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When in doubt, see your veterinarian, get effective help, and head for the beach!
When in doubt, see your veterinarian, get effective help, and head for the beach!

The Itchy Skin Detective

 

Jul 29, 2019
by Dr. Michael Trapani

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Ah, summer! That wonderful time of year when grasses grow, flowers bloom, and the minds of insects turn towards thoughts of romance! What’s not to love about summer?

Unless of course, you’re a dog or cat. Then, the "Summer of Love" is far too likely to turn into the "Summer of Scratch." It’s not fun, and it’s certainly not pretty.

Most years, fleas top the list of irritants and allergens. Under dry, warm conditions, a flea can lay eggs, which hatch as larvae (flea caterpillars), pupate (turn into flea cocoons), and hatch out as adult fleas (flea butterflies) in as little as two to three weeks. Newly hatched fleas feed with 24 hours of leaving the cocoon and bite within 10 seconds of landing on an animal (or person!). Fleas don’t waste time.

Warm, dry conditions make all of this possible. Cool winter temperatures really slow the metabolism of flea eggs and pupae, extending their development time from mere days to weeks or months. Larval fleas survive by eating shredded skin and flea poop (dried, partially digested blood) from adult fleas, both of which are easily washed away when it rains. Neither chill nor moisture are present to slow fleas down during the summer.

But other causes of seasonal itchiness have to be considered. Pollen counts for grasses soar in early summer but begin to subside in July when fungal spores begin to rise and peak in August. By September ragweed pollens increase and peak by November. As winter sets in, indoor allergies to house dust and dander (yes, pets can be allergic to human dander) increase. Mold allergies also rise when damp winter conditions set in. It’s always something!

Food allergies are remarkably common but are typically non-seasonal. Pets with food allergies usually ingest the allergen every day, so there’s little or no "allergy season" like there often is with inhalant allergies.

How do we sort this out? Seasonality (or lack thereof) is a big clue, but the pattern of eruption is a big tipoff. A Systemic Eruption Pattern is a strong indicator that the allergen is taken internally, by being eaten or inhaled. In cats, this often shows itself as itchiness about the face and ears, with lesser reactivity about the body and abdomen. In dogs, itchy ears (or repeated, sometimes chronic ear infections), with licking of the feet and sides of the trunk are frequently seen in systemic eruptions.

Fleas, on the other hand, cause problems where they bite. Favorite flea dining areas include the base of the tail, the armpits, and the groin area in dogs. In cats, any old place seems to do. One great clue is the presence of flea "dirt." All one needs do is fluff their pet over a clean, smooth surface and then wipe the area with a damp paper towel. See those little black spots that turn red after being wetted? That’s flea poop. When you find this material on your pet, there is no doubt that they are feeding (and breeding) fleas.

No matter what your pet is allergic to, fleas will always make it worse. A good rule is to establish absolute flea control as a first step in controlling any itch problem - and don’t waste your time with 30 year old products and cheap, obsolete methods. The secret to effective flea control is to be lazy. If you can achieve 100% flea control for three months in two minutes by feeding your dog one pill, you’re going to have nothing but dead fleas. If you have to spend even an hour a month controlling fleas - forget it. Life happens and you won’t be able to keep up. An hour a month of your time will buy some immensely effective flea products. Spend your time at the beach instead.

Next, take a minute to review the ingredients of all your pet’s regular foods. Then, feed them something completely different for 30 days. Less foot licking, and improved ear redness are strong indicators of food allergy - and your dog is better! Ditto for cats who show decreased facial itchiness. A positive response to a novel diet trial is powerful evidence of food allergy.

There are lots of other things that cause itchy skin, but these simple things can eliminate the majority of problems. When in doubt, see your veterinarian, get effective help, and head for the beach!

The Family Pet by Dr. Michael Trapani, DVM

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