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Canine Skin Care

by Dr. Annette Richmond, DVM

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Skin disorders are one of the most common ailments from which our canine companions suffer. The culprit may be an allergy, which could fall under the category of food, environment, contact, or even fleas. The skin disease may be due to an infection, either bacterial or fungal; or an infestation of parasites, including fleas, demodex mites, or sarcoptes mites (“mange”). Also, hormone imbalances in the body can cause skin disorders like hypothyroidism, which is a deficiency of thyroid hormone, or Cushing’s disease caused by overactive adrenal glands excreting excess natural steroids (cortisol), or due to steroid administration by a doctor.

The first step in maintaining skin health is to have a practitioner rule out infections or hormonal imbalances. This includes simple skin scrapings, possible fungal cultures, and blood tests. The next crucial step is to ensure good flea control. There are many effective natural flea repellents available. Diatomaceous earth powders work by drying up the eggs and larva, and essential oils repel the fleas. These products are safe and can be used several times per week depending on the potency. All animals have an itchy local reaction when bitten by a flea. However, a flea-allergic animal will have a generalized allergic reaction to just one fleabite, which can be quite severe.

Food allergies are common and can cause itchy skin, frequent ear and skin infections, hair loss, and gastrointestinal irregularities. These signs are non-seasonal and often due to just one ingredient. Many foods contain unnecessary ingredients that are fillers and may also lack beneficial nutrition. For example; grains will cause inflammation, processed foods will be deficient in enzymes and antioxidants resulting in poor immune function, and low-quality protein sources cannot be fully digested and assimilated. The first step in ruling out food allergies is to switch to a novel protein source that the dog has not been introduced to before, e.g., buffalo or duck, which are new protein sources for many animals. Ensure that the diet is organic, highly digestible, contains no grains or preservatives, and includes necessary enzymes and other supplements. A raw food diet is an ideal trial food when suspecting food allergies.

One of the most common allergic disorders is called atopic dermatitis, which is summarized as an allergy to the environment. Typical environmental allergens for animals may include mold, flea saliva, house dust mites, and pollens from grasses, weeds, and trees. When a dog comes into contact with these allergens, the response of the body’s immune system is to create specific antibodies called IgE and IgG.  IgE antibodies are involved in the most common type of allergic reactions for animals. The antibodies attach to cells called mast cells. When there is continued exposure to an allergen, the mast cells release histamine. This causes the allergic inflammation that we are all so familiar with, resulting in itching and scratching.

The first step in treating atopy is to switch foods as mentioned above to reduce any additional inflammatory triggers in the body. General treatments used are antihistamine products like Benadryl and Atarax. These types of medications may slightly alter the behavior of animals, making them sleepy. Used infrequently and in moderation, antihistamines can be effective. Steroid use is discouraged due to the adverse side effects when used long term, including organ damage and immune suppression, which could worsen any concurrent infection or parasitic infestation. However, occasionally steroids can be beneficial in small doses when used short term to break a severe itchy cycle. In severe cases, patients can consult a dermatologist for hypersensitivity testing to diagnose exactly what their pets are allergic to.

Natural treatments abound for allergic pets, including both oral and topical remedies. There are herbs, vitamins, homeopathic remedies, shampoos, enzymes, and essential oils that have anti-inflammatory, and soothing properties. The following list includes many of the ingredients that are used frequently for allergic pets. Please consult a veterinarian who has the experience using these natural supplements, as good results are dose dependent.

Fish oils rich in omega-3s: These essential fatty acids are more easily assimilated in the body than oils coming from plant-derived forms.
Antioxidants: Vitamins E, C, and A, selenium, and grape seed extractare all important for maintaining healthy skin cells.
Herbs: Astragalus, hawthorn, nettle extract, Rehmannia, and burdock can improve circulation, reduce dampness from skin, and reduce inflammation.
Plant derivatives: Vinegar is a natural antifungal. Quercetin and MSM are anti-inflammatory. Aloe vera (topically) is anti-inflammatory and has strong soothing properties. Oatmeal (topically) is soothing.
Essential Oils: Lavender oil is anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antibacterial, and has a soothing effect on skin. Tea tree oil is a strong antifungal and antibacterial making it an excellent cleanser. Oils are extremely effective when used properly; however, use cautiously as they are very potent.

With the correct combination of diet change, supplements, and topical treatments, your beloved itchy canine can lead a much more comfortable life.

Dr. Annette Richmond is a doctor of veterinary medicine, earning her degree from UC Davis in 1997. Dr. Richmond uses many natural remedies on a daily basis in her practice, including: Chinese and western herbs, acupuncture, laser, dietary changes, nutraceutical supplements, essential oils, and flower essences. Natural Veterinary Therapy carries many supplements for treating skin disorders as well as natural flea remedies, shampoos, and essential oils. Natural Veterinary Therapy is located at 510 Lighthouse Avenue in downtown Pacific Grove and can be reached at 831-655-0501 or www.naturalveterinarytherapy.com.

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