Vet talk: Check out what's making your animal itch

By Liza Schneider

These are cases that we see very frequently and they often provide much frustration to pets, owners and vets.

An itchy animal will scratch or chew at themselves causing inflammation, leading to a further itch which often progresses to infection (a change in the population of natural bacteria that live on the skin or a foreign bu may be introduced) and a vicious cycle is established.

Conventional medicine then makes use of antibiotics to control the infection and various medications to suppress the itch as a means of breaking this cycle.

Immunotherapy may also be used. The prevention of this scenario is our ultimate goal and to achieve this, we need to address the underlying issues.

Animals have an itch threshold, basically a line drawn at a certain level which is different for each individual depending on their genetic make-up.

Many factors contribute to this itch threshold and one or more factors can push the animal over the edge, causing them to itch.

There are five main factors which play a role in causing animals to itch. These are nutrition, stress, parasites, environmental factors and mechanical irritation. Other contributors can include hormone imbalances, worms and infections.

There are various diagnostic techniques available to establish the main contributing factor/s, these include cytology, biopsy, intradermal skin testing, diet trials and blood tests, which can be helpful but unfortunately they aren't always conclusive.

As a practical first line of defence we focus on managing the main contributing factors so that the itch threshold is not reached.

NUTRITION PLAYS A MAJOR ROLE

Poor quality food, artificial preservatives, allergies to specific proteins and lack of essential fats, vitamins and minerals can all play a part in contributing to the itch.

Generally we recommend a well-balanced raw food diet together with the addition of optimal amounts of vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and omega 3 fatty acids found in high amounts in flax oil, krill oil and cold water fish and are usually deficient in optimal amounts in most pets' diets.

Omega 3s have anti-inflammatory properties and help to give the skin an extra barrier of protection in addition to many other helpful properties.

This works well for most dogs and cats but sometimes we need to design a special diet addressing specific issues.

STRESS

Stress weakens the immune system and lowers the body's itch threshold.

In cats we commonly see itchy skin problems and establish in the history that there is a new tomcat in the area bullying the cat.

Stress can also be due to other factors such as a much loved owner going away, a new baby in the house or even a fellow companion no longer being present.

Addressing the underlying issue is important but wholesome nutrition, various supplements such as vitamin B complex, pheromones and remedies such as Rescue Remedy can be very useful aids to help animals to cope with stress.

PARASITES

Parasites like sarcoptic mange and fleas can contribute greatly to an itch.

Fleas can be very irritating and can also be responsible for flea allergy dermatitis where just one flea bite can cause an itch that lasts for weeks - we find this latter issue much less commonly on animals receiving optimal nutrition with a well-balanced raw food diet.

Fleas are natural parasites and have evolved with animals for hundreds of years, when they are becoming a problem it means that either the animal's body is not in top shape to prevent this and /or the environment that the animal is in is unbalanced and the fleas are "taking over".

Environmental flea control as well as supporting the immune system helps to address this issue and where necessary, additional supplements and parasite control products can be used.

ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS

Environmental factors can be difficult to isolate or control, for example pollens and dust mites.

Also many dogs love swimming in the sea but the salty water can cause them to be itchy.

It is therefore a good idea to always hose them down with fresh water afterwards. Various shampoos can also contribute to an itch.

Plants such as wandering jew can cause some dogs to react with a violent itch. It is important to be aware of these factors that may play a role and limit exposure where possible.

We often find that by addressing other factors that contribute to the itch threshold and making use of various supplements and homeopathic remedies, many dogs don't react as badly to these factors.

MECHANICAL IRRITATION

Mechanical irritation such as waxy, hairy or sore ears, painful teeth, full anal glands, long nails and worm burdens can make an animal unsettled and uncomfortable.

Sometimes they display this by scratching or chewing their paws.

A check-up at the vet will help to identify these issues and strategise a management plan to address them.

When animals are itchy some useful first line treatments to help break the itch cycle are to shampoo with soothing shampoos like oatmeal, a cold water bath or applying soothing creams or lotions like aloe vera gel (ensure that it's not preserved with benzoic acid), pawpaw ointment or colloidal silver.

There are many options available to help a chronically itchy animal. For long-term success time, effort and patience are often necessary but with a holistic approach, making use of complementary therapies, we often find that most cases respond well within 2-4 weeks, many without the need for medications.

Occasionally some animals can't be adequately managed and here we make use of medications to suppress the itch which can be wonderful aids.

Some animals need ongoing maintenance doses of these medications to keep them comfortable.

- The Country

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