What to do if your pet has sore or itchy skin
Cat or dog skin problems can be extremely troublesome for pet and owner alike. Constant itching or pawing can lead to infections, cuts or (at best) serious discomfort. It’s important that you get to the bottom of any skin irritation if you notice it’s becoming a chronic problem. Luckily, your team at Knutsford Vets are on hand to diagnose the cause and offer you the treatment or advice required to help you successfully manage the issue. Find out more about pet dermatology or book your appointment today.
Book an appointment to treat your pet’s itchy skin
As with all pet ailments, you can do your research online, but the only way to truly get to the bottom of what’s causing your pet’s skin issue is by visiting your local vet. By booking an appointment with Knutsford Vets we’ll be able to cast our expert eye over the problem before completing a range of tests that will help you diagnose the cause.
Dermatology advice from your local vets
We’ve put together this resource to help you understand the types of issue that your pet may be experiencing. Use the contents below, or contact Knutsford Veterinary Surgery to get to the root of the problem and receive the treatment or advice to manage the condition.
Click on the section that is most relevant to navigate to that part on the page.
Pet skin problems can be the sign of an underlying illness. You should always seek guidance from a vet.
Rachael Caines, Vet
Common causes of itching in pets
Itching in dogs and cats can be caused by a variety of skin conditions, from something simple and short lived to certain allergies that require management long term.
Some causes of shorter term itching include: –
- Fleas – itching can be caused by the presence of fleas in the hair coat or by an allergic reaction to flea saliva
- Mites – demodex mites and sarcoptic mites affect the body and ear mites (otodectes), which can be present in the ear canals of both cats and dogs, can cause itching focused around the head.
- Fungal infections – can be present in small areas and can be very itchy
- Contact allergies – aren’t particularly common but can be seen with changes in furniture or washing powder for example.
- Food allergies – can develop at any age and to any component in an animal’s normal diet or in treats. Some can develop allergies to grains and cereals where others develop reactions to certain meats.
Longer term conditions that can cause your pet problems include: –
What are the common signs of allergies in pets
Regardless of the cause of the itch, once your pet starts scratching, they find it difficult to stop. Once the skin barrier is broken this leaves the potential for opportunistic bacteria and yeast to invade causing infections. In turn these infections will make the skin even itchier.
Some of the most common signs, other than itching, of an allergic skin reaction are: –
- Red skin – in general or just in certain areas
- Hair loss or short broken hair
- Spots – either red raised lumps (papules), pus filled lumps (pustules) or even blackheads (comedones).
- Crusting – this can occur as pustules rupture and scab on the skin or in rings of flaky skin associated with bacterial infections.
- Brown nails – this is often a sign of yeast infection of the nail beds which can occur in allergies due to foot chewing as yeast thrives in warm environments.
- Flaky skin – this can be a sign that the skin barrier is dry and therefore more likely to allow allergies to occur.
- Ears – the skin can become thick and red, discharge can develop – either pus (yellow/green) or yeast (brown).
- Over time if the skin inflammation continues the body protect itself by thickening the skin (lichenification) and by laying down extra pigment creating dark areas of skin (hyperpigmentation).
Diagnosing the cause of an itchy pet
One of the most challenging things about allergies is that regardless of the cause, the signs that your pet shows are often the same. For this reason we often have to undertake a range of diagnostic tests to help differentiate the cause and also the infections present.
Swabs can be taken from the skin and from the ear canals for examination in house (cytology) to assess if bacterial infections or yeast infections are present. We use the results of these swabs to guide appropriate treatment. Some swabs may be sent for bacterial culture and testing for their sensitivity to certain antibiotics.
Hair plucks can be taken from certain areas to look under the microscope for signs of mites in the hair follicles and can be sent to the laboratory to test for fungal infections.
Skin scrapes are sometimes required to look for mites which can sometimes hide in the deeper skin layers. This is a simple procedure whereby a blunted blade is used to scratch the surface of the skin to obtain a sample from the deeper layers of the skin. This is then examined in house under the microscope.
