My dog is scratching! What can I do?
Did you know that skin and ear problems are one of the most frequently encountered problems seen in our pets, especially dogs? This can range from an occasional scratch to chronic, persistent, or recurrent skin or ear problems. Skin and ear problems can cause huge distress to our patients and their owners. Our team at Blacks Vets are here to help.
What are the causes of skin and ear problems?
Many underlying conditions are often compounded by secondary bacterial, fungal or yeast infections.
The main causes are:
The main parasites causing skin issues in dogs and cats are fleas, Sarcoptic mange mite (Fox mange), Demodectic mite and ticks.
Fleas are not host-specific, meaning that fleas from a fox or badger will happily infect your cat or dog, and your cat can spread fleas to your dog too. Fleas feed on blood by biting your pet, causing irritation which can then become infected, leading to a secondary skin infection (dermatitis). Some dogs and cats develop an allergic reaction to flea saliva triggering a more severe reaction.
Sarcoptic (fox) mange
With an increase in urban foxes, fox mange is a relatively common problem in the Black Country. The fox mange mite is a burrowing mite, meaning that it burrows deep into the pet’s skin. This causes intense irritation typically along the legs or ear tips in dogs, often causing the ear tips to become crusty. Many pets with fox mange will cause severe self-trauma, and these pets often struggle to sleep.
This mite doesn’t burrow but lives in the hair follicles. For this reason, dogs with this condition are generally not as itchy as pets with fox mange. However, we often see areas of alopecia (baldness) where the mites cause the hair to fall out. In some cases, there is crusting or secondary infection, causing scratching. Demodex in young dogs is usually less concerning than in older dogs as it may indicate immunosuppression.
Ticks tend to be mainly seen from March to November in our area. They start as a small parasite which is typically found in tall grass. When a pet (or person) brushes past, the tick will attach to the pet’s skin and feed. This causes it to grow and become engorged with blood. Occasionally we see patients (typically feral cats) with a vast burden of ticks causing severe illness through anaemia. Ticks can also carry parasites causing other serious diseases such as Lyme disease. With our warming climate and increased travel to Europe, newer tick-borne diseases are now starting to emerge. Some patients develop a sore area at the tick bite site, especially if the tick has been removed with the mouthparts remaining attached to the skin.
All of these parasites can be prevented with simple medications that we can supply.
Allergies leading to skin or ear problems are prevalent in dogs and also seen in cats. Environmental allergens include most commonly a range of pollens, house dust mites and forage mites (found in dry food).
With pollen allergies, sometimes our pets have more symptoms at certain times of the year (typically spring through to autumn), although signs can be seen at any time. Many pets are allergic to house dust mites or mites in their food, causing significant scratching.
Food allergies are less common than environmental allergens but can cause severe skin disease even for patients that have been on the same diet for many months or years. Investigating if your pet has a food allergy is not as simple as changing to a different food brand. The pet usually is allergic to a protein or proteins in the food, and many other brands will contain the same proteins, e.g. beef or wheat, even if this is not the main protein.
A home-cooked or commercial diet containing a single protein source, ideally a protein that your pet has not had previous exposure, is recommended. This diet needs to be fed exclusively for 8-12 weeks, i.e. absolutely no treats! Our vets can advise on the best diet for your pet.
Some pets become allergic to proteins in their food. Despite no change in diet, pets can suddenly start to itch or sometimes develop diarrhoea because they have become sensitised to their food.
Dogs with long pendulous ears, ear canals that are very hairy, excessively wrinkly skin, very thick heavy coats, or overweight pet are all more prone to skin issues. This can be due to a local environment where the skin is rubbing, becoming moist, or due to lack of air circulation, and can create an environment where bacteria or yeast thrive, causing dermatitis. Some breeds, such as West Highland White Terriers, are also very commonly affected by skin conditions.
Factors such as swimming or walking in a muddy area can also contribute to ear or skin problems by causing bacterial or yeast overgrowth. Pets that spend a lot of time indoors, especially on carpets, are more prone to house dust mite allergies.
When there is an underlying cause, what happens next?
Normal skin has a protective barrier allowing a small number of bacteria and yeast to live on the skin without causing an issue for the pet. If an underlying factor such as a parasite, allergen, host factor or environmental factor is present, the skin’s natural defence barrier is damaged, allowing either bacterial or yeast overgrowth exacerbating the skin condition.
What can I do to manage the problem?
