Itchy dogs, stinky dogs, uncomfortable dogs, dogs with bumps, lumps and hives – dogs miserable because their skin feels like one big mosquito bite and there is no relief from the itch. So they chew, gnaw and scratch until they bleed and still it itches!
Veterinarians see more itchy dogs then just about any other complaint. What is causing the itch and how to bring the dog relief is where it gets complicated.
Like us, their human companions, the largest organ in the canine body is the skin. It protects against ultraviolet light, injury and dehydration. It regulates temperature and provides the dog with follicles that grow hair, offering yet another layer of protection against the elements. Skin is elastic, tough and has an amazing ability to heal itself even under the worst conditions.
There are three layers to skin –the part we see is the epidermis, below that is the dermis which holds the blood vessels and nerves and then the panniculus, the fatty layer that adds padding as protection and helps control body temperature.
Skin is adversely affected by both external and internal conditions. Parasites such as fleas, ticks and mites are obvious enemies as is actual physical injury. Allergies, internal infections and autoimmune deficiencies attack the skin from within but the itch still causes a dog to scratch, gnaw, rub and lick the offender. Now the skin is under fire from both external and internal foes, making the problem exponentially far more difficult to treat and causing a dreaded ‘hot spot’ or pyotraumatic dermatitis’.
Hot spots are just like they sound – a patch of skin that is a hot, red, hairless, scabby, oozy, and itchy infection caused by a dog chewing at themselves. Often they develop without the owner noticing until it is too late as the surrounding hair helps hide the extent of the damage.
The veterinarian shaves any remaining fur from the hot spot and the surrounding area to make it easier to keep clean and allow better airflow. He will then scrub the area with anti-bacterial soap and rub a soothing antibacterial ointment on the hot spot. Whether the topical treatment is all that is required to clear up the spot or a course of antibiotics is necessary depends on the severity of the infection. Sometimes a vet will prescribe an anti-histamine to help with the itch and for repeated or extreme cases, the steroid prednisone may be prescribed but the drug must be used under the supervision of the vet due to the potentially serious side effects.
The most important, and most challenging, part is that the dog cannot scratch, lick or chew the hot spot anymore. How this is done depends on where the hot spot is but normally involves a buster or Elizabethan collar – a plastic hood resembling a satellite dish that fully covers the dog’s muzzle (although allows the dog to eat and drink) making chewing at the spot difficult if not impossible.
Part of treating the ‘hot spot’ is diagnosing the cause and deciding on a course of treatment. Without treatment, another hot spot will develop and the cycle of skin infections continue.
External parasites are easily diagnosed and treated and once the creepy crawlers are eradicated, the itch dies soon after. Many dogs develop allergic reactions to fleabites and require constant treatment with products such as Advantage or Revolution – topical insecticides that kill 99.9% of fleas within 24 hours of an infestation. By combating the fleas 24 x 7, the dog will never chew themselves into a frenzy or ‘hot spot’.
External allergies to environmental allergens and internal allergies to food are a bit of a different matter. The allergy develops because of an overactive immune system - to combat the offending object, the body releases histamines and it is the histamines that cause the itch.
Food Allergies and Dogs
Food allergies are often the problem and switching the dog to a hypoallergenic diet is normally the first step. If that controls the allergic reaction and therefore the itch, then the dog remains on that diet for the remainder of its life. Biscuits, treats and cookies all must have similar ingredients and table scraps should be avoided.
Environmental allergens are a bit more difficult to control although over the counter anti-histamines work on our four-legged friends just as well as they do on humans. During allergy season, it is not unheard of for suffering dogs to be on a 12 hour Benadryl, Tavist or Seldane capsule twice a day. Bedding should be checked for possible allergens such as cedar chips (reportedly keeps fleas away) or wool that might be causing the reaction.
Autoimmune conditions are rarely the cause of skin infections in dogs although a symptom of an autoimmune disease may be the culprit. For example, hair loss is a common sign of an autoimmune disease and the hair loss causes itching that leads to a hot spot. If the underlying disease is treated, the itching is no longer a problem.
If a hot spot occurs around the base of the tail or anus, the veterinarian should check the anal glands on the dog. Anal glands are problematic in some dogs and become infected easily. The dog then worries the area, causing a hot spot. With the proximity of the anus, skin infections develop readily and both the anal gland infection and the hot spot require treatment.
The most common injury leading to a hot spot is from clipping the fur. Clipper burn irritates the skin causing an itch and the dog licks, chews and worries the area until a hot spot develops. Anytime a dog visits the groomer, an owner should give them a good once over to make sure there are no hot or pink areas that could lead to itching. This also applies to surgical sites as they too are clipped tight to the skin and should be watched for any sign of pinkness (buster collars are often sent home with dogs post-surgery because hospital staff witnessed the dog chewing the site).
Controlling the cause of the skin infection in a dog is the most important part of the hot spot prevention plan. Even a poor diet or a dry climate can cause flaking, itchy skin so changing to a better quality food or drizzling a teaspoon of olive oil on their dinner helps. For a dog with allergies to pollen, keeping them indoors during the morning and early evening (times of peak pollen production) will alleviate some of the problem. Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs and other heavy coated breeds seem more susceptible to seasonal hot spots. High heat and humidity means more fleas and summer is the best season for swimming which can cause ear infections that can lead to a hot spot. Treat for fleas and after swimming, towel-dry the dog thoroughly and remove their collar as moist skin is more prone to developing hot spots. After swimming, clean and dry the dog’s ears with a veterinary recommended ear cleaner to lower the incidence of ear infections.
Skin infections and dogs are a common enough occurrence and vets see a high number of them each week. With observation and perseverance, hot spots are manageable and even a dog prone to them can lead a normal life. At the first sign of a persistent itch, get your dog to the vet and treatment started – avoiding the oozy, itchy, red and hairless spots is a far better plan then treating them once they have developed!