Blog by Dr. Nick Kiefer

Without a doubt, one of the most common problems we see in our patients is itchy skin, known as pruritus. There’s a whole bunch of potential causes in our furry friends, from bacterial or fungal skin infections to fleas to mites (mange) to allergies. Whatever the cause, there’s no doubt that itchy skin drives our pets (and us!) totally batty. Pruritus can drastically affect quality of life by keeping everyone awake at night as Fido scratches away. Or, it can simply make it impossible to enjoy the activities little Chloe once loved, whether that’s playing with a ball or just chilling on the couch. Itchy skin can also come with other skin issues, including hair loss, redness, pimple-like bumps on the skin, or darkening of the skin.

The first step in the approach to pruritus is checking for infections or parasites (fleas and mites, mostly). You’ll see us do this with a few simple, common tests called a skin impression and a skin scrape. The impression checks for bacteria and fungus growing on the skin, while the scrape checks for mites. Both involve obtaining a quick sample from the skin and looking at it under the microscope.

If infections or parasites are found, a specific treatment regimen is prescribed to knock them out. If none are found, or if they are treated and itchiness remains, underlying allergic skin disease is suspected. There are 3 main causes of allergy in our pets – flea allergy (DEFINITELY the most common), food allergy, and environmental allergy (things like pollens, grasses, dusts, molds). Distinguishing between the causes of allergy involves a combination of analyzing where on the body the itchiness and/or skin lesions are located, response to various treatments, and results of a variety of testing modalities.

Flea allergy is by far the most common cause of allergic skin disease. Fleas LOVE living in Austin as much as we do- and unfortunately, we don’t have much of a winter to knock their numbers down. Regardless, the little buggers are happy to live inside our warm homes through the winter, where they create a constant problem for our pets. Even if we don’t see fleas on your pet, or you have never seen a flea on them, the potential for flea allergy is always there. In dogs or cats who are allergic to fleas, a single bite from a single flea can make them itchy and inflamed for many weeks. For this reason, one of the first things we often recommend is starting a reliable, prescription flea preventative. We have a number of excellent options at our clinic.

Food allergy can occur in pets of any age, even if they have been eating the same food for their entire lives without issue. Dogs and cats are most often allergic to one or multiple protein sources. The only way to diagnose food allergy is with a strict, multi-week, diet trial recommended by one of our lovely veterinarians.

Environmental allergy, also called atopy or atopic dermatitis, occurs against pollens, dusts, grasses, molds, and other wonders of the great outdoors. A variety of treatment and diagnosis requires ruling out other infections, parasites, and causes allergy. It potentially also involves intradermal or blood allergy testing to determine which of these wonders are problems for an individual animal. The treatment options are varied and include a number of exciting, new medications as well as “allergy shots,” or essentially immunizations against the particular allergens which trouble that individual dog or cat.

Sounds pretty easy, huh? Unfortunately, many dogs and cats have multiple allergies – they can even be allergic to fleas, a certain ingredient in their food, AND to pollens/grasses. The process of diagnosing exactly what an individual animal is allergic to can be time-consuming and require a bit of patience. But we can almost always get it done, and in the process, make a world of difference in the comfort of your pet.

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