A simple romp through the park – or even in the backyard – can lead to a host of skin issues for dogs and cats. First and foremost, veterinarians should remind their clients to give their pets flea and tick preventives. But, even well-cared-for animals are at risk for skin allergens, and veterinarians must be prepared with the right tools to address skin problems.
Skin allergies can be triggered by several sources, including environmental, parasitic and nutritional. Whereas humans inhale allergens, animals tend to absorb them through their skin, which is more porous and which doesn’t always provide an effective barrier against pathogens. The skin often reacts by becoming itchy and potentially infected when the animal scratches. Licking and biting of open wounds leads to further infection. Similarly, when the animal is bitten by a parasite, it may develop a systemic – or allergic – reaction. If the animal becomes uncomfortable and scratches or licks the affected area, it may become infected.
Although food allergies are less common among pets, veterinarians still need to keep their clients informed. About 20 percent of animals with allergies are found to have nutritional allergies. However, only 10 percent of all dogs have some type of allergy, so determining whether it is nutritionally based – and, if so, what type of food is causing the allergy – calls for some sleuth work. Animals suspected of having food allergies must live on restricted diets consisting of foods they have never before eaten. So, for instance, one veterinarian may prescribe a diet of ostrich and rutabaga. Another may prescribe kangaroo and sweet potato. The goal is to introduce small amounts of allergen to narrow down the source. The most common food allergies include beef, chicken and pork, as well as grains such as corn or wheat.
The first signs of allergies typically are inflamed, itchy skin and hair loss. Otitis – swelling and inflammation around the animal’s ear – often appears as a secondary symptom of an allergy or pathogen. In addition, the skin may become darker and tougher from repeated licking and biting. Sometimes yeast infections develop, particularly in areas such as folds and earflaps, where it tends to stay warm and moist. Animals may develop irritability or behavioral issues after periods of discomfort.
Diagnosing allergies is all about rule-outs, say experts. Veterinarians must begin by taking a thorough history of the patient. For instance, they must determine whether the pet is an indoor or an indoor/outdoor animal and whether the skin reaction occurs year round. Where does the animal sleep? Are there other pets in the home? And, so on. A basic physical exam should follow.
As part of the physical exam, veterinarians should run a basic diagnostic panel, including a fecal test for internal parasites and an examination for fleas and ticks. If parasites and environmental causes can be ruled out, the veterinarian typically will consider food allergies and place the animal on a special diet for four to eight weeks.
Sometimes, a general practitioner may refer the patient to a dermatologist or allergist, who performs a prick test. The animal is exposed – or pricked – with minimal amounts of potential allergens (much like the human form of the test). In some cases, the specialist may use a blood sample from the animal to test for allergies.
Throughout the process of diagnosing allergies and skin problems, the veterinarian will prescribe topical ointments, sprays, shampoos and wound flushes to keep the animal’s skin as healthy as possible.
General practitioners must know when it’s prudent to refer a skin case to a dermatologist. About 300 such specialists practice across the United States today. Under- or over-prescribing medications can have a lasting effect on a pet. In fact, taking too heavy a dose of steroids can be life threatening. That said, mild-to-moderate cases may be handled effectively by a general practitioner.
There are many schools of thought when it comes to treating skin problems. Some veterinarians rely more heavily on anti-inflammatory steroids, which work well for short-term use, according to experts. However, they are associated with negative side effects (e.g., excessive urination or defecation; the development of thin skin; overstimulation of the endocrine system can lead to Cushing’s disease) when used for prolonged periods.
Other allergy treatments for dogs and cats include:
• Cyclosporine, which can suppress the immune response to allergens in dogs and cats, but is reportedly associated with gastrointestinal side effects.
• Allergy shots, which generally are given every six to 12 months.
• Topical products, such as shampoos, conditioners and ointments. Some products are medicated, while others are non-medicated cleansing products.
• Diet/nutrition. Amino fatty acids are known to help maintain and restore moisture to the skin.
A newer concept in skin treatment – one that has been borrowed from the human side – is the use of ceramides, which help the animal’s skin develop into a protective barrier to allergens. At least one vendor is looking to simplify pet owners’ lives by adding ceramides to its shampoos and lotions. Skin barrier repair is an asset to animals as they fight allergens, say experts who note that “if the skin does its job, animals can nip the allergic process in the bud.”
It makes good sense – both health-wise and financially – for veterinarians to treat their patients’ skin allergy problems early on, especially given that they often can address a variety of skin issues with a few products.
The more distributor sales reps know about skin allergies and treatments, the better they can help their veterinarian customers. Vendor lunch-and-learns are one way reps and their customers can stay informed about skin allergies and the newest products available for treating them.
In addition, when meeting with customers, reps should ask some probing questions, including:
• “Doctor, what are the most common skin issues you see among your patients?”
• “What are you currently doing to manage your patients with skin disease/allergies?”
• “Are you finding that your clients are able to use a topical therapy as often as possible?”
• “Are your clients aware that there are convenient sprays available, as well as traditional shampoo products?”
• “Is there anything specific you would like to discuss about skin issues/allergies?”
By taking a proactive approach to their patients’ skin care, veterinarians – and their clients – can prevent many long-term issues for pets. And, working with their patients on skin problems throughout the animal’s life can be a great way for veterinarians to bond with clients and their pets.
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