One of the more frequent problems presented to veterinarians, especially this time of year, is skin and coat related. And besides the fact that the skin is the largest organ on any dog, it is also the first line of defense in keeping your dog healthy and happy. The classic presentation involves excessive scratching, redness of the skin, often with scabs and sores, skin infections, a dull, thin coat, and a tremendous amount of discomfort. These symptoms are generally why dogs are brought in to see their veterinarian. And, during spring and summer, these problems are typically associated with skin allergies, mostly to pollens and fleas.
Dogs can be allergic to many things—household allergens such as wool, cotton, dust, dust mites, tobacco, chemicals, and some dogs can actually be allergic to cats as well as human skin—they can be allergic to their own pet parents!! This time of year we have the added problem of pollen allergies, and, of course flea allergies which are very common. Additionally, to complicate matters even more, about 15-20% of allergies might be food related. Like with people, dogs who are allergic to one substance are often also allergic to others.
If your dog is scratching, and has irritated skin, typically there may be a smell that accompanies these symptoms, often due to secondary infection. In such cases, the dogs may become very unattractive to their owners, who are reluctant to pet them as much, sit close to them, or even have them sleep in bed because the smell can be overly offensive.
Of course, these dogs need to be treated—for their sake, as well as for yours! The goals of therapy are not only to treat the secondary infection and battle the allergy, but also to enhance the overall health of the skin, so once again you wouldn’t mind if your dog wanted to cuddle in bed with you while you watch your favorite TV show.
It is critical to work with your veterinarian to identify any allergies present. The location of the lesions on your dog will often give us a clue as to the type of allergy we are facing. If the lower back and the area surrounding the base of the tail is affected, we think fleas. If the lower part of the abdomen and the inner thighs are involved, we think pollen allergies, or possibly some sort of a contact irritant from something the dog may have been lying on, like a pillow or their bed; it could even be from a fabric softener that you use; if dogs are chewing or licking their feet—either the tops or the bottoms, or incessantly scratching at their ears, we think of a possible food allergy—especially if this is happening year-round, i.e. not just seasonally. If the allergies are more seasonal, we think of seasonal triggers such as pollens, grasses, weeds, trees, etc.
To treat the secondary infection, your veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics and probably recommend a medicated bath or a medicated shampoo for you to use at home. Most of the antibiotics prescribed are oral tablets, capsules, or liquids, but there is a great injectable antibiotic, called Convenia, that is good for two weeks that you should ask your veterinarian about. You will also need to have the allergic reaction treated as well. Though tempting, we advise against trying to treat these allergies at home using antihistamines, as they are often ineffective in controlling the canine allergy. Histamine plays a very minor role, if any, in the canine allergic response, so other than possibly inducing a little drowsiness, they won’t be helpful in controlling your dog’s discomfort. Historically, the anti-allergy medications most often used to battle the allergic response in dogs were corticosteroids which were associated with a number of potential side effects. There are some newer treatments available from your veterinarian aimed at stopping the canine allergic response at its source—Apoquel, an oral medication, and Cytopoint, an injectable medication. Make sure to speak to your veterinarian about these revolutionary, effective, and safe, options.
Many dogs can also suffer from a dry skin condition. Once a dog’s skin becomes dry, it loses its ability to fight off germs, allergens and irritants, which can penetrate through the skin to become a problem. A healthy skin and coat is better able to withstand the effects of environmental irritants, etc.
Regular grooming is an important component of skin and coat care. Bathing, when necessary, or when prescribed by your veterinarian, is also an essential component to overall skin and coat health. An important fact to recognize is that a dog’s healthy coat acts as an insulator, keeping him/her cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But if the coat is matted, dry, or dirty, it is unable perform its function properly. Daily grooming and appropriate bathing will help insure your pet’s coat remains healthy. For those of you who think that, with summer coming, shaving your dog’s coat will help keep him/her more comfortable, think again!! In fact, a healthy coat will actually protect your dog against the heat more effectively, and will protect your dog against sunburn. Unless your dog is suffering from certain skin conditions and your veterinarian recommends shaving the coat, you should continue to brush regularly and medicate if needed, but don’t shave down!
Proper skin and coat care, using medicated shampoos and skin emollients, will help the skin create an effective barrier against some of these allergies and irritants. These can give your dog a leg up (pun intended) in maintaining a healthy coat, as well as an overall well-being. When bathing, make sure to use a pet shampoo (there are many good ones available) from a reputable source—either your veterinarian, online or from a pet store, but we don’t recommend using a “people” shampoo as the pH of a dog’s skin is different. I recommend Pawfume’s Emollient Spray to help protect and moisturize your dogs’ skin and coat, as well as Pawfume’s anti-bacterial First Aid Spray to help restore your dog’s coat health and protect against opportunistic bacterial infections.