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What's causing your pet to itch?

We all get an itch from time to time it’s just a part of life! However there are number reasons that cause pets to itch excessively, the constant scratching, licking and chewing at themselves to point of damaging their skin. The term we use to describe this issue is called ‘pruritus’.

Itchy skin is one of the most common reasons an animal visits us.

What may be the cause of your pet’s itchy skin?

Fleas:

Fleas are one of the most common causes of itchy skin. A flea bite normally causes an itch however some pets have an allergy to their bites called flea allergy dermatitis where just one bite can cause intense itching, chewing, licking, hair loss, rashes and reddened skin that lasts for days. This may lead to skin infection which only exacerbates the problem and causes overall discomfort to your pet. 

How can you tell if your pet has fleas?  

Look for flea dirt, which appears as tiny black specks of dirt in their fur and environment and of course signs of the flea itself! A good place to start looking is at the base of the tail and abdomen. Even if no obvious fleas or flea dirt is found, it may be worth using a fine 'flea' comb through their coat, tapping the hair and dirt onto a white tissue or surface to examine for fleas and flea dirt. 
To treat flea infestation ensure your pets' veterinary approved flea prevention is up to date and also consider treating their environment. Depending on the severity of the pruritis and secondary infection your pet may need prescription medication to alleviate the itch plus a medicated wash may be able to assist in treatment of irritated skin.

Mange - demodex mites and sarcoptic mites:

Mites in general cause intense itchiness, scaly, patchy fur and make your pet susceptible to secondary skin infections causing considerable discomfort and foul smelling skin- they can be confined to only a couple of spots on their body (muzzle, behind ears) or affect the whole body causing extensive hair loss and infection.

To diagnose mites a skin scraping will be performed and examined under the microscope.

Some mites such as sarcoptes may be difficult to find and may be diagnosed based on a visual inspection of your pets skin, overall body condition plus thorough history. Treatment is relatively straight forward although multiple treatments and medications may be needed to help get it under control.

Common types of mites we see:

Demodex mites- are not transmitted to humans and less common in cats than dogs. Cats and dogs get different ‘types’ of demodex mites therefore cannot pass them on to each other. Demodex mites are usually found on animals with weakened or immature immune systems.

Sarcoptic mites- are highly contagious to humans and can also transfer between species. Sarcoptic mites are often thought to transfer to our pets from wildlife such as wombats.

Ear mites- are, as the name suggests commonly found in our pets' ears, although may also be found in other areas. Ear mites are most commonly found in puppies and kittens. They may be seen with the naked eye, however are more commonly diagnosed by examination of a sample of ear discharge or a skin sample under the microscope.

Other insects:

Insect bites such as bee stings and ant bites can cause sudden itchiness often accompanied with swelling- a quick trip to the vet may be needed to help alleviate the allergic reaction.

Insect bite hypersensitivity is a common reason for pruritis in horses, often referred to as Queensland itch. 

Diet:

Food allergies are also a cause of itchiness- signs are itchy skin, hair loss, and poor quality coat. Food allergies may also be associated with frequent diarrhoea and vomiting. 

Food allergies are generally caused by certain proteins in their diet.

The body’s immune system kicks into gear to fight off these ‘bad' proteins which in turn causes skin and gastrointestinal issues. A visit to the vet is required to determine whether or not your pet may be suffering from food allergies. A few tests will be needed to rule out other potential causes and then they will be able to assist you in planning a food elimination trial- this will require feeding your pet a strict low allergy diet for a number of weeks with the goal that their symptoms start to subside and eventually clear up. After this trial is completed your vet will be able to assist you in providing your pet with a long term dietary plan.


Environment allergies:

Atopic dermatitis and contact allergy are a hypersensitive reaction to your pet’s indoor and outdoor environment.

Some of the allergens include grass, common garden plants, pollen, dust mites and mould.

Signs include itchiness, hair loss around the muzzle, licking at feet, and red and irritated skin. Trauma caused by the excessive skin itching may develop into a 'hot spot'. It is possible to perform allergy testing on dogs to try to diagnose what’s causing them discomfort (this often requires referral,to a specialist dermatologist). Once the allergen has been identified your dermatologist may come up with a plan to desensitise them to this allergen which is usually a course of injections over a period of time. There are also a number of short term and long term medications and medicated washes available to help assist with these type of skin allergies.

Medical issues:

Some medical issues, such as hyperadrenocortisolism  or hypothyroidism may contribute to skin problems which is why it’s very important to get a proper diagnosis from your vet.

Some allergies may have an inherited component, and certain breeds are prone to skin conditions due to their genetic predisposition. Issues such as excess skin folds, various ear shapes and hairy ear canals, all of which provide a warm moist environment for bacteria and yeast, to grow may contribute to pruritis. Thicker furred or lighter skinned dogs may also be more susceptible to certain skin issues.

There are many causes and treatments for itchy skin in dogs- a diagnosis is needed to properly identify the cause and treat in the best possible way. Diagnosis and management of skin issues can be frustrating, however your vet will be happy to work with you towards the most appropriate management plan for your pet. 

Author: Sara Brock
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