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Alleviating Your Pet's Itchy Skin

Scritch, scratch, scritch, scratch... it may be the first thing you hear every morning or even wake you up at night - your companion’s itching and scratching.  The most common reason for visits to The Animal Healing Center veterinary clinic and the most-asked question from visitors to Only Natural Pet Store are about itching, licking, scratching and skin problems.  In this article we will discuss some of the possible causes, and a basic protocol for addressing the most common cause – allergies.

Step One: History

Evaluating the history of your companion’s problem is very important in helping your veterinarian determine the cause.  Though allergies are the most common cause of itching and licking, there are some diseases that need to be ruled out before embarking on the path of allergy treatment. 

The following are important details that will help your veterinarian diagnose the problem:

  1. Where is the animal the itchiest?  Face, base of tail, above the hips, neck, belly, feet…. Watch your companion closely and determine his or her worst areas.  Flea Allergies typically cause itching above the hips, the base of the tail, groin and thighs on dogs.  Cats usually itch around the neck with flea allergies.  Airborne and food allergies commonly cause itching around the face, ears, belly and feet.  Scabies (Sarcoptic Mange/mites) typically cause lesions and itching around the ears, elbow, belly and hocks.  Demodedectic Mange generally initially appears in young dogs on the face or forelegs.  Cheyletiella (mites) characteristically present on the back or sides. 
  2. When did it start?  How old was the animal?  Mange is more common in younger animals.  Puppies and kittens are also more susceptible to flea allergies as they have weaker, less developed immune systems.  Older or ill animals are also more susceptible due to a weakened immune system.
  3. Is the problem seasonal or year round?  Seasonal itching is more indicative of flea or inhalant allergies or insect bite.  In many cases, an animal will initially show signs of seasonal allergies that progress to year round problems.
  4. Which came first – the itching or hairless patches/skin lesions?  If the itchiness appeared before any skin lesions, then allergies or scabies are more likely to be the culprit.  If the skin lesions were seen prior to the itchiness, then demodectic mange, ringworm, or bacterial infection caused by a hormonal imbalance might be the problem.  (Most bacterial infections of the skin, however, are secondary to the allergy or other issue causing itchiness.)
  5. Have you tried any medications or treatments that helped?  Certain causes of itchy skin will respond to steroid treatment better than others.  Flea allergies and airborne allergies seem to be more responsive than other causes.
  6. Has it been contagious to any other animals or humans in the household?  Sarcoptic mange, Cheyletiella and ringworm can be passed on to other animals or humans.

Once the cause of the itchy skin is determined, treatment can begin.  Any secondary bacterial or yeast infections must be treated, however, before much progress can be seen in remediation of the underlying cause of the itchy skin.  Hot spots occur from self trauma that results when the pet attempts to relieve a pain or itch by excessive scratching, biting and rubbing.  These must be controlled with topical treatments while the animal’s immune system is recovering.

A majority of itchy skin is caused by allergies, so that is what we will address here.  In addition to itchy skin, other allergy symptoms may be present such as chronic ear infections or respiratory symptoms such as coughing or nasal congestion, and ocular discharge.  Food allergies may also cause symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea that can ultimately progress to inflammatory bowel disease.  Some holistic veterinarians also believe that seizures, arthritis, asthma and chronic urinary tract infections can be caused or complicated by food allergies.

Itchy skin and allergy symptoms such as paw chewing have also been linked to over-vaccination in a large number of cases.  Frequently the symptoms will begin within days or weeks of vaccinations.  Please educate yourself about vaccinations and the risks involved.  A good start would be to read my article titled The Truth About Pet Vaccinations.

Treating Itchy Skin Caused by Allergies

One of the most common causes of itchy skin is fleas and flea allergies.  If you suspect fleas, please read my article The Natural Approach to Flea Control.  Flea control is an essential step in the treatment plan for any animal with allergies.  Any dog or cat with a compromised immune system is more susceptible to fleas and parasites, so plan to treat the home environment a month BEFORE flea season begins.  The last thing your dog or cat needs when already battling allergies is a flea infestation to make things worse!

Topical Treatments

If your dog or cat has been itching for awhile, they may have created bare, red patches in places that can become infected – so you need to address these areas right away.  Here are some products offered at Only Natural Pet Store that can help:

For Cats:
Fido Derm Herbal Spray
Doc Ackerman's Instant Hot Spot Relief Spray

For Dogs:
Fido Derm Herbal Spray
Doc Ackerman's Instant Hot Spot Relief Spray
Liquid Hot Spot Remedy (essential oils)
Oatmeal Baths followed by conditioner to seal in moisture

If more potent topical treatment is necessary, your veterinarian can prescribe topical treatments and shampoos to help curb the itchiness.

Diet – The Essential Remedy

The first thing to address in treating the underlying cause of allergies is the animal’s diet.  Many animals see a dramatic improvement with a change in diet alone.  With the addition of one or two basic supplements, this can be all that is needed.  Allergies are accumulative in the animal’s system – meaning that even if your dog or cat tends to have seasonal allergies, his or her food may be adding to the overall “load” on the system.  Transitioning to a more appropriate diet (preferably raw or at least home prepared food) can make a big difference even for those with seasonal allergies by improving the overall immune system and health of the animal.  Please see my article What You Need to Know About Your Pet's Food to learn more about improving your companion’s diet.

Essential Fatty Acids

The first dietary supplement to consider for an animal with itchy skin is essential fatty acids (EFAs).  Fish oil is considered the best source for cats and dogs since the fatty acid chains are readily usable by the animal’s system without any conversion process, which is necessary for the utilization of plant sourced essential fatty acids such as flax.

