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Managing Itchy Pets

By December 16, 2016 November 17th, 2023 No Comments

By Dr. Perry Stanfield, DVM

Where there is sunshine the doctor starves.  ~Flemish Proverb

Back in the dark ages, when I practiced farm animal medicine, I often referred to this proverb when discussing pneumonia problems with livestock.     During periods of poorer weather, animals tend to be housed with less ventilation, hence have more respiratory disease.      Veterinarians are often called on to help prevent or treat disease in these animals.     Coughing animals kept me quite busy.

In small animal medicine, we do many things in the summer but we certainly don’t starve , so our Flemish proverb doesn’t apply  very well.      We see a HUGE increase in allergic skin disease and itchy dogs in the summer.    But we have a very steady case of itchy dogs year round.   These cases can be very frustrating for you, the pet owner.

Our approach with itchy pets is very consistent:  perform a thorough physical examination, consider the distribution of visible skin disease, and perform some laboratory tests to determine what type of secondary infections might be present.     Initially we will treat secondary infections and administer an anti-inflammatory.     If we never see a problem again, everyone is happy.    If signs recur after medications have finished, we have a lot of work to do!

At the end of the day, most fall under 3 categories:  1) flea allergy, 2) food sensitivity, 3) Atopy, which is an allergy to an unknown environmental allergen (mites, pollens, just about anything).

Flea allergy dermatitis problems can be frustrating but are manageable and eventually can be “cured”.  Year round administration of flea control products is recommended.     We see heavily infested pets every month of the year.

The quickest way to manage a dog with chronic itching, when we do not have a flea problem, is to treat them for a food sensitivity and atopy AT THE SAME TIME.    We put them on a hydrolyzed diet, which is hypoallergenic.     We also treat them with a relatively new drug called Apoquel, which interrupts the itch response and is very helpful with atopic dogs.     We then have a dog that is often comfortable, will leave itself alone, and doesn’t require antibiotics or medicated shampoos.     And, the best part:  no need for steroids, which are unhealthy when given long term.

Granted, we do not know if our primary issue is food sensitivity or atopy.    But we have a comfortable dog with nice looking skin.     After 3 months, If an owner wishes to discontinue the hydrolyzed diet, they may do so.    If itching returns, we know we have a food sensitive dog.      If an owner wishes to discontinue the Apoquel, they may do so; if itching returns we probably have an “atopic” dog.   These dogs are never cured; many depend on Apoquel indefinitely.    Also, there is now an injectable product that is available that works in a matter similar to Apoquel.    It is showing a lot of promise.     Many owners elect to continue status quo, which is the most expensive option initially.   However, for many dogs this option affords long term relief from allergic skin and recurring infections.

Some of you know my family dog Zeus, a German Shepherd.    If you have seen me during an appointment with your own German Shepherd, I’ve undoubtedly forced a picture of my boy on you.      For the rest of you, here’s Zeus…… an example of a really allergic dog that is a very happy, comfortable dog.    He is on a special diet and Apoquel, every single day:


I never wish an allergy problem or itchy pet on any owner, but if one develops don’t be afraid to schedule an appointment.     Many will never be cured, but can be managed well.   Many of them require less aggressive treatment.     Problems detected early are more likely to lead to comfort before secondary infections get out of control.    As always, give us a call if you have any questions.

Happy Holidays everyone!

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