Scratching the Surface of Skin Disease
Previously, we discussed the top 5 visit reasons that pets get seen at their veterinarians. Well, we didn’t talk about skin issues but a top 6 list doesn’t sound as cool and the integumentary system has so many facets, it deserves a post of it’s own. When I was in Florida, I would call it a dermatologist’s dream job because of the number of skin problems. So why are we veterinarians seeing your cat or dog for skin problems?
By far, allergies are the most common causes for skin issues in dogs & cats. Allergy issues themselves are a humongous area of possibilities so we’ll summarize it here. The three main causes of allergies are environmental, food, and fleas. When it comes to the environment, it could be year round or seasonal. The offending allergen could be as common as grass, weeds, house dust mites, or in one rare case I remember – human dander. Yeah, this dog was allergic to his people! Sometimes these can be managed by keeping pets away from the cause, through the use of antihistamines or other medications, or in some cases the use of hyposensitization injections.
The number one thing I hear when I bring up food allergies is always “but he/she has been eating the same food for years!” Yes, that may be so but over time, your pet has become sensitized to something in the food that is making then scratch, lose hair, or develop skin sores. Most often, it is the protein source – not grains – and the best way to establish this diagnosis is to do a hypoallergenic food trial. Typically, the gold standard is going to be a veterinary prescribed diet that is hydrolyzed protein meaning it has been cut down molecularly so the body doesn’t recognize it. The other option is a novel protein diet, meaning a protein the patient hasn’t eaten before and this could be a certain type of fish, venison, or even kangaroo meat. The most important aspect is that your pet does not get ANYTHING else to eat for 8-12 weeks, including treats unless suggested by your veterinarian.
The evil flea…causes of so many problems. They are the easiest thing to rule out in terms of skin problems and usually the least costly to fix. During warmer months (though at any time of the year), you should keep your pets on a flea control medication from your veterinarian. Trust me when I say over the counter meds don’t work and may cause more problems, as noted by a recent CBC Marketplace report. Newer to Canada are chewable flea control products (NexGard & Bravecto) which can help pets who don’t tolerate or whose family doesn’t want to use topical spot-on products.
Aside from everything above, we can see superficial rashes or skin infections (pyoderma) which can be treated with medicated shampoos or in some cases oral antibiotics. Sometimes when these infections are not treated promptly and the pet scratches too much at the area, it can develop into a hot spot – a large inflamed moist infected area which can be painful. In younger pets, mange mites can be a common finding and can manifest as either scabs around the head (primarily scabies in cats) or small areas of hair loss in multiple places (typically demodex in dogs). To clear up some confusion, ringworm is not actually a worm but a fungus that can cause crusty skin and hair loss and is also contagious to people.
Ear problems are often grouped in with skin problems. Most ear problems can be traced to a mixed infection of yeast & bacteria but your veterinary team can do an ear swab to help decipher the cause. Ear mites are also notorious especially in young animals and can be spread to all the pets in the house. If too much head shaking goes on, then a swelling of the ear flap can occur – this is a hematoma and can be mildly uncomfortable. Previously, surgery was always recommended to fix these after addressing the underlying problem but lately I’ve had good success with draining them. When it comes to ears, only use a labeled pet ear cleaner and preferably one that also acts as a drying agent. This means no mineral oil, no peroxide, no alcohol, no water….just an ear cleaner that is labeled for pets.
These are just the basics of many common skin problems that can be seen in pets; believe me, we could spend a few weeks talking about all of them. There are also immune system conditions such as lupus and we can also see some specific breed related conditions. Most skin problems will present with similar signs – itching, hair loss, body odor, and redness. We haven’t mentioned skin lumps but my colleague Dr. Sue Ettinger has launched a campaign called “See Something, Do Something” and the basic premise is that if you see a lump present for longer than a month and it’s the size of a pea or larger, get it checked out. As a last note, I want to add that you should never give any medications without first consulting your veterinarian. Now what are you waiting for? Go check out your pet’s coat & skin and maybe it’s time for that bath.
Disclaimer: All blog posts are my own writing and or opinion and do not reflect those of my current or former employers.