Skin biopsies to exclude non-allergic skin conditions
Skin biopsies are sometimes required in more complex cases to allow thorough examination of the full skin tissue. This allows differentiation of allergies from some other skin conditions – such as immune conditions. This is a quick procedure performed under sedation.
What happens if my pet has skin allergies
A food elimination trial is needed in some patients if they are suspected to have a food allergy or that food is involved in a multi-allergy case. This can be challenging as your pet needs to be fed one type of food with ingredients they have never eaten before.
This often means we will recommend using a prescription diet for the trial as these foods use ingredients that have been broken down into such small molecules your pet cannot react to them. It is absolutely vital that if this test is recommended your pet eats nothing but that food and water.
Environmental allergies including pollen and mites
Blood testing can be offered to pets that have undergone appropriate testing and treatment of infections. If they have recurring patterns of symptoms which may suggest they have an allergy it could be something in their immediate environment that is causing it. This is referred to as atopic dermatitis and is diagnosed by obtaining a simple blood sample. Your pet can be tested for antibodies to a number of allergens in the environment such as tree pollens, grass pollens and dust mites.
Is there a cure for skin allergies?
Sadly in most cases there is no cure for skin allergies and atopic dermatitis in pets. Treatment is aimed at managing signs, such as reducing itching and preventing and reducing the occurrence of skin infections.
The treatments for dog skin allergies are two fold, firstly treating the infections and inflammation present and secondly trying to resolve the underlying cause.
Treating infections that are the result of an allergy
Antibiotics are sometimes used to treat bacterial skin infections that are present but most are treated with shampoos and sprays. This can be in the form of tablets for generalized infections or topical ointments for localized infections such as ear and focal skin infections. Some antibiotic treatments may be needed for long periods of time to treat deep skin infections.
Continuous use of anti-parasite treatments are often advised for patients with dog skin allergies. Any break in the skin barrier can cause recurrence of inflammation and clinical signs regardless of whether fleas or mites are initially involved in the condition. It is often advisable to use certain types of treatments which can stop fleas biting or also help to control fleas in the environment.
Improving the skin barrier in pets with allergies
Improving the skin barrier may help some pets by increasing the body’s defense against things in the environment that the skin may react to (allergens). The easiest way to do this is to provide enough fatty acids (omega 3 and 6) by supplementing the diet, this enables the body to replenish the skin barrier. Topical sprays and spot-ons are also available to help hydrate and improve the skin barrier.
Reducing itching in pets with skin allergies
Anti-itch medications are often needed whilst trying to control inflammation or in the long term to prevent an itch recurring. There are now three main types of anti-itch medication which can be used separately or in combination to control the skin initially.
The first is Oclacitinib (Apoquel) which acts to stop the activation of some itch causing inflammatory chemicals. The second is prednisolone which is a steroid that has potent anti-inflammatory actions; this can be used initially for severe skin inflammation. In some cases it can be required longer term at low doses. Cytopoint (Lokivetmab) is available for dogs with itching related to skin allergies which is a monthly injection used to control signs.
Regardless of which of these medications is advised we work to reduce the dose given to the lowest required dose to have the desired effect. Antihistamines can also be used in some patients but the benefit is variable in patients like in people so may not work for all pets.
Topical shampoos can be useful to reduce skin infections, reduce greasy skin or to soothe inflamed skin. These often need to be used as often as twice weekly, it is important to use the shampoo as directed as many need to soak in the hair coat and skin for 10-15 minutes before being rinsed off.
Long term cure for allergies with Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy is available for certain allergies, once a blood test has been performed and certain specific allergens have been identified a vaccination can be produced. Allergen specific immunotherapy is designed to contain specific allergens, the solution is injected (like a vaccine) at increasing doses and time intervals to desensitize the immune system so that it starts to ignore the allergen.
The vaccine is usually given on a monthly basis long term and can in some pets be the only treatment that is required. At the very worst it will dramatically reduce the amounts of other medications required to control the skins reactions. Sadly some pets have complex allergies and it is therefore not effective in all patients.
Severe allergy treatment
Other anti-inflammatory medications are sometimes required for severe allergies and atopic dermatitis that has not responded to initial treatment. This often involves a drug (ciclosporin) given to reduce the immune systems response to the allergens.