Ditch the itch
Being itchy is one of the main reasons why pets are taken to the vet. Resolving irritations can be relatively simple, but often we need to do more than scratch the surface of the problem. Karen Cornish identifies five common causes of itchiness in pets, from food allergies to doggy dandruff.
Fleas are tiny wingless insects (2mm long, usually a reddish-brown colour) that feed on a host animal’s blood. They can be found on dogs, cats or rabbits (usually house rabbits) and are the number one cause of itchiness in pets. Fleas cause skin irritation due to their bites, or because of an animal’s allergic reaction to flea saliva. It is particularly common to see pets with fleas and fleabite allergies during the summer months, but this is a year-round problem.
Fleas can be the cause of itching even if there are no visible signs. They can be hard to spot, but try grooming your pet with a fine-toothed comb to pull them from the coat. Another sign to look out for is ‘flea dirt’ in areas where your pet likes to lie. These rust-coloured pellets consist of dried blood and you can confirm the presence of fleas by gathering these droppings on to a piece of moist paper towel. If red streaks appear, you can be sure your pet has fleas.
A flea infestation can be tricky to combat as you have to eradicate all the fleas in your pet’s living environment to prevent them coming back. A variety of chemical methods are available, including spot-on treatments, which can be obtained from your vet. It is important to treat every animal in the home as well as all bedding and soft furnishings, which can harbour flea eggs.
Prevention is much easier than dealing with an established infestation, so make sure your pets are regularly dosed with a good-quality flea treatment. Your vet can advise you on what would be most suitable for your pet.
Dogs and cats can both have lice, although each has its own species that do not cross-contaminate. Sarcoptic mange from mites found on urban foxes causes intense itchiness, especially in dogs, while Cheyletiella mites can be found on dogs, cats and rabbits (again, each have their own species). These produce an incredibly itchy ‘dandruff’. Rabbits can also get ear mites that make them extremely itchy.
Lice are very small but can usually be seen by the human eye. They look like human head lice, but animals and humans cannot catch them from each other. Lice are slow-moving and do not jump like fleas. Sarcoptic mange is notoriously hard to diagnose as it burrows deep into the skin, but the signs that your pet could have it include hair loss and inflamed skin, with small scabs often present. Cheyletiella is often known as ‘creeping dandruff’ as the movement of mites among skin flakes can make it look as if the dandruff is moving – yuck! The signs that your rabbit could have ear mites are scratching and visible crusting in the ears.
All of the above can be eradicated using treatments prescribed by your vet.
Happily, all of these problems can be prevented by regular use of a good-quality treatment. Your vet can advise you on the most suitable for your pet.
This is the most common allergy found in dogs and is mainly triggered by house dust mites and pollen. Cats can get it too, but the vast majority of allergies in cats are due to fleas. Rabbits are the lucky ones here as they don’t suffer from this.
Atopic dermatitis usually develops in dogs from about six months of age. Symptoms often start with an itchy face, ears and feet, and are usually accompanied by a secondary infection in the hot, sweaty areas of the dog such as the armpits, groin, feet and lip folds. A common sign of atopic dermatitis is brown staining of the hair, which is caused by a mix of the dog’s saliva and material from yeasts and bacteria.
Allergies are life-long. Once identified, you need to manage them for the long term using what will do the least harm in terms of side effects. The non-specific treatment would be steroids, but if you can identify what your pet is reacting to you can take steps to avoid exposure to those allergens. Allergy tests are available but interpretation of the results can be difficult, so it’s best left to a dermatologist.
Unfortunately, there is no prevention.
These mainly affect dogs but can occur in cats. Food allergies have not been proven in rabbits. They are much less common than atopic dermatitis and can be difficult to diagnose.
Allergies can develop at any age and are not linked to changes in diet – a pet can suddenly become allergic to a food it has always eaten. Symptoms in dogs are the same as for atopic dermatitis, while cats often display symmetrical hair loss. If you notice your cat losing hair, this is a good sign they have an allergy of some sort.
To determine a food allergy, gradually eliminate certain foods from your pet’s diet over 12 weeks and then reintroduce them, one at a time. When you have identified what your pet is allergic to, avoidance is the treatment.
Sadly, there is no prevention.
This mainly affects dogs but can also affect cats and, very occasionally, rabbits. In most cases, the infection is secondary to something else. Bacterial infections occur where the skin is damaged through scratching or in hot, sweaty skin folds, while yeast infections usually occur together with other skin diseases.
Symptoms of bacterial infections include red, weeping wounds, painful spots and hair loss. Yeast infections are characterised by red, greasy skin, crusty or scaly spots, and a stale or ‘yeasty’ smell.
The infection needs to be diagnosed by a vet before using either antibiotics or topical washes to treat it.
Ensuring a dog has good nutrition and keeping allergies under control are the best ways to prevent infections.
TOP TIPS TO KEEP YOUR PETS ITCH-FREE
- Treat pets regularly with a good-quality flea treatment
- Make sure they have a good-quality diet
- Groom your pets regularly, as dead hair in the coat can make them itchy
- Don’t bathe pets unless you absolutely have to, and never use human shampoo
- If the roads are gritted during the winter, ensure that your dog’s feet are rinsed of any salt, which can irritate their paws. Likewise, if you walk your dog on the beach, make sure he is rinsed of sand as soon as possible
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR PET IS SCRATCHING
David Scarff, veterinary dermatologist at Anglian Referrals, says you should never ignore itching in your pet. ‘As well as being very uncomfortable, ignoring a problem could result in you and other animals in your home being affected. And if left untreated, a secondary infection could develop, which is much more difficult to treat.’ Blue Cross vet Caroline Reay adds: ‘Consult your vet, especially if your pet seems poorly or has lost weight. And remember to tell them if you have any other pets, as they may need to be treated too.’