Itchy Pup? It’s Probably Not Their Food
What Your Vet Wants You to Know
It’s 3:00 in the morning and you wake up to the unmistakable sounds of scratching, licking, and chewing. Many owners’ first thought is to change their dog’s food, but more often than not that leads to spending more money on boutique diets that don’t address the problem.
What Makes Them Itch?
Identifying the source of their dog’s itch is the most common problem that owners bring their dogs to the vet for. Skin irritation and itch can be caused by a number of issues but most commonly fall into one of three categories: allergies, infections, and secondary infections/overgrowth.
Allergies plague dog owners across the country, and there are three forms that allergies take: food allergies, flea allergies, and atopic dermatitis. Of the three, food allergies are actually the least common – only affecting about 5-10% of dogs that have allergies.
Flea allergies are more common and are characterized by a very itchy base of the tail area with or without hair loss, but by far the most common dog allergy is atopic dermatitis.
Atopic dermatitis or atopy is an umbrella term that means your dog is allergic to something in the environment that isn’t fleas or food.
Atopy can be very frustrating for owners to deal with because it often means life-long medication, and seasonal flare-ups can leave both owners and their fur babies feeling irritated.
While allergy testing does exist to try and determine the exact source of your pup’s discomfort, the likelihood that you’re going to be able to avoid the allergen is not very high. For example, some dogs are actually allergic to grass.
Have you ever seen rust-red paws on a white dog? There is a substance in the saliva called prophyrin that stains the fur, and there is also high probability that dog has atopy – the hallmark signs are foot licking and chewing, though generalized itch is often reported as well.
Atopy can be seasonal, year-round, or a combination of the two. It usually begins when the dog is around 1-2 years old and stays with them for life, though sometimes an older dog that has had no allergy problems will suddenly develop atopy after moving to a new region or state.
Infections and Secondary Infections
Before assuming allergies are to blame for all that itching, it’s always best to rule out an infection. Infections are generally bacterial, but they can also be parasitic like the mites that cause mange.
Bacterial infections will often show up as a pink rash on your dog’s belly called pyoderma, but they can also manifest in a number of other ways.
Secondary infections are bacterial infections that arise due to an underlying condition. Atopy is very frequently the cause of secondary infections because as your dog scratches their skin they cause areas of self-trauma, and then bacteria on the skin is able to invade and multiply.
When your dog licks and chews their feet, they create a damp environment that yeast love to grow in. When yeast organisms become too numerous they are extremely itchy, and this is called a secondary overgrowth.
Yeast organisms are part of the regular flora on your dog’s skin, so rather than being an infection like bacteria it is simply an overgrowth of the organisms that normally live there.
Treating the Itch
Your veterinarian will be able to tell you whether or not your dog has an infection, allergies, or allergies with a secondary infection. If your dog has an infection your vet will prescribe the proper antibiotics, and if yeast is present your vet will prescribe an anti-fungal.
If your dog has a flea allergy, your vet will prescribe a heavy-duty flea control medication. If your dog has atopy, your vet will probably recommend a daily medication or a periodic injection to block the allergic response.
Your vet usually won’t recommend changing the food unless there’s no other clear explanation for your dog’s itch, or your dog has other symptoms that are consistent with a food allergy.
Ditch the Itch, Not Your Food
No matter what the cause, itch can be one of the most challenging issues dog owners have to face. Before you rush to change your food, schedule an appointment with your vet to make sure there isn’t something else going on. Your pooch and your pocketbook will likely thank you.