Cat and Dog Skin Problems

By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM

Does your dog (or cat) have skin problems? Is it continually scratching, biting and licking at itself….and you don’t know why? Well, take comfort, you are not alone.

There are really six main reasons why dogs and cats will itch and scratch. The bottom line is... don't let them suffer! There IS a diagnosis to be made and then you and your veterinarian will be better able to select the proper treatment plan.

Itching and scratching in dogs: One of the most common calls made to any animal hospital in America goes something like this: "Doctor, I’ve got to get this dog in right away. He’s driving us nuts. All he does is itch and scratch, bite and lick and he’s keeping us up all night!"

My thought is that if the pet’s caretakers are being driven “nuts” by the dog’s scratching and licking, how awful must the poor dog feel?

This kind of call to the veterinarian refers to a fairly serious case of pruritus. In reality there is a wide spectrum of causes and severity of itching and scratching in dogs with skin and coat trouble. Some dogs can spend hours romping through fields, digging holes, and rolling in the grass and still have no after-effects at all. Others, kept indoors and fed an excellent diet, may have severe skin disorders.

Let’s see if we can make some sense of this complicated and aggravating situation and try to answer the question "Why does my dog itch-and-scratch-bite-and-lick?"

There are six main categories of dermatitis we veterinarians have to consider whenever a cat or dog skin problem -- or "skin case" -- is presented. Most skin and coat abnormalities can be defined by or placed in one of these categories:

  • Environmental
  • Nutritional
  • Parasitic
  • Allergic
  • Neurogenic
  • Infectious

Keeping in mind that there are entire textbooks written about these categories, you might understand why veterinarians often take a deep breath before entering the exam room wherein awaits a patient with a "skin problem." Let’s look at each category, starting with the simplest (Environmental Dermatitis) and finishing with the most challenging (Neurogenic Dermatitis).

1. Environmental Dermatitis

Patients in this category are physically and nutritionally normal, but present with signs of itching and scratching, hair loss and skin irritation. By careful discourse with the owner regarding diet, activity, medical history and environment, and by performing a thorough physical exam, the veterinarian can rule out the other categories of dermatitis. Through the analysis of the patient’s history, the veterinarian will discover that the patient spends time swimming or excavating gopher holes or romping through fields where thistles seem prevalent.

Many dogs are very sensitive to simple lawn grasses. And by matching what is visible on the patient’s skin with a probable environmental irritant -- the cause of the cat or dog's skin problem can be determined and corrective measures taken.

An example is Moist Eczema, often called a "Hot Spot". These skin lesions often occur as a result of moisture on the skin surface from rain, pond or lake water. Minute scratches on the skin from, for example, a clipper blade, may trigger other cases. Especially in dense coated dogs or dogs where there is an accumulation of mats or shedding hair, moisture on the skin may remain long enough to allow superficial bacteria to reproduce (sort of like an organic soup!) and create an infection.

Some cases of Moist Eczema will spread very rapidly and require rather aggressive therapy to correct. Contact with plastics can also cause environmental dermatitis.


2. Nutritional Dermatitis

When food is the issue, correction of these cases of dog and cat itching and scratching should be a "no brainer," but even today, many veterinarians and pet owners really believe the "Complete and Balanced" statement on pet food labels.

Unfortunately, many dogs and cats live their entire lives in less than optimum health because their caretaker feeds the least expensive food they can find … and feels secure in doing so because of that "Complete and Balanced" statement.

In my thirty-five years of practice, I have seen hundreds of dogs and cats whose lives changed dramatically, and where the pet’s caretakers were shocked and surprised at the remarkable difference in their pets, by the simple act of providing the pet with a high quality, meat-based diet.

You can read more on dog and cat food protein and overall pet nutrition for some common sense information about sound feeding principles.

Without proper nourishment skin problems in dogs and cats is just one of the possible reactions; the animal's entire body, not just its skin and coat, will be continuously in a state of stress. High quality meat-based dog foods seldom, if ever, create the kind of skin and coat irritation in most animals.

If you feed dry commercial dog food, be certain that the first ingredient listed is meat such as beef, poultry, lamb or fish. Specialized diets are widely available that are generally better than others in several key categories.

Will supplements help? Absolutely! But if the diet is a high quality, meat-based brand, the need for supplements is much less critical. It has been my experience that supplements such as Omega Fatty Acids, Vitamins and table scraps will always help a dog that is eating a generic, commercial dry dog food; and on occasion, supplements may even show positive benefits in a dog eating a high quality diet.

Many types of cat or dog skin problems are avoided if the animal consumes an optimum diet. In some cases, adding a supplement, such as an omega fatty acid supplement, is the key factor in avoiding repeated episodes of hot spots and other skin problems.

If your dog or cat seems to lack good coat and skin health, consider upgrading the diet to a meat-based ingredient formula and adding a supplement.

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