Jingle, jingle, jingle. Jingle, jingle, jingle. No, Santa and his eight tiny reindeer are not visiting the dog at the side of the bed, it just seems you forgot to take his collar off before turning off the lights for the night and he is scratching again and keeping everybody up. This time of year many dog owners learn the importance of undressing the dog before going to bed. But why all this scratching? And why at this time of year in particular?
Dogs just scratch, you may say. I would agree that the occasional scratch here and there is completely normal, but this continual digging and licking of feet and legs and flapping of ears is not. In other parts of the country fleas are often the culprits behind excessive scratching. Although we have some fleas in Colorado, it is not one of the more common reasons for itchy dogs in this area. Around here more dogs are itchy because of allergies.
Allergic skin disease comes in two basic flavors: inhalant allergies, which are essentially hay fever, and food allergies. The symptoms of both types of allergies are the same. While people tend to develop a runny nose and sneezing with hay fever, dogs instead get the scratchies. In particular the skin in their ear canals and between their toes tends to become inflamed and that leads to long sessions of foot slurping and head shaking with ear infections. Anywhere the dog has skin, however, can be affected.
Your veterinarian can help differentiate allergies from other skin conditions that cause itchiness. When allergies are suspected, sorting out whether they are seasonal inhalant allergies or food allergies is helpful. Food allergic dogs are reacting to some ingredient in their diet, say for example corn. Those dogs tend to have a consistent level of itchiness all year regardless of the season. The good news for those patients is that their symptoms have hope for control with just a careful diet change. Seasonal allergy dogs are usually worse in the spring and late summer. In August and September I see the greatest bulk of itchy patients. Many dogs have a history of being repeat offenders for ear or skin infections every single year at this time. Their symptoms are usually much better during the winter months. There are some sneaky inhalant allergies like mold in the house and dust mites that could cause consistent year round symptoms like food allergies, so nothing is ever completely cut and dried.
The best approach to combating allergy symptoms is to identify the offending substance and eliminate contact with it. That is easier said than done in most cases, and physically impossible in many cases. Symptomatic relief is another option. We are not eliminating the problem, just reducing the unpleasant symptoms. There is a large array of potential treatments for allergic skin disease. Any time the treatment array is large that means that there is no single thing that works really well. We usually try to start out with the gentler approaches and become more aggressive as needed. Shampoos, fatty acid supplements, and antihistamines are some low key treatments that can be very helpful in the less severe cases. Prednisone and related drugs are very effective at stopping allergy itching, but they also have side effects that range from annoying in the short term to health imparing in the long term. Prednisone is usually not our first choice but there are many cases where it is necessary and sometimes it is the lesser of two evils. Cyclosporine is a drug that is being used with some success for severe allergy control without the side effects of prednisone, but it is considerably more expensive and not quite as reliably effective as prednisone.
Allergy testing and desensitization shots are often a good approach for pets with long standing allergy problems. When it works it is wonderful to be able to control the problem without drugs. Some patients respond very well and some can be unsatisfactory, possibly because they are reacting to some odball thing that wasn’t on the list to test and desensitize for.
The main thing to understand is that not only is all that scratching not normal, but you and your dog are not doomed to just living with it. Treating allergies can be a long and ongoing process, but it can dramatically improve quality of life for both you and your dog. And Santa can catch a break here in the late summer and only have to visit on Christmas eve.