Dealing with your dog's skin problems can leave you feeling frustrated and your dog feeling miserable. What causes a dog's skin problems? How can you control them? What can you do to make your dog feel better? Dr. Adelia Ritchie, founder of DERMagic Skin Care for Animals, has some answers and a few suggestions.
Dogs and Skin Allergies
Signs of an Allergy
LoveToKnow (LTK): Scratching is the most obvious sign a dog might have an allergy to something in his environment, but what other signs should owners watch for?
Dr. Ritchie (Dr. R.): Dogs have an "early-warning system" built into their skin. If we are watchful, serious infections or infestations can be averted at the very beginning. For example, an allergic dog bitten by an ant will behave strangely, growling at himself or sulking or trying to run away from his skin. On closer inspection, you might see his entire body glowing bright pink and feeling hot.
Another sure sign that something's afoot is when a dog constantly licks his feet and/or his genitals. Close inspection of the underbelly might reveal pigment changes, either widespread or localized, often rust-colored, sometimes charcoal gray or black. Sometimes the belly skin shows tiny pinpoints of pigment that look like blackheads, but are not. This is different from "flea dirt," which washes off. Look for crustiness on the edges of the ears, redness around the mouth and chin, thick dandruff, any bad smell, or any hair loss accompanied by gray patches of skin. Any one of these signs means the pet parent needs to take fast action to avert an onset of something quite serious.
Looking at Causes
LTK: Dr. Ritchie, what is the most frequent cause of skin allergies in dogs?
Dr. R.: Most allergies are not fully diagnosed. Not only is the process of allergy testing expensive, the results often leave the pet parent with even more questions. For example, if the dog is allergic to grass, what does the owner do with that information? Grass can be difficult to avoid. Often, if a symptom doesn't respond quickly to standard treatments, it will be assumed that there's an allergy involved. This has become a very common diagnostic approach over the last several years. Having said that, it is generally accepted that inhalant (atopic) allergies are the most prevalent, followed by contact allergies.
Seasonal Allergies vs. Environmental
LTK: Are most skin allergies seasonal or environmental?
Dr. R.: Some breeds are more prone than others to experience a seasonal response to allergens like pollen or grass fungus. We see a considerable spike in dog skin problems in the summer months. It's the change of seasons that can bring about a change in the dog's environment, indoors and out, so sometimes the answer is really, both.
When the vet cannot find a specific allergen (food, insect, mite), the resulting diagnosis might be "atopic dermatitis," which implies an allergic response to something inhaled.
Likelihood of Developing an Allergy
LTK: How common are skin allergies in dogs?
Dr. R.: Depending on how we define "allergy," we could say that almost every dog can experience an allergic reaction in its lifetime. Many dogs are allergic to flea bites, for example.
Often, what might appear to be an allergy is really an invisible infestation of mites or a bacterial or fungal infection deep in the skin. This type of condition is very often misdiagnosed as an allergy, and it will not respond well to the usual treatments of steroids and antibiotics.
How Vets Address the Problem
LTK: What are the most common ways of dealing with dog skin problems?
Dr. R.: Often the first course of treatment is to change the diet. So many dogs appear to be allergic to certain grains or other components of commercial dog food. The next most common treatment is to give the dog steroids and/or antihistamines to treat the symptoms of inflammation and itching.
Vets will often prescribe special "medicated" shampoos, with the recommendation to bathe the dog twice a week or more. And there are dozens of off-the-shelf, "quick-fix remedies" that do little to nothing to solve the problem. "Soothing" shampoos and topical sprays usually cool the skin to ease the inflammation temporarily, but the disease is still there, raging. There is no quick fix.
LTK: What problems can these treatments cause?
Dr. R.: Regarding treatment with steroids (cortisone, prednisone), this is much like a human doctor saying "take two aspirin and call me in a month." Sometimes the symptoms of itching and inflammation abate somewhat, but the disease comes back because the cause of the allergic response remains unknown and untreated.
Steroids can crash the skin's natural immune system, inviting in those ubiquitous Demodex mites and any other opportunistic pest. Steroids also have a negative effect on the liver, and can't be administered for long periods without causing serious problems. They should only be given in the direst of situations and for very short duration. Prescription shampoos can be helpful in some cases, but they are very drying and harsh, and they contain known irritants. This, coupled with too-frequent bathing, can seriously aggravate the condition.
Other Ways to Provide Relief
LTK: How can an owner help her dog feel better?
Dr. R.: In 30+ years of loving dogs, I've learned that there's nothing better than a great, full-body massage to make a dog's eyes roll back in his head with pleasure, whether they itch or not. We recommend a periodic Dead Sea anti-dandruff salt scrub at bath time to exfoliate and deep-clean the skin and follicles, and dogs LOVE this. We have designed all our products with this idea in mind, incorporating organic massage oils and aromatherapy to make the act of treating the disease a very pleasurable one for the dog and pet parent.
Avoid a Common Irritant
LTK: There has been some talk about a common ingredient called sodium laurel sulfate, found in most shampoos. Can you tell us more about it?
