Treating skin disorders in pets can be very challenging for a veterinarian, particularly a chronic or long term skin disorder. Many text books quote over 100 different causes of skin problems, so a lot of detective work may need to be done to try and find out exactly what is causing the problem and how best treat it.
To simplify things a bit, there are two kinds of skin problems- curable and incurable. Both types of skin problems can present with the same symptoms- hair loss, redness, itchiness, dandruff, raised lumps or sores etc.
In order to find out what is causing the skin problem your vet may have to take multiple scrapings, swabs or biopsies of the skin. Sometimes blood tests are required and/or fungal and bacterial cultures. Occasionally trial medications are given, with multiple revisits to the vet to see if the pet is responding to the medication. Since it takes a new healthy skin cell about four weeks to mature and be present near the skin surface, even curable skin diseases may take weeks to resolve.
Curable skin diseases
The most common skin diseases we see here in Vanuatu are caused by parasites. These parasites include fleas, ticks, lice and mange and can all cause hair loss, redness, skin infection, itchiness or dandruff. Luckily they are all fairly easy to treat with shampoos, spot-ons or tablets.
Other curable diseases are caused by fungal, bacterial and yeast infections. The classic fungal infections are commonly known as ‘ringworm’ and are mostly seen in young animals. Antifungals are very effective at treating these infections.
Healthy dogs seldom develop bacterial or yeast dermatitis so an underlying predisposing condition may need to be considered. We can treat the bacterial infection with antibiotics; however, if there is an underlying condition the infection can return. Underlying conditions can include a poor quality diet, skin allergies, parasites or a hormonal imbalance.
Incurable skin conditions
Incurable chronic skin disorders can be a nightmare for the unfortunate dog and frustrating to the veterinarian and dog owner.
Skin allergies are the most common incurable skin disorder that we see. They can be caused by flea saliva, food allergy, contact allergy or inhalant allergy. If we can find the offending antigen, then prevent the dog or cat coming in contact with that allergen, the dermatitis will disappear. That is often much easier said than done!
If your dog has flea allergy, strict flea control must be adhered to. All dogs and cats in the household must be treated against fleas.
In food allergy, the offending food source must be removed from the diet. The food can be beef, chicken, fish, cereals, yeast, preservatives or the colourings in the diet. Finding the exact source of the allergy can be very difficult to isolate but there are some very good hypoallergenic diets that you can feed your pets.
Contact allergy is cause by your pet coming in direct contact with something that his skin reacts to. The skin may become red and inflamed or develop numerous raised lumps or wheels. The dog may lick or scratch at the skin because it is so irritated. A few examples of things that can cause contact allergy include the grass, bedding or a plastic food bowl.
Inhalant allergy is also called Atopy. In Atopy the dog inhales or ‘breaths in’ the offending allergen. This is often caused by pollens from plants or moulds.
Allergies can also be seasonal, as plants tend to flower only at certain times of the year. When the offending plant stops flowering the animal will often improve only for the skin condition to return again the following year.
We have a few drugs that are very helpful for dogs and cats with allergies. These include cortisone, cyclosporine and a new drug called Apoquel. These drugs all supress the animal’s immune system so that it stops reacting to the offending allergen. They are very useful and effective drugs however misuse is common and they all can have side effects. They also don’t cure the dog, so as soon as the medication wears off, the skin condition will return.
These are a few examples of common skin conditions. Unfortunately, there are many other less common diseases including hormonal diseases and auto-immune diseases. If you dog or cat has a skin problem, it can take a while to find out exactly what is causing the problem!
With Dr. Karin O’Connor from Port Vila Vet Clinic in conjunction with Sam’s Animal Welfare. If you have any questions or would like to volunteer to help Sam’s, please call the Vet Clinic on 25702.