“Itchy pet” is probably the most common type of appointment we see at MetroPet during the spring and summer months. The answer may not be as simple as we all hope. Fortunately, we stay up-to-date on the best ways to diagnose and treat skin problems and we have an effective plan.
When trying to figure out why a pet is itchy, it is important to follow a systematic and logical approach. It is easy to just jump to a conclusion like: My pet is allergic to ______. With “blank” being the hot buzz-word of the day: (grains, by-product meal, etc). You are constantly bombed by marketing trying to get you to buy new foods or products as a cure-all without any proof. If we take this shotgun approach without a proper plan, it leads to misdiagnosis, misinformation, and a pet that is itchy and miserable longer than it needs to be.
So what do we do? How do we figure this itchy pet out?
It’s as easy as following this list in a step-wise fashion. This is how I diagnose and treat the itchy pet:
- Superficial Skin Scrapings: In this test, the doctor looks at a sample of your pet’s skin under the microscope to look for yeast and bacteria, which are common secondary infections in allergic patients. This is because patients who have allergies have a defective skin barrier that allows infections to get into the skin that would not have been able to in a “normal” patient. Identifying and treating these infections appropriately is one of the first steps in treating the itchy pet patient.
- Deep Skin Scrapings: The doctors will check a deeper layer of your pets’ skin to look for microscopic parasites and bugs that burrow down into the hair follicles and skin.
- Ectoparasite Control Plan: Even with the best microscope and the best technicians in the world, it’s possible to miss parasites like fleas, mites, or mange. That is why if the above tests are negative, and even if you don’t think your pets have fleas and you are not seeing parasites, the doctor will recommend a long-term medication to completely rule out these issues. If we refer you to a Veterinary Dermatologist, the first thing that they will ask is if we have tried parasite prevention meds. It is the first step in the treatment plan.
- Dermatophyte Cultures: Dermatophytes, otherwise known as “ringworm” are common fungal infections of the skin. We take some skin and hair, place it in a petri dish with special growth medium and wait. It takes 21 days to see if fungus grows or not and if it does we identify that and treat accordingly.
- Rule out Food Allergies: A good food trial will diagnose food allergies by showing an improvement after 8-12 weeks. To correctly perform a food trial you would need to feed a non-allergenic diet for 8-12 weeks with absolutely no other food or treats of any kind.
If all of the above has been performed and your pet is still itchy, 9 times out of 10 it has allergies.
What are allergies?
Pets express their allergies differently than people. Pet allergies are more related to the skin. As mentioned earlier, if the skin barrier is defective, it lets in infections or parasites that would not otherwise be able to get in. The inflammation in these pet’s skin is hyperactive, which leads to a chronic response. This means that the inflammation leads to more inflammation.
What are pets allergic to if not their food?
Lots of things: pollen, plants, insects, I’ve even seen a pet allergic to humans! Allergies like these are called “Atopic Dermatitis” in pets. We have some great therapies for Atopic Dermatitis available and can definitely help pets with this condition. It is important to remember that just like allergies in people, there is no “cure” for allergies in pets. Allergies are a long-term disorder that must be managed over time. We must work with you and your pet to keep the disease under control and keep your pet healthy and happy.
If these therapies are ineffective and the pet is not getting better, there are other diseases to consider. Pets can get auto-immune diseases or cancers of the skin, and other more rare disorders. If your pet is not improving at this stage, we would recommend a skin biopsy and pathologist review. We would also consider a referral to a Veterinary Dermatologist to come up with a diagnosis.
I hope this explains more about what we do and why we do it that way. As always, feel free to call our office at 440-826-1520 with more questions!
Dr. Alice Toriello