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Veterinary Group

Ask the Vet

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Itching…….If only they could talk……..

Question: My young dog has become very itchy over the last fortnight. I cannot see any fleas. Is there anything I can do to help?

Answer: If only they could talk… The most common causes of your dog’s discomfort are external parasites and allergies, but there are many avenues to consider.

Even in the depths of winter external parasites such as fleas and mites can survive and pass from host to host. If you have recently taken your dog to a friend’s house, for example, your pet may have picked up fleas indirectly from your friend’s cat via the carpet. If your pet is carrying only one or two fleas then these may be impossible to locate and yet could be causing the constant itch and irritation your dog is suffering. Foxes seem to get everywhere nowadays and they too can be an indirect source of fleas and mites.

Another major cause of itching is allergic skin disease, which usually starts in young dogs. This may be to environmental substances such as pollen, mould or dust mites and may be a life-long condition that can be ‘controlled’ but not cured outright. General scratching, rubbing at the face, shaking the head and ears, chewing and gnawing at the paws are their way to tell you about a skin condition.

As there are a number of possible causes for your pet’s irritation, it would be best to work with your vet to get to the root of the problem – and treat it effectively. Unfortunately there’s not always one single, simple test that can confirm the cause of a dog’s itchy discomfort. Your vet may want to conduct a series of procedures to reach a diagnosis. Some patience is needed when investigating a potential skin condition in dogs and reaching an accurate diagnosis may take a few weeks. In some cases, the treatment may be long-term or even life-long, needing regular recheck examination by your vet.

The vet will conduct a thorough review of your dog’s history and lifestyle, and a physical examination. Parasites may be eliminated by tests/physical exam or trial therapy. Medication will be given if bacterial or yeast infection is present. If there is only a partial response, or no response at all, your dog could be suffering from an allergy. Environmental and food allergies are relatively common conditions in humans and pets, and may occur concurrently.

Food allergy is diagnosed by response to veterinary supervised elimination and challenge feeding trials. The diagnosis of environmental allergies is usually considered a process of elimination, confirmed by intradermal or serum testing for suspect allergens. In various studies, a large percentage of atopic dogs responded to a hypoallergenic diet with a clinically significant (up to 100%) reduction in itching. This effect may have been due to a reduction in the overall antigen exposure, dropping the animals below their itching threshold. This phenomenon may make the identification more difficult, but can make management easier.

Thus, the use of a hypoallergenic diet or a diet with limited and uncommon proteins may prove useful not only in the identification and management of food allergy, but also in the management of atopy. In some atopic patients, feeding an appropriate hypoallergenic diet may be adequate to significantly reduce the clinical signs associated with pruritus.