Fluffy or fleecy, wispy or wiry, our pets’ coats come in colors and textures as varied as their personalities. But they are more than just a pretty coat, did you know that your pet’s coat and skin also help protect him from disease? As the first line of defense against the environment and its multitude of threats, such as allergens, bacteria, yeast and external parasites, your pet’s skin is always on the job. Sometimes the defenses break down and it’s not hard to tell when they do, because the skin has a relatively limited repertoire in its response to irritants: Itchiness, redness, crusting, scaling and greasiness are all signs that the skin is unhappy – the tricky part is figuring out the source of the dermatological discontent.
Allergic skin disease may be the most commonly diagnosed skin abnormality in cats and dogs. While it’s not life-threatening, it does impact the quality of our pet’s lives. Whether due to environmental allergens such as pollens and dust mites, food or fleas, allergic skin disease triggers inflammation and itchiness that leads to a lot of scratching, licking and chewing. This can then cause a breakdown of the skin leading to secondary infection, further aggravating the itchiness.
Food and environmental allergens are complex and can take months to diagnose and resolve. I will discuss this in greater detail in a future blog. In the meantime let’s examine some of the other common causes of itch in our pets.
The Creepy Crawlies
Our pet’s skin and coat can be a host for a variety of pests. Properly referred to as ectoparasites, these bugs can set up shop on your pet’s skin, coat or ears and cause itchiness.
Fleas are the most infamous of the ectoparasites. These jumping bugs live their adult life on the surface of your pets’ skin where they feed on their blood. The saliva contained in flea bites often causes itchiness, and if a pet is unlucky enough to be allergic to fleas, even one tiny bite can create a massive itchy reaction. Once established in an environment, fleas reproduce rapidly and can be a pain to eradicate. Luckily for us, there are very effective products available to rid the problem as well as prevent them from ever becoming an issue in the first place.
Sarcoptic Mange is the culprit for the condition known as Scabies. Sarcoptic mange is a contagious mite that burrows into our pet’s skin causing constant itchiness. These mites can only be seen with a microscope and since they burrow under the skin, a skin scrape, which removes the first few cell layers of the skin, needs to be performed to find the pests.
Ear Mites, as the name implies, live in the ears. They are encountered most commonly in kittens and puppies, although they can infect pets of any age. Highly contagious, these mites cause very itchy and inflamed ears that produce a lot of brown/black debris. These mites can be diagnosed by looking for these critters amongst the ear debris with the help of a microscope.
Lice are another highly contagious ectoparasite that is passed from one pet to another through direct contact of the coat or via fomites such as shared brushes. Two bits of good news: lice are easy to treat and lice are species specific meaning your dog’s lice will not affect you.
Our pet’s skin is an amazing and complex organ that provides protection from infectious invaders, assists in maintaining hydration and temperature and helps our four-legged friends look fabulous. Watch for telltale signs of skin abnormalities and respond to them quickly to keep your pets happy, healthy and protected from pests.
Dr. Loretta Yuen D.V.M