We sit down with Dr. Tamera Cole, DVM and owner of Steiner Ranch Animal Hospital, to take a deep dive into the world of dermatological health for pets. We all know allergy season is a beast this time of year, and our pets deal with it, too! Dr. Cole has been practicing veterinary medicine since 1990, and her goal is to give her clients’ pets high-quality care with convenience, confidence, and compassion.
What are the five most common skin problems in dogs?
The most common is fleas! We have fleas year-round here in Texas. A single flea can bite 400 times in a day. Imagine 10 fleas on your dog! Other conditions include:
- Allergic dermatitis reactions to environmental allergens
- Infectious dermatitis due to bacteria or yeast
- Endocrine skin issues (secondary to low thyroid or a condition called Cushing’s Disease)
- Food allergies (Many people feel this is the most common issue, but only 10 percent of the pets with allergies have food allergies.)
How can I tell if my pet has a skin problem or dermatitis?
Skin problems usually present as scratching, rubbing, or licking at the irritated area. The common areas for pets are under the forelimbs, on the abdomen, between the toes (top and bottom), under the tail, and the ears. Skin problems may start out as itching only, then progress to rash, redness, pustules, and hair loss. The skin may be either flaky and dry or oily. Sometimes the areas look like red centers with a ring of flakes all around. Some owners believe their pet is chewing on their nails because they are too long, when in fact they are showing signs of a skin infection or yeast infection on their feet. If the pet has light-colored feet, they may appear red/brown from the licking. Also, if the pet has light colored nails, they may have a brown staining secondary to a yeast infection.
What is mange and how to you treat it?
There are several types of mange. Mange is caused by a mite that burrows into the skin, lives in the hair follicles or in the skin around and in the ears. Hair loss is the main symptom seen with mange. If it is the type of mange that lives in hair follicles (demodectic mange), the follicles become inflamed which leads to itching. Demodectic mange is not contagious between dogs but is difficult to eliminate. It requires the pet’s immune system to mature and keep the mange under control. Another type, Sarcoptic mange, lives in the skin, burrows, and is very itchy. This is contagious between dogs and is very treatable, but all those in contact with infected dogs should be treated. Cats also have their own type of mites, and they can be difficult to find and treat.
What are signs my pet may have allergies?
Pets manifest their allergies in their skin. They rarely have human symptoms like runny eyes and nose and sneezing from allergies. Allergies may start with itching, licking, biting, or rubbing of their face or body against the furniture or people. They may not have any obvious signs of infection or even a rash. As allergies progress, we see secondary skin infections with bacteria and yeast. Some dogs with recurrent ear infections are actually suffering from allergies. While people often see allergic reactions from breathing in the allergens, pets more often absorb allergens through the skin. This why skin allergies are more common in pets and respiratory signs are more common in people.
What treatments do you recommend for pet allergies?
Allergies are almost never “cured”; they can only be kept under control with the right combination of treatments. Just like their human counterparts, the only actual treatment for pet allergies is allergy testing to attempt to identify causes, and then desensitization. Some helpful tips:
- A recent improvement in desensitization products is sublingual therapy. The allergens are formulated into a liquid and can be put under your pet’s tongue twice daily, rather than injections. This is the only way to truly change the way your pet responds to allergens. This does not have any side effects and is the best long-term solution.
- Symptomatic treatment is another approach many owners take, but remember your pet will not get better with these treatments! The symptoms will just be less severe and allergic flare-ups less common.
- Omega- 3 fish oils may help reduce the inflammation caused by allergies by around 30 percent, but they must be given every day. The fish oils must be of a high quality and in much higher quantities than what works for humans. (Oftentimes the pet would need to take ten to 18 capsules a day of the same product that a human would take in one to two capsule doses!)
- Bathing your pet several times a week to remove allergens from their skin is extremely helpful
- Clean your pet’s bedding or sleeping surface at least weekly
- Wash food bowls daily and food storage containers often
- Purchase only the amount of food your pet may consume in two weeks
- Steroids are sometimes necessary to gain control of a severe allergic flare. However, long-term use of steroids is very dangerous to pets, and I do not recommend their use for chronic control.
