By Karen Cornish
Itchy skin in animals can be a sign of ill health and shouldn’t be ignored, which is why August has been designated Itchy Pet Awareness Month. Pet owners are encouraged to look out for signs of their dogs and cats scratching more than normal and if so to get them checked over by their vet. Even if the cause of the itch is something minor, any irritation is likely to be making a pet uncomfortable and miserable.
Has your pet got a problem?
If you’ve spotted your pet scratching, it’s worth investigating yourself first. Ask yourself these questions and make a note of the answers to tell your vet if necessary;
· Are there any signs of redness or yeasty smell on your pet’s skin, ears or paws?
· Has the condition of your pet’s coat changed? Does it look dull, dry or flaky? Are there patches of hair loss?
· Has your pet started scratching excessively?
What is excessive scratching?
A few scratches a day for a dog or cat is normal but if an animal starts scratching more than four or five times a day for several minutes at a time the cause will need to be investigated. Itchy skin is not just dealt with through scratching either – a cat or dog might nibble, bite or lick at affected areas too. If left, itchy areas of skin can become red and sore, and even infected which can lead to severe discomfort or pain. Look out for bald patches too, which are a clear indicator that there is an issue with the skin.
Which itch is it?
The most common causes of itchy dogs and cats are parasites, atopic dermatitis (skin allergies), food allergies, and skin infections. While the vast majority of allergies in cats are due to fleas, allergies in dogs are more commonly triggered by dust mites and pollen. You may need the help of your vet to work out the cause of your pet’s itchy skin.
Fleas, common during summer but a year-round concern, irritate skin via bites or allergic reactions to saliva. Detecting fleas can be tricky; fine-toothed comb grooming and checking for flea dirt (rust-coloured pellets) help. Symmetrical hair loss in cats could signify flea allergy dermatitis.
Addressing infestations involves simultaneous pet and environment treatment. Sarcoptic mange, caused by skin-burrowing mites spread by urban foxes, triggers intense itchiness in dogs. Diagnosis is complex but signs include hair loss and inflamed skin. Cheyletiella mites induce severe itching, earning the nickname 'creeping dandruff' due to skin flakes' movement.
Regular parasite control using vet-recommended products or natural repellents is key to keeping these pests at bay.
Atopic dermatitis in dogs, often starting around six months, begins with facial, ear, and foot itching. Triggered by allergens like pollen and dust mites, it's akin to human hay fever. Certain breeds, like Cocker Spaniels, Poodles, and West Highland White Terriers, are more susceptible due to genetics.
While no cure exists, symptom relief involves anti-inflammatory steroids like Prednisolone. Steroid use may lead to side effects in pets. Identifying triggers can aid prevention but might be complex, especially for unavoidable culprits like pollen and dust mites.
To minimize flare-ups, avoid high pollen times, grassy areas, and use damp cloths post-walk. Limit sprays and air fresheners, wash bedding often, and clean your home regularly. Some dogs might benefit from a sensitive skin diet.
Secondary skin infections, common due to saliva mixing with yeasts and bacteria, usually target hot spots like armpits, groins, and feet. Dogs with skin allergies often experience ear infections too.
While cats can be affected by food allergies, it is largely an issue with dogs. Food allergies are not as common as atopic dermatitis and can be very difficult to diagnose. Food allergies can develop at any age and it is quite common for a pet to suddenly become allergic to a food that they have previously eaten with no issue in the past.
In dogs, the symptoms of a food allergy are the same as the symptoms of atopic dermatitis, which makes the conditions difficult to tell apart. The only way to determine a food allergy is to switch your pet to an elimination diet for 12 weeks and then gradually introduce foods one at a time. This is a time-consuming procedure and should only be undertaken on advice from a vet.
Skin infections can be caused by either bacteria or yeast, and in most cases, they are secondary to something else that is going on in an animal’s body. Bacterial infections occur where the skin has been damaged either through scratching and biting or in warm skin folds where bacteria multiply, while yeast infections usually occur alongside other skin diseases.
Bacterial infections in an animal are characterised by red, weeping wounds, painful spots, and hair loss while signs of a yeast infection include greasy skin, crusty spots, and a stale smell.
Once a vet has diagnosed a skin infection, they will most likely prescribe antibiotics or a topical wash to treat it.
Maintaining good skin health
An animal’s skin equates to 10-15% of their body weight and provides a vital barrier against environmental threats – protecting the internal organs, as well as containing nerve endings that help a pet to sense heat, cold, pressure and pain. Therefore, good skin health is an essential part of a maintaining a pet’s overall well-being.
Skin health is a good indicator of an animal’s general health. Cats and dogs should have coats that are shiny and smooth rather than being brittle or coarse, and their skin should be clear rather than greasy, flaky or bumpy.
Diets that are rich in omega 3 fatty acids are essential in caring for your pet’s skin and coat. They help to protect them, as well as keeping the coat shiny, and combat inflammation. Zinc is also important for the skin to help reduce water loss caused by constant shedding. Pets deficient in zinc are likely to develop hair loss and skin infections.
Home remedies you can try
Once your pet has been thoroughly checked over by a vet to rule out any underlying health issues that could be causing their itchiness, there are some things you can do at home to help relieve itchy skin in dogs and cats.
For dogs with irritated skin, a lukewarm bath in which several green tea or chamomile tea bags have been steeped can be very soothing. Colloidal oatmeal baths can also offer relief by helping to reduce inflammation.
Aloe vera gel can be applied directly to a pet’s skin to help reduce redness and promote healing. Ensure the gel you buy does not contain any alcohol though as this could cause your pet’s skin to burn.
Baking soda – when combined with water to make a paste – can alleviate itching and reduce redness on a pet’s skin. Spread a small amount directly onto the affected area and leave for around 20 minutes before thoroughly rinsing it off.
Top tips to ditch the itch
Here are some things to remember that will help keep your pet itch-free:
· Keep parasite prevention current and consult your vet for the right product.
· Limit baths unless very dirty; use pet-specific shampoo and thorough rinsing.
· Avoid human shampoo due to differing pH levels; pets are less acidic.
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