigesting the food the protein molecules are broken down into much smaller molecules which are then no longer allergenic.
In order to identify airborne and environmental allergens a sample of the pet’s blood can be sent to a laboratory that performs allergy testing. In about 2 weeks the laboratory will send back a report on what environmental allergens the pet is sensitive too. This same company can prepare a hyposensitizing serum containing all of the identified allergens. This serum will then be used to perform hyposensitizing therapy on the allergic animal. Such serums are injected according a predesigned schedule . The protocol provides continually higher doses be given. At first the injections are given every few days but eventually they may only be given monthly. Unfortunately hypo-sensitizing injections are not always the solution and it may take up to 9 months to see if the the therapy is effective.
Up to this point most of the recommendations and therapies discussed have been entirely conventional. I will now discuss more alternative therapies. To begin with, providing digestive enzymes to a meat based low grain diet will help minimize allergens. Then providing nutraceuticals to heal any damaged areas of the intestine and support liver function will help the pet repair his or he leaky gut. Systemic enzymes should be given on an empty stomach so that they will be absorbed into the blood stream and circulate in the blood and act as a blood cleanser thereby destroying circulating immune complexes. Omega 3 fatty acids are important for overall skin health and to provide anti inflammatory support. Next anti inflammatory herbs and antioxidants nutrients can be given to further reduce inflammation and minimize itching and scratching. Natural cleansing shampoos should be given at least weekly to remove airborne allergens on the pet’s skin. These shampoos should be followed with a cream rinse that contains a local skin anesthetic, colloidal oatmeal, and skin moisturizer. Skin sprays containing aloe, calendula, tea tree oil, and oil of lavender are very soothing and easy to apply. Several homotoxicological remedies are helpful with allergic skin problems. If the pet is terribly itchy and the chewing and scratching is causing self trauma then oral natural hydrocortisone can be given for a limited period of time to reduce inflammation and calm the skin down until the other approaches kick in. Natural hydrocortisone is cortisone that has been harvested from the Yam plant and appears to have fewer side effects when compared to laboratory manufactured prednisone or prednisolone. Furthermore, the herb Yucca has a strong anti inflammatory, anti itch activity as does the plant sterol betasitosterol.
Woodside Animal Clinic is a unique, very personal, one doctor practice where, for over 35 years, Dr. Simon has been healing dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, ferrets rodents, and reptiles with both traditional and alternative medicine. Dr. Simon is certified in Acupuncture, Chiropractic and Stem cell therapy. He is the author of 4 pet care books, a past president of the Oakland County Veterinary Medical Association and past board member of the American Holistic Veterinary Association. Visit us at www.doc4pets.com
Woodside Animal Clinic sees pets from all over Michigan but primarily from the greater Detroit area including Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Washtenaw counties. Cities in these counties include: Royal Oak, Berkley, Huntington Woods, Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Detroit, Redford, Allen Park, Romulus, Trenton, Livonia, Hazel Park, Madison Heights, Warren, Centerline, Clawson, Troy, Sterling Heights, Southfield, Birmingham, Lathrup Village, Bingham Farms, Franklin, Farmington, Farmington Hills, Novi, Northville,Wixom, Brighton, Livonia, Plymouth, Commerce, Ann Arbor, Ortonville, Clarkston, Waterford, Union Lake, Rochester, Rochester Hills, Auburn Hills, Utica, White Lake, Grosse Pointe, Romeo, Swartz Creek, Shelby township, Washington, Flint, Hartland, Lansing, Okemos, Howell, Brighton, White Lake, Romeo, Saline, South Lyon, Battle Creek, Saginaw, Windsor Canada, Toledo Ohio