EFAs help reduce inflammation and nourish the skin and coat.  They can also be beneficial in assisting the healing process of the digestive system.  For older animals, EFAs can help alleviate arthritis symptoms as well.  The following links will display a list of essential fatty acids supplements offered by Only Natural Pet Store:

Essential Fatty Acids for Dogs
Essential Fatty Acids for Cats

Immune Modulation

Allergies are essentially the immune system gone awry.  The body starts to “attack” itself in response to what it perceives as foreign invaders.  Supplements to help modulate the immune system are very helpful in treating allergies.  Moducare by Thorne Research is an excellent supplement for immune modulation during the initial treatment of allergies. 

Detoxification/Elimination Support and Healing the Gastrointestinal System

The gastrointestinal system is the first line of defense in an animal’s immune system.  When a dog or cat has allergies, the gastrointestinal system is usually irritated and inflamed.  Leaky gut is the result of this chronic irritation, allowing particles to pass into the blood stream that are too large for the system to manage – this triggers the immune response that manifests as allergies.  Antibiotics contribute to the problem by killing the healthy bacteria that aid digestion and maintain a healthy gastrointestinal system.  Healing the gut is crucial to the success of allergy treatment. 

At a minimum, digestive enzymes and probiotics should be added to each meal to aid in the breakdown of food particles, support the restoration of beneficial gut flora and the healing of the digestive tract.  Animal Essentials Plant Enzymes & Probiotics is an excellent choice for this.

L-Glutamine is an amino acid essential to the proper function of the gastrointestinal tract.  Supplementing the L-Glutamine supports the healing process of the gut and the restoration of healthy gut flora. See L-Glutamine by Thorne Research.

An excellent way to comine these is with Gastriplex by Thorne Research, which is specifically designed as a comprehensive intestinal support supplement for dogs and cats.  It combines L-glutamine with amino acids, enzymes,  and probiotics.

For animals showing signs of weight loss, diarrhea and additional symptoms of malabsorption/leaky gut, Seacure by Proper Nutrition provides essential nutrients for the healing process of gastrointestinal and bowel function.

Supporting the animal’s organs that filter and eliminate waste is another important step when addressing allergies.  The liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system and lymphatic systems are working hard to eliminate the waste produces by the inflammatory process present in allergic reactions, as well as any toxins from medications, the environment and foods.  Using natural cleaners around the house and eliminating pesticide and chemical fertilizer use in the yard can go a long way in helping reduce the load on the animal’s system.  A high quality diet, preferably organic, will also reduce the burden of toxin elimination.

Detoxification is essential for any animal that has been treated with multiple courses of medications such as steroids, antibiotics or antihistamines.  Steroids, especially, are taxing on the animal’s liver.

Quercenol by Seven Forests is an excellent herbal and nutriceutical complex for animals with allergy symptoms, particularly those that have been on steroids and other medications.  Quercenol has anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties to help the allergies as well as herbs to help cleanse and support the liver and build the immune system.

Animals’ Apawthecary Constitutional Blend is very useful in detoxifying a taxed elimination system.  It is easier to give to cats than the Quercenol since it is a liquid.  Animals’ Apawthecary Detox Blend is also valuable for longer-term detoxification and stimulating liver function. 

The length of time these supplements may be necessary will vary with the severity of the problem and the response of the individual animal.  Natural supplements, herbs and remedies are not like prescription medications - they may vary in effectiveness from one animal to the next, and in many instances take time to reach full effectiveness, up to several weeks or more.

Relieving the Itch

Herbs and supplements designed to relieve the itchy skin and support skin health are another step in the treatment program for chronic allergies.  This can help relieve the stress caused by the discomfort, which is supportive of immune function and healing.  In addition, reducing the itch helps in the reduction of secondary infections and allows the skin to heal.

Skin Balance by Health Concerns is an excellent herbal complex for the treatment of itchy skin in dogs, (the tablets are too big for cats).  In Traditional Chinese Medical terms, an animal with an allergic reaction manifesting as itchy skin is suffering from wind (itching), heat (redness), damp (oozing) and blood deficiency (dryness, poor coat) problems.  The herbs in Skin Balance reduce inflammation and itching as well as boosting skin health and assisting in the cleansing of the blood.

For cats and small dogs, Dermaclear by Thorne Research is a great choice for itch relief and clearing the skin of inflammation and hot spots.

Quercenase by Thorne Research is an enzyme combination that provides natural antihistamine activity as well as reducing inflammation.  Quercenase is an excellent choice if inhalant allergies are suspected.  It is best given between meals.

HomeoPet Skin and Itch Relief, a homeopathic remedy, may be helpful for some animals.  This will be more effective once any residual steroids or medications have been cleared from the system.  HomeoPet Hot Spots is similar to the Skin and Itch Relief formula, but contains additional remedies to address the red, inflamed or oozing hot spot areas.

Time, Patience and Persistence

Natural treatments do take more time and effort than a course of steroid treatment.  The long-term health and well-being of your companion, however, will be far better served by treating the animal’s whole system and the underlying cause of the itch, not just the symptoms.  Some cats and dogs become quite distressed by the itching and can benefit from the addition of stress-relieving herbs, supplements, flower essences or homeopathic remedies (click here to see a selection of these).

Persistence in treating the itchiness topically while you are addressing the underlying causes through diet and supplements will greatly benefit your pet’s ability to heal and reduce his or her stress as well.  Secondary infections caused by relentless scratching, licking or biting complicate and slow the healing process and topical treatment can help prevent this.

Please Note:
The information provided here is intended to help you support your companion with mild to moderate allergy related itching.  Bear in mind that the treatment of more severe allergies and itching require veterinary assistance.  For help locating a holistic veterinarian in your area try the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association referral directory:  http://www.ahvma.org/referral/index.html

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