Most people are unaware that the chemical that makes shampoo foamy (sodium laurel sulfate or SLS) is a known irritant and allergen, and it's found in almost every pet shampoo on the market. Avoid shampoos with this ingredient, or better yet, use an organic shampoo bar, which is made from soothing vegetable and essential oils and contains nothing else. Other advice we always give is to keep your itchy pup in a t-shirt to protect the skin and give these treatments a chance to do their magic.
LTK: What are some natural ways to help itchy dogs?
Dr. R.: Prevention is the best medicine. Make sure the dogs are eating right, first and foremost. We usually recommend feeding a raw diet, and there are a few really great ones out there, organically raised without antibiotics.
- Keep their immune system functioning at its peak with the best food and plenty of exercise and fresh air.
- Take a good look at the ingredients on all the products you use for your dog, including treats. Eliminate all products with SLS, steroids or petroleum products, for example. If an ingredient is unfamiliar to you, look it up on Wikipedia and satisfy yourself that it's okay to give your best friend.
- If your dog already itches and is miserable, cooling, sea salt soaks are very calming to the skin and will provide temporary relief.
Many people recommend oatmeal pastes, and many others have a list of natural herbal treatments. These are all over the Internet, and if they worked well, we wouldn't need to be in business. The best thing to do is get to work eliminating the cause of the itch.
LTK: How can your products help with skin allergies?
Dr. R.: We need to be very clear on this point. Nothing short of immunotherapy or complete avoidance of the allergen "cures" an allergy. DERMagic products do not treat the allergy itself. Rather, our products treat the allergic response to the allergen by boosting the cellular immunity, reducing inflammation, and eliminating or preventing any potential infection or infestation.
DERMagic is absolutely guaranteed to eliminate mange and other parasites, and fungus too, including yeast infections. Our Made in the USA products are commercially available to everyone, everywhere, without prescription. The active ingredients in our Hot Spot formulas penetrate deeply into the skin and follicles where these parasites can hide and thrive, and where it's difficult for other treatments (whether internal or external) to reach.
Specific Product Recommendations
LTK: What do you recommend for mange?
Dr. R.: There are two types of mange, both caused by tiny mites and both treatable with DERMagic hot spot formulas. Sarcoptic mange (scabies) is very difficult to detect and can be misdiagnosed. Demodectic mange is caused by a mite that normally lives peacefully with dogs (and people) until there's an event that either reduces the skin's immunity or opens the skin with a cut or scratch.
Since mange is often difficult to correctly diagnose, and steroids are so readily prescribed in itching, inflamed dermatitis situations, pet parents must be adamant about not allowing steroids to be given if there is any shadow of doubt that the situation could indeed be mange. The reason for this is that steroids reduce the natural immunity of the skin to these mites and will definitely make the situation worse. I cannot be more emphatic about this point.
There are also several popular dips that are extremely unpleasant at best, and can make your dog really sick at worst. Mange is easily treatable with our hot spot formulas, naturally, safely, gently and thoroughly, with no harsh chemicals or nasty side-effects.
LTK: What about fleas, ticks and other biting pests?
Dr. R.: Fleas, ticks and other little biters are a challenge to control with any product. Many such products have undesirable ingredients, harmful side-effects, or can even be toxic in some cases. While we do not claim to "control" these pests, our products definitely discourage them.
For example, our organic shampoo bars and our shampoo and conditioner all have aromatic essential oils that these creatures avoid. Bathing with DERMagic products kills fleas and deters them for several days. Mosquitoes, which can carry heartworm, hate our products and will leave the room. In fact, when I go camping, I carry DERMagic Hot Spot Lotion and Cell Restoration Crème to keep the bugs off me! Our products were developed to treat bites and stings and inflammations resulting from that, and it turned out that they helped prevent them as well!
LTK: Is there anything else you'd like to share with dog owners about dealing with their pets' skin problems?
Dr. R.: I see dogs afflicted with mange, hot spots and all manner and stages of skin problems all the time, but their owners seem to be either unaware of the problem or have accepted it as a permanent issue to be dealt with. When I ask these people what's wrong with their dog, they invariably say, "Oh, it's just allergies." For some reason, they seem to think a diagnosis of "allergies" means that "nothing can be done" or "there's not an infection or mites or yeast or anything that can be treated, because it's just an allergy."
This is completely false, and if I accomplish anything else in my life I hope it will be to educate pet parents that an allergy is just the beginning, and that what they are seeing is the result of an allergic response to something, whether it's an infection or fungus or mites, all of which can be gotten rid of with the proper treatments.
I also want to add that many veterinarians are waking up to the fact that using steroids to routinely treat a dog's skin problems is no longer the "gold standard" course of action. Holistic and naturopathic veterinary offices are proliferating, and for good reason. Pet parents are realizing the dangers of certain medications, and there's a major trend world-wide toward more natural remedies and organic ingredients. We have seen a surge in interest in products that are made in the USA as well, most likely due to some of the very serious foreign-source dog food issues in recent years.
Consult Your Vet
Being aware of the root causes of your dog's skin problems is crucial to getting the proper treatment for your pet. Always seek a proper diagnosis from your vet, and ask questions about any medication that is prescribed for your pet, as well as any non-prescription products you intend to use. For more information about Dr. Ritchie's products, visit DERMagic.com.