Has your dog been itching like crazy, scratching or excessively licking themselves – in which case it’s likely they have some sort of skin condition.
A bit of scratching is normal in dogs but scratching in response to excessive itching is called pruritus and it’s one of the most common reasons for vet visits
CAUSES OF SKIN PROBLEMS IN DOGS
There are different causes of skin problems and finding out which your dog is suffering from will help you and your vet treat both the symptoms and the cause, For example, a dog suffering from a food allergy may have a shampoo to soothe the irritated skin whilst a change of diet addresses the allergy.
One of the most common causes of skin problems are parasites such as fleas or mites. Fleas are the most common external parasite found on dogs and their bites, or an allergic reaction, to their bites can cause itching and scratching, hair loss and reddened skin.
Mange mites are also common amongst dogs. These include Demodex mites that live inside the hair follicle, and Scabies or sarcoptic mange mites that burrow into the skin and cause severe itching. These can result in your dog forming scabs on their skin and losing their hair.
Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean that there aren’t parasites there. Fleas are difficult to spot until there are a lot of them, and mites are tiny.
Another cause of skin irritation is allergies. An allergy is when the immune system overreacts to a harmless substance - called an allergen. When a dog comes into contact with an allergen various chemicals, including histamine, which cause itching. The release of histamine is a perfectly normal part of the immune system response - but in the case of allergies, it’s released in response to a harmless substance.
Allergies fall into 3 basic groups
- Flea allergies – where there is an over-reaction to fleabites
- Environmental allergies – an allergy to substances in the environment such as dust, pollen or mould
- Food allergies – a reaction to certain foodstuffs
- Combined allergies – often these types of allergies combine.
FOOD ALLERGIES VERSUS SENSITIVITIES:
A food allergy is when the body’s immune system overreacts to a particular food. However true food allergies are actually quite rare and it’s more often a food sensitivity that is the problem. The symptoms of allergies and sensitivities are similar, although tend to come on more slowly with food sensitivities, however in the case of food sensitivities it’s not the immune system causing the problem.
Stress, boredom, and anxiety can also cause skin disease. This is rarer but some dogs may excessively lick their skin, groom or scratch to cope with stress. This stress may come from a lack of exercise, mental stimulation or as a response to separation anxiety, loud noises or storms.
Your dog’s body contains several glands that make up their endocrine system. These glands are responsible for secreting hormones into their bloodstream which are needed to regulate the body’s processes and are vital to the normal production of skin and hair coat.
If one of the endocrine organs fails to secrete the right amount of hormone, or produces too much, this can cause skin disease, hair loss or abnormal skin quality.
There are all sorts of bacteria and yeast living, perfectly harmlessly, on the surface of the skin with the skin acting like a protective wall. However if the skin is damaged by scratching, biting or licking then bacteria and yeasts can invade the skin, causing secondary infections.
WHAT WILL YOUR VET DO?
Whatever the cause, skin problems are distressing for your dog and a visit to the vet is probably in order
To treat the disease properly the vet needs to treat the symptoms of the disease but also identify what the underlying cause of it is.
Your vet will need to collect a thorough history by discussing your dog’s problem with you and reviewing any previous treatment notes. To help this think about:
- When did you first notice your dog’s symptoms?
- Does your dog itch and scratch and whereabouts on their body?
- Does your dog have these problems constantly or are there certain times when they are worse?
- What is your dog’s general health like – eating, drinking, and exercise?
- Has your dog had any previous or regular treatment? For skin problems / fleas / any other medical problems?
- What do you feed your dog? What treats does your dog have?
- Do you have any other pets? Do these or any family members in the house have any skin problems?
They will then do a clinical examination looking at your dog’s general health, skin and hair and into their ears with an otoscope to identify any changes or to find any mites or fleas that are present.
In order to diagnose exactly what is causing your dog’s skin problem, your vet may have to do several additional tests.
It may be necessary to take a sample of your dog’s skin cells to be studied under a microscope, a process known as cytology. This helps the vet to identify if bugs are present and if they are what bugs may be causing the infection before choosing an appropriate treatment.
Your vet may carry out a culture and sensitivity test, this involves the sample being sent to a laboratory to grow the bacteria to test which antibiotic would treat them best.
After clinical examination and cytology, your vet will decide on the most appropriate treatment, which may involve medicated shampoo, gels or creams, skin care products such as antiseptic shampoos, anti-itch solutions such as steroids, changing your dogs’s diet, or a combination of all of these.
HOW FOOD CAN HELP WITH SKIN PROBLEMS
Whilst it is obvious that changing foods can help with skin conditions caused by foods, it is also true that food can help with skin problems in other ways.
HELPING WITH FOOD ALLERGIES AND SENSITIVITIES
When dealing with a food intolerance look for foods with unusual proteins that your dog is unlikely to have eaten before. It also helps to give them food with fewer ingredients as this reduces the chance of giving them a problem causing ingredient.
Hydrolysed proteins are also good. It is almost always a protein that causes an allergy. Hydrolysis breaks the protein down into smaller pieces using enzymes. When the protein is broken down then the body is unable to recognise it so doesn’t react to it.
FOODS WITH SKIN SUPPORTING NUTRIENTS
Nutrients such as Omega-3 from fish oils and vitamins and minerals such as zinc, vitamin A and B-complex can all help improve skin condition.
RELIEVING THE SYMPTOMS
Whatever the cause of the skin condition, inflammation will be involved. Omega-3 fish oils can support the body's natural anti-inflammatory process to help with the distressing itching your dog will be experiencing.
Recommended foods for dogs with allergies and other skin problems
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SPECIFICTM Nutrition Team, Dechra