Cat scratching itself
Your pet normally has a thick, lustrous coat of fur. One day, you discover a bare or red spot on his leg and the skin looks sore. Even worse, your pet cannot stop biting, chewing and licking the area. What is happening? Your pet may have a skin condition, but the problem may go deeper than what you see on the surface. The irritated area could be a sign of a more serious medical disorder.

Short or long hair, big or small, purebred or mixed, no dog or cat is immune to having dermatologic (skin-related) problems. From the mildest irritation to a near-fatal reaction to an insect bite, skin problems are one of the leading causes of visits to the veterinarian.

Itchy and Scratchy

There are hundreds of reasons why dogs and cats might itch and scratch. Take your pet to the veterinarian if you notice that your pet is scratching, biting or licking his skin more than usual.

Many skin diseases have similar signs, so testing is often required before a final diagnosis can be made. To help determine the problem, your veterinarian may recommend laboratory work, skin scrapings, blood tests or other diagnostics. You can help by observing changes in the condition of your pet’s coat and reporting the results to your veterinarian.

Allergy Season Is No Picnic

You may think your cat or dog is itching himself because he has fleas, but there is a chance that he could have inhalant allergies, another common cause of itching and scratching in pets.

Both pets and people can suffer from inhalant allergies (atopy), a type of allergy caused by substances commonly encountered in the environment, such as grasses, weeds, pollen, house dust mites, molds and trees. The difference is that people usually react to these substances (allergens) by developing respiratory problems, while dogs and cats most often develop skin problems. Signs of inhalant allergies in pets can include:

  • Inflamed or itchy skin, either in one area or all over.
  • Orange or reddish-brown salivary stains on the coat caused by excessive licking and biting.
  • Ear infections.
  • Coughing, sneezing or wheezing.
While some pets never have a problem, others may itch at certain times of the year, usually from spring to fall, or year-round. Allergic reactions do not tend to go away as dogs and cats age. In fact, pets can become allergic to more and more things as they grow older.

Thankfully, your veterinarian can often help manage and treat your pet’s allergies. Treatment may consist of antihistamines, steroids, allergy shots or other medications. Sometimes environmental modifications can also be helpful.

Other Culprits

Allergic reactions to food can also cause skin problems. Dogs and cats are not born with these allergies, but they can develop them, usually after a period of eating various foods. Common protein sources, such as animal meat (beef, pork and chicken) and other sources (corn and wheat), can be responsible, although any food can cause trouble.

In addition to itching, signs can include digestive disorders. A food allergy diagnosis will take time, because it is a diagnosis of exclusion. Your veterinarian will generally recommend a special diet restricted to a few simple proteins your dog or cat has likely never eaten (e.g., venison). The pet should eat this diet exclusively for a few months. If this does the trick and the signs of the allergy go away, ingredients can then be added back into the diet one at a time until the culprit is discovered. This process can take months, and, during this time, it is important that you do not give any treats or other foods your veterinarian has not approved, because even very small quantities of the offending ingredient can trigger the allergic reaction.

Contact allergies are another cause of skin inflammation. Problems can crop up after dogs and cats come in contact with certain irritants or allergens. Some of these allergens can be associated with common items, such as blankets, carpets, plastic food dishes, furniture stuffing or dog bedding. If the offending substance can be identified and removed, healing can begin. In most cases, your veterinarian can prescribe medications to provide relief.

Bacterial skin infections and certain hormonal diseases can also affect your pet’s skin. For instance, Cushing’s disease, a serious hormonal disease that can be difficult to diagnose, can cause hair loss and thinning of the skin in dogs. 

Hot Spots

When a pet’s coat has bald patches, sheds excessively or smells bad and is dandruff laden, it could be a sign that something more serious is going on internally.

Take hot spots, for example. A hot spot, or pyotraumatic dermatitis, is a traumatic skin disease. It begins with an itch; continues with nonstop licking, chewing and scratching; and does not stop even after the hair is gone and there is a red, raw, oozing sore on the skin. The sores can develop just about anywhere on the body, including along the neck, face, lower back, thighs and legs.

Help Is on the Way

Until you and your veterinarian figure out how to stop your pet from itching, a few things may give your furry friend some relief. However, make sure you talk to your veterinarian before using any products on your dog or cat. Products that are sold over the counter or that are formulated for people are not always safe for pets. In addition, some products may not be appropriate for your pet, depending on what could be causing the problem. Your veterinarian can prescribe or recommend products that will work the best for your pet. Here are some suggestions you can discuss with your veterinarian:

  • Draw a bath. Giving your dog or cat frequent baths can sometimes ease his itching. Use a pet-safe shampoo, such as an oatmeal shampoo formulated for pets, and be sure to rinse well to remove all soap residue. After the bath, towel-dry your pet. Hair dryers (unless they have a cool setting) can burn pets, so they should be avoided if possible. If your veterinarian has recommended a prescription shampoo, make sure you follow the directions. If you don’t leave it on long enough, it might not be as effective.
  • Ask about supplements. Certain essential fatty acids added to your cat’s or dog’s diet might help. Many quality pet foods already have these incorporated into the recipes, so it is important to let your veterinarian know what you are feeding your pet, so you do not add too much. The supplements are available at your veterinarian’s office. It may take a few weeks before your pet does not feel so itchy, so your veterinarian may recommend other therapies in the meantime.
  • Ask about antibiotics or antihistamines. Licking, chewing and scratching can cause a secondary bacterial infection in the skin. If this happens, a prescription for antibiotics might be necessary to treat the infection. For insect bites, an antihistamine could help ease short-term itching for some pets.
  • Help prevent bug bites. Heading into a mosquito-prone area with your dog or cat? There are products available that can help keep bugs away and are safe for your pet. And don’t forget about flea and tick control products. Ask your vet for recommendations.
To ease your pet’s itching, patience and persistence are key. Many skin conditions can last for your pet’s lifetime and need a good management plan. By working together, you and your veterinarian can find ways to make life more comfortable for your furry friend.

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