Pruritus, more commonly referred to as “itch,” is any sensation to bite, scratch, lick, chew, roll, or rub. So, what causes itching? There are a variety of diseases that can cause a pet to be itchy, but the big 3 include allergy to environmental pollens, allergy to an ingredient in the diet, and infection by a parasite such as Sarcoptes. That breakdown seems pretty simple, right? These allergic diseases can present similarly to your veterinarian, and in cases of year-round itch, it can be a process of exclusion. To add to the difficulty, all of these diseases can lead to secondary skin and ear infections which add insult to injury in these poor pets. The additional hurdle is that the infection and the primary cause of itch need to be addressed concurrently to see improvement and resolution in the symptoms of itch and dermatitis.
Atopy, also known as environmental allergies, are quite common in dogs, cats, and humans.
Environmental irritants may include pollens, molds, dust mites, and even human dander! Some pets may have an allergic flare-up for only short periods in the spring and fall, while others show symptoms all year long. Although we cannot permanently “cure” allergies, we can control and manage the symptoms. Treatment of environmental allergies depends on the pet. Pets with a short allergy season may be treated differently than those pets with year-round symptoms.
Often a combination approach (bathing, topical medications, and immune modulating allergy medications) are used and tailored to the needs of the patient. Pets with long allergy seasons may benefit from immunotherapy similar to human allergy testing and treatment. Testing can be done by a skin (scratch test) or blood test. The skin test is usually the preferred test; however, some underlying considerations may make a blood test more prudent. Treatment occurs with the injection of antigens underneath the skin or given orally under the tongue. Hyposensitization modulates the overactive immune system of the allergic patient and leads to clinical improvement.
What about the food allergies I mentioned?
Dogs and cats, like humans, can develop hypersensitivities to specific food ingredients, which can manifest as “itch.” A food allergy can develop to an ingredient(s) that has recently been introduced in the form of a new diet. But more often, food allergy develops from something they have been exposed to for a significant period of time. Food allergy can occur at any age. The most common food allergies are to beef, chicken, dairy, rice, wheat, corn, egg, lamb, soy, and fish.
As many of these ingredients are present in most commercial pet foods and treats, just switching from one brand of food to another may not necessarily determine if your pet has a food allergy. Currently, there is not an accurate test for food allergy! An elimination diet trial is recommended to evaluate response. A food trial is probably the most difficult and challenging recommendation veterinarians make for owners and their pets, but it is always rewarding to find the cause and the cure in the diet.
Whether pet or human, no being needs to be ruled by incessant itching.
Are there any causes of pet dermatitis that can affect the pet owners?
Not common, but it is possible. Some dermatophytosis, also known as ringworm, can be transferred from animals to humans. Dermatophytosis is a fungal infection of the hair seen in young pups and kittens, but can also affect adult animals. Although we don’t have fleas in Colorado, we do have a parasite known as Sarcoptes which are microscopic parasites that are carried by fox and coyote populations. The mite can infest your dog without direct contact.
Diagnosing the disease can be difficult and skin scrapings are often unrewarding. Pet owners often wonder if they can be affected by these microscopic mites. The good news is that it is a very rare occurrence and typically depends on how long their dog has been affected by the mite; and if their pet sleeps in bed with them!
So if you are experiencing the same symptoms as your pet, it is advisable for your pet to see a Veterinarian and you to see your Primary Care Physician.