Understanding the reason for the skin problem is the first step to controlling the situation. Some problems can be cured easily, e.g. treating parasites, whereas other conditions need ongoing management, e.g. allergic disease. Quite often, there are multiple causes that layer on top of each other and create the condition we see in each individual pet, and if all elements of the condition are not recognised and treated simultaneously, our pets will often not get better. The most important thing we can do is understand the underlying conditions rather than treat the symptoms.
If your pet is suffering from a recent new skin problem, it’s always worth looking carefully at parasite control, even if no parasites are seen. Fleas can be difficult to spot, particularly on patients with a thick coat of hair, and they only feed for short periods. Mange mites are not visible to the naked eye.
At Blacks Vets, many of our patients are part of our “Pet Health for Life Plan”, which covers the cost of their vaccinations, includes a free vet and nurse check and provides year-round parasite control with significant savings. This will ensure that many of the parasites that cause skin disease, and some that cause other severe conditions such as lungworm, are eliminated before a problem emerges. We recommend veterinary prescribed products to control parasites effectively.
Environmental allergens are more difficult to manage and tend to be lifelong. However, if you notice that your pet itches more after walking in a specific area (due to pollen allergy), it would be sensible to avoid these areas. Regular vacuuming of carpets and sometimes using sprays to reduce house dust mite numbers may help in some cases. Some pets are better on tinned food rather than dry food if they are allergic to forage mites, and we can supply various low allergy diets. Unfortunately, many of our patients are allergic to various allergens, simultaneously making treatment more challenging.
At Blacks Vets, we have a certified Dermatologist, John O’Flynn, who can help with complex, chronic and relapsing skin and ear conditions. So, if your pet is frequently itchy, licks their feet too much and makes them sore or keeps getting ear infections, please book in to see him.
How can Blacks Vets help?
To effectively treat your pets’ skin, we need to address the underlying factors and treat any secondary infection. Our treatment would be tailored towards the individual pet. We will get a complete history, e.g., how long has the problem been present, is it seasonal, have parasites been eliminated, what is the diet history to establish a cause. We may recommend parasite treatment or prevention and will often take samples from your pet to see if there is a secondary infection, and if so, whether this is bacterial or yeast infection.
This is very important to ensure your pet gets appropriate treatment. In some cases, all that is required is a short course of anti-inflammatories or medicated shampoos. We can advise you on the prevention of recurrence depending on the cause.
However, for patients with a prolonged history of skin disease or severe skin issues, we have a range of long-term management options, including anti-inflammatories, desensitisation programmes, and new novel biological medications (not chemicals) that block proteins that cause itching.
Our vets receive regular training in new, more advanced methods of controlling skin disease led by our dermatologist Mr John O’Flynn, who is an advanced practitioner in dermatology. In most cases, our vets can manage our patient’s skin problems effectively, but for those incredibly tricky cases, we also have the option of referring the matter to John internally.
What can Blacks Vets do that other practices can’t?
Clinical Director, John O’Flynn has a wealth of experience in dermatology. John particularly enjoys getting to the bottom of a complicated skin issue to make the patient and owners lives more comfortably. He is an advanced practitioner in dermatology and takes referrals from our vets and vets across the Midlands. Many of his patients now have a new spring in their step since their skin conditions have been managed effectively.
Will more than one visit be required?
Many skin conditions can be managed effectively but do require to follow up monitoring. In many cases, follow up consultations are shorter and at a reduced cost, but persistence is crucial to control many skin conditions.
Is this covered on my insurance?
If you have a lifetime insurance policy taken out in advance of the first signs of skin disease or if you have an annual cover with no history of skin issues in previous years, you may well be covered. If your insurance company can confirm that they are happy to cover the costs of investigations and treatments, we may be able to claim the costs directly from them. We have a dedicated team of insurance advisors who can help you with insurance matters.
My dog has had lots of skin treatments and is still scratching. How do I get to see John?
To get the most out of consultation for you and your pet, we book a 45-60-minute slot to discuss your pet’s condition in detail. If you are a Blacks Vets client, John will have access to your records. If you are attending from a different practice, once the appointment is booked with John, we would acquire your pet’s history from your current vets in advance to become familiar with it. During the consultation, John will have a detailed discussion with you and formulate a plan. In many instances, samples can be taken during the consultation and have the results immediately available the treatment process can begin leading to a better quality of life for you and your pet.