Veterinarians frequently enter the exam room to find a pet that is itchy, with red skin and varying degrees of hair loss. Skin conditions may be found on the feet, face, over the back, under legs, belly or all over the body.
In some cases, there is hair loss and chewing on a small, isolated area. Sometimes there is an odor or oozing area on the skin. Pet owners often are frustrated by pets’ repeated biting, licking or chewing. They not only want to find comfort for their companions, but also want a restful night.
The sound of scratching, pet tags jingling and pacing around can be very disruptive for the whole family. Many pet owners ask me if I have ever seen a skin condition like their pets’, or I am asked for a diagnosis as soon as I enter the exam room.
Yes, I have seen lots of skin lesions and disorders; and I cannot make a diagnosis before I examine a pet. The reason for my second answer is that the skin can only respond to disease with a limited number of signs: redness, inflammation, itchiness, papules, hives, pustules, odor, scale, and hair loss. Over time, this leads to thickening (lichenification) and pigment change, usually darkening of the skin.
The following conditions can produce the same signs in the skin: bacterial infection; contact allergies from substances like shampoos, flea products, cleaning agents; parasites, such as flea or mite infestation (scabies or mange); flea allergy dermatitis; skin fungus (dermatophytes); skin yeast infections; inhalant or food allergies; nutritional deficiencies; hormone imbalances, such as thyroid conditions; skin cancer; nerve injury; obsessive over-grooming; nternal disease, like hepatitis or bladder infections.
With so many conditions producing the same signs, getting a diagnosis can require lots of testing, time and expense. Testing may include: skin scraping for mites and flea combing for flea dirt; tape testing for skin yeast; blood counts, blood profile, urinalysis, immune thyroid and cortisol testing; bacterial and fungal cultures of skin lesions; skin biopsies; chiropractic evaluation; allergy testing.
Typically, when a pet has a mild, first-time skin issue, vets recommend treating the pet’s symptoms. Sometimes this includes antibiotics, parasite and flea control, medicated shampoos, and steroids.
If your veterinarian chooses to give your pet steroids, ask for blood testing before giving the medication. Pets with dermatitis as a result of hormone imbalances such as excess cortisol or diabetes can have serious negative effects from prednisone.
Urine testing is also important in some cases. As an example, many cats that have abdominal hair loss from over-grooming are suffering from a chronic bladder health problem known as interstitial cystitis. The bladder area feels uncomfortable, so they lick to decrease a burning sensation. Without proper testing, many cats don’t get appropriate treatment.
When pets have repeated skin problems or chronic allergies and infections, continued prednisone use can be damaging. It is best to get the tests mentioned above to get a diagnosis. If it turns out he has chronic allergies, there is help and hope. There are now many new drugs and safer methods for dealing with chronic allergies. Natural steroids, antihistamines, herbs and neutraceuticals, as well as immune-system regulating drugs can help pets find comfort without risks of prednisone side effects.
There is an effective alternative treatment that can desensitize allergies. It is a type of acupressure treatment that can be used to identify and treat an allergic patient without drugs. The treatment is called Veterinary NAET.
Many of my very allergic patients have found relief with this treatment. If your pet is experiencing skin problems, you can help him become more comfortable. Talk to your vet about getting a diagnosis and the best treatment for her condition.
Dr. Cynthia Maro is a veterinarian at the Ellwood Animal Hospital in Ellwood City and the Chippewa Animal Hospital in Chippewa Township. She writes a biweekly column on pet care and health issues. If you have a topic you’d like addressed, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.