It’s lovely to enjoy warmer temperatures and longer days at this time of year, as we see winter become a memory and look forward to summer. Our pets may enjoy the change in season as well, but for some, the joys of spring are spoilt by a big problem at this time of year – itchy skin. This is the time of year when allergies can rear their ugly heads!
Seasonal causes of itching in our pets can be related to Atopy, Contact allergy and Flea allergy. ‘Atopy’ is by far the most common problem and is an oversensitivity to environmental allergens, causing itchy skin. Humans can sometimes develop dermatitis, but while it’s much more common to see classic ‘hayfever’ signs in people, in animals the reaction is most often seen through the skin.
Atopy is caused by an over-reaction of the immune system to airborne particles. These can be pollens from grasses, weeds, trees and also house dust mites, cockroaches and mould spores. It is different from a ‘contact allergy’, where a red rash develops on unhaired skin because of direct contact with parts of a plant or other irritant. Often removing the offending plant (if you can identify it) will help resolve contact allergy signs, but atopy is much more difficult to manage as the offending particles are airborne and may be from plants growing many metres from your property. Classic signs of atopy are associated with itch. Most often we see this affecting the armpits, feet, under the belly and face. It is something that tends to get worse with age, so older animals may just be itchy all over. Animals may directly scratch, but licking at feet, and rubbing their face or body on the ground or furniture are also classic signs.
Warmer weather will also speed up the lifecycle of FLEAS. For some dogs, this is a mild nuisance, but for dogs with a flea allergy, a single bite can lead to intense irritation, with licking, chewing and rubbing over the rump and around the base of the tail. If a dog is itchy in this area, it’s flea allergy till proven otherwise. Cats tend to develop less specific signs, but often will have a break out of small scabs around the neck and/or down the backbone area, or red raw patches anywhere on their body.
Skin that is irritated, no matter what the cause, is also prone to developing secondary infections with yeasts or bacteria. These accelerate the itch and also lead to unpleasant odour, moist skin lesions and hair loss. Warmer, more humid days and summer activities such as swimming also favour bacterial and yeast growth. Dogs with atopy often develop ear infections because the skin of the ear is also compromised by the allergic reaction. People frequently blame food allergy for itchy skin in their pets. Food allergy is actually responsible for less than 15% of skin disease cases, so is much less common than people realise. Usually a reaction to the protein (meat) ingredient in the food, it can cause itching anywhere, but becomes a suspect in animals who chew their feet or have recurrent ear infections for no apparent reason, especially without a seasonal flare pattern. A very strict elimination diet with a novel protein source, or prescription hydrolysed protein diet, followed by a re-challenge to check for a reaction to the old food is the best way to diagnose food allergy.
As there are many things that can trigger itching in your pet, it is important to come and see us if your pet’s skin flares at this time of year. There are various shampoos, oral medications and nutritional supplements that can help keep skin more comfortable, and if allergies are the cause there may be some more involved therapies that could make a big difference to help your pet enjoy the spring and summer months much more!