Are my pet's paws really in danger on the hot pavement during warmer months? How can I combat this?
This is rarely a danger. If you have a new puppy, older dog with thin pads, or a substantially overweight dog, then the heat might cause a problem. Puppies’ pads are still soft and have not toughened from normal use yet. There are dog foot coverings made by various companies. I most often see issues when a dog has been playing fetch or running with the owner on hot pavement. When it becomes a problem, the pads become raw and painful. There are many products on the market claiming to toughen pads, but I have not seen any product really make a difference. Common sense is the real key, here. If you would not run on the hot pavement with your bare feet for a long time, then don’t have your best friend do it, either. Stay in the grass, and keep the time on really hot pavement to a minimum. Concrete does not get as hot as some of the tar-based pavement, so generally it is much safer, but still has risks.
What are the dangers of mosquitoes with dogs? Is Zika a concern?
Mosquitoes here in Texas carry heartworm infections. These are worms that will cause sudden death in cats and heart failure in dogs. We only have preventative medications for this horrible disease for cats—not post-infection treatment—so it’s generally fatal. We have both preventative and treatment for dogs, but the treatment uses an arsenic compound that is injected into your dog to kill the worms in their heart and lungs. Arsenic is a serious toxin to pets, so it must be done carefully, like chemotherapy. Please use prevention for the life of your pets. Zika virus does not appear to be problem in pets at this time. Most of our pets are spayed and neutered, and Zika virus is a problem most risky to pregnant women.
What are your thoughts on CBD oil for dogs? Can this help skin problems?
CBD oil to my knowledge has no anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, or antifungal properties—therefore it would not help skin problems in pets. It may mask your pet’s desire to scratch, rub, or lick, but it would not stop any of the sensations that you pet would experience. They would still be itchy and the continued exposure to the allergens will only worsen your pet’s condition. It’s best not to risk it until more is tested and known.
Alternative newly recommended skin treatments:
- Apoquel is a pill that helps break the cycle of itching, skin damage, and infection that has helped many pets.
- Cytopoint is a cutting-edge antibody injection for pets with allergies. Initial doses generally work for three to four weeks and may gradually provide longer relief (up to eight weeks).
What grooming products or skincare products do you recommend?
Shampoos and ear cleaners that have Phytosphingosine as an active ingredient help improve the skin’s natural barrier to bacterial and yeast invasion. Pets with allergies appear to have a skin barrier defect.
Are any skin problems listed related to thyroid problems? What should a pet owner be looking for?
Pets with a low thyroid hormone may manifest skin problems, but it is a relatively uncommon (yet over-diagnosed) problem in pets with skin issues. You cannot effectively test the thyroid values on a pet currently experiencing skin problems. Hair loss associated with thyroid disease is usually on the main body of the animal, whereas allergies typically occur initially on the extremities. Pets with a low thyroid are usually overweight and have a slow heart rate.
What types of food should pet owners avoid giving their pets?
There are no diets that are 100 percent “hypoallergenic,” meaning that they have no possibility of causing allergic reactions. Feeding a diet with a different protein source such as duck, kangaroo, lamb, or venison doesn’t prevent food allergies—it just makes it likely that if your pet develops a food allergy, it will be to that protein instead of something more common like pork or chicken. What surprises many pet owners is that grains are actually a much less common causes of food allergies—most pets with food allergies are allergic to animal proteins! Yes, there is the rare pet that is allergic to a specific grain, or even some other plant-sourced ingredient such as potato or carrot, but this is far less common than an allergy to an animal protein. Gluten allergies also seem to be extremely rare in pets, having been clearly documented only in Irish Setters and possibly in Border Terriers. Don’t be drawn into a potentially unhealthy and unbalanced “grain-free, gluten-free” pet diet by misleading marketing efforts.