Pet Topics

One Who Licks and Scratches

by Dr. Ku

"Missy" comes in frequently to our clinic because we love to see her, and also because she gets allergy shots. It wasn't until we started the shots, that her non-stop scratching, rolling and rubbing slowed down. At times it flares up again, but for the most part, she is a much happier little Cocker Spaniel.

Months ago Missy would come in for the same problem again and again: she was itchy! I would look her over and find not one flea. I would comb through the fur carefully and find not one speck of dander or even a pimple. We tried oral antihistamines of varying size, shape and color, vitamins in various forms, diet changes, sprays, ointments, and still, she scratched and rubbed and rolled.

Now if any of you have ever lived with an itchy pet, you know exactly what Missy and her owners were going through. At night there is the constant thump, thump thumping of the leg as it reaches over to scratch the itch. The slurpy licks that go on as quietly as possible so as not to waken the wrath of the owner. The rubbing up against the blankets for some - any - amount of relief! And the horrible feeling one gets, that one's pet is terribly miserable.

Sacramento, like much of California, enjoys many types of beautiful flowering trees, shrubs, and plants that unfortunately contribute to high pollen and mold counts much of the year. Many people in Sacramento suffer from allergies, and so do their pets. While we sneeze and rub our eyes, they primarily scratch, bite, and chew on their skin. Inhalant allergies are probably the most common cause of what is known as pruritis (or better known as "itchiness") in our pets, second only to flea allergies. Food allergies can also cause itchiness, but this represents a much smaller percentage of cases. Many novel protein and carbohydrate sources in diets have been developed to address this problem, and prior to embarking on allergy shots, we usually do a trial elimination diet to see if this will help. If it works, the difference is remarkable, but unfortunately, only about 20% of the time will this result in a more comfortable pet.

Luckily there are several new products that are very effective at controlling fleas, with minimal pesticide exposure and minimal effort on our part. The allergic dog or cat that doesn't have fleas, is a bit more challenging. Often antihistamines can alleviate much of the discomfort and are generally safe to use on a regular basis. We use many of the same antihistamines in animals that we use in people, but the dosages differ. Benadryl is one such antihistamine used in both dogs and people. We would start with approximately 1mg/lb. in dogs, or in Missy's case, a 25 mg adult capsule three times a day. We also tend to use them in combination with fatty acid vitamin supplements, which seem to improve our results.

Occasionally, as with people, antihistamines are not as effective alone, and periodic use of steroids or other anti-inflammatory agents may be helpful during severe flare-ups. Allergy testing and allergy shots are available for both cats and dogs, and are often very effective. They do require a fair amount of patience; however, as the goal is to desensitize the animal to the allergens over time.

In Missy's case, her shots take care of 90% of her itchiness. Occasionally she needs a topical spray, and she still takes her vitamin supplements, but overall, her comfort level, and therefore that of her people, is much improved!

If your pet is itchy, don't assume that this is normal grooming behavior for most pets. In Sacramento, it is often the result of allergies, but there are things that can be done to minimize the urge to scratch! If left untreated, allergies can also lead to secondary bacterial and/or yeast infections that can make the solution more difficult. In any case, please consult with you veterinarian if you have any questions about your itchy pet!