Dec 21 2012


Sully is a five year old poodle-terrier mix who is well loved and cared for.  However, he gets very itchy on his rump during the summer months, and licks his feet almost constantly year round. Sam is a three year old boxer who has always been itchy all over, mostly in his ears and under his tail. Unfortunately
for many dogs in the Southeast, this is an all-too-common occurrence. The question is: How do the millions of “Sullys” and “Sams” stop the itch?

Why the Itch?

Every year, animal insurance providers report the most common claims they receive from dogs are from infections and allergies of the skin. In cats, skin diseases are not as common, but still show up in the top ten claims. Why do dogs and cats have so much itchy skin? New research has come out showing why
the skin breaks down and is showing promising new areas for treatment, but for now skin diseases can be thought of simply as a 1-2 combo.

Think of it like choosing options at your favorite build-a-burrito chain: You pick your chicken, steak, or pork first. Second, you decide on black or pinto beans with or without rice.

The same goes for skin: Dogs and cats can have flea allergies, food allergies, or environmental allergies first. Second they can have bacteria or yeast that infects their skin.  Add a little pico-de-gallo to represent the red and raw skin and you’re set. Hold the lettuce.


First we tackle fleas. Fleas are everywhere, but dogs with the biggest problem with fleas are actually those who are usually well controlled in the flea department. The immune system has never been desensitized and exposed to fleas, so it deals with any new flea with an extremely exaggerated
response. This response is typically centered on the back half of the dog – on the belly, just above the tail, and on the hind legs. Again, the flea is not causing the itch because it bites, but the flea bite is causing the immune system to overact and stimulate an exaggerated response. Flea control, sometimes
multiple types, is often necessary to help rule out and control this critter as the main cause for the itch.


Food allergies can pop up anytime – not just after starting a new diet. Chicken, beef, corn, and wheat are the main concern, but other foods can pose a problem as well. The proteins may be absorbed in the intestines, but many of their problems are seen on the skin. While ear infections can occur with any
allergy, they are commonly traced back to food allergies. A food trial with elimination of all the above groups for weeks to months will likely be necessary to see if this is a problem in your pooch.

Seasonal Allergies

Dogs are allergic to seasonal allergies just like people are, with a few differences in location. Dust mites, pollen, trees, and grasses all cause allergies, but dogs don’t just get red eyes and a runny nose (though some do). Their paws itch when they come in contact with allergens, and the licking begins. They may
itch elsewhere depending on how their body responds, but the feet are by far the most common site for itchiness. This can be the hardest type of allergies to prove, but dogs can get skin testing just like people.


Now, all three of these allergies can make the skin itchy, but infections on the skin make it even itchier.  The allergies and the immune response make the skin “leaky” and weaken its natural defenses. Bacteria and yeast take advantage of the sickly surface and cause more inflammation, more immune response, and more itch. This of course takes the skin down a vicious cycle of itch, inflammation, and infection.  Many times, treatment of the infection must take place while trying to determine the root cause.

I will let your primary veterinarian discuss treatment in every individual circumstance, but my point forall the “Sullys” and “Sams” is this: As hard as it may be to pinpoint the cause of your dog’s itchiness, there is always an underlying cause. There may even be more than one type of allergy. Treating the infection only takes care of half the battle, and it results in seeing the same cycle of infection every season or even as soon as the medication for infection wears off.

Back to Sully and Sam

In case you were guessing, Sully had flea allergy and environmental allergies with a bacterial infection. Sam’s problem was food that caused an ear infection with yeast. Skin allergies may be common, but for animals and the people who love them, that makes them no less uncomfortable. People with allergies
know that often complete control of the pesky allergy is difficult, but at least knowing you and your dog are both miserable from the same thing may make the sniffling a little easier.

– Doc Cleland

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