Integrative Pet Vet column: The itchy dog

Dr. Ron Carsten
Integrative Pet Vet
Dog with skin irritation scratching.
Shutterstock image

It’s spring, and you’ve been hiking all weekend with your dog. You are both tired from all the activity, but, your dog is now constantly in motion chewing at its feet, scratching its sides, and rubbing its face on the couch. You are wondering why your dog is so itchy.

There are many reasons for an itchy dog, making identification of the cause(s) difficult. These reasons include issues like allergies, skin parasites like fleas or lice, yeast or bacterial skin infections, metabolic issues, nutritional factors, and even some types of cancer. Fortunately, fleas are not common in our area.

Skin problems caused by allergic reactions are one of the most common problems seen in dogs. The allergy reaction in the skin generally appears as itchy, red areas. Dogs can chew and scratch themselves to the point of causing hair loss and skin damage.

Areas commonly affected include the abdomen, legs, the inside of the ear flap, and regions around the eyes and mouth. An important note is that ear problems are reported in half of dogs with allergies. Skin infections associated with the allergic reaction are common which can complicate the diagnosis of allergies.

The general term for allergies affecting the skin is allergic dermatitis (AD). Approximately 10-15 percent of dogs are affected by AD from environmental allergens like pollen, mold, or dust mites. The incidence of food allergies in dogs is not clear, but it is estimated that 9-40 percent of dogs that are itchy, and 8-62 percent of dogs with AD are affected by adverse food reactions.

Adding to the complexity, approximately 30 percent of dogs with AD are affected by reactions to both environmental allergens and food.

Generally, AD associated with environmental allergens is seasonal with peaks in the spring and fall, but it can be year round. Food allergies are year round unless the offending food is eliminated.

AD has been viewed as a disease caused by immune over reaction to allergens and that these reactions are localized in the affected skin area. The classic description of an allergic reaction involves the allergen, IgE antibody, and mast cells.

When an IgE binds with its specific allergen and then to the mast cell, the mast cell releases substances like histamine. Histamine triggers the affects commonly seen with allergies including heat, swelling, redness, and itchiness.

There are other substances released or produced by the mast cell that enhance the allergic reaction. This has lead to the recognition that the allergic process extends beyond the affected skin area, involving other areas of the body and a wide range of immune cell types.

Local immune cells involved with allergies interact with other immune cells and produce signal chemicals that move into the bloodstream and circulate to other areas of the body including the bone marrow and liver. This results in the wider recruitment of immune cells to the local area and reinforcement of the allergy process.

Conventional approaches to allergy management generally strive for control of the allergy reaction and reduced itching. This can involve using drugs like prednisone and cyclosporine that suppress the immune system. Other drugs like oclacitinib (Apoquel) inhibit the function of signal chemicals that promote itching and inflammation.

Additional approaches include allergen avoidance through environmental control or use of special diets, immune therapy focused on desensitization, antihistamine medications to counteract the histamine, and therapeutic shampoos. Infections are treated if present.

From an integrative approach, management of allergy problems requires a whole body approach. This involves the use of combinations of nutritional supplements, herbs, probiotics, homeopathic remedies, and shampoos with the goal of improving the function of key body systems while avoiding or reducing medication side-effects.

Regardless of the approach taken, not all allergy problems can be completely controlled without the use of medications and not all itching can be eliminated. The goal is quality of life for both the dog and owner.

If you have an itchy dog, contact your veterinarian.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.

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