Veterinarian Reviewed on January 31, 2008 by Dr. Janice Huntingford
You may notice that your dog or cat is excessively licking, chewing, or scratching a particular area on its body. This can be a very uncomfortable act for your pet and probably indicates a problem with itching. Usually due to an allergic reaction, itching is a particularly common problem for pets that is often overlooked because it doesn’t seem particularly serious. On the contrary, itching can make your pet’s life miserable. Imagine an insatiable itch yourself. Not to mention, there are related problems that can arise from itching. It is entirely possible that your pet could scratch or lick an itchy spot so much that other skin conditions and lesions arise.
In most cases, short term treatment involves steroid prescriptions. Corticosteroid hormones such as cortisone or hydrocortisone are very popular for treating itching. Unfortunately, these hormones are utilized by a number of body systems and their presence in excessive amounts indicates risks for other organs. For this reason, long term treatment of itching has turned away from corticosteroid hormones.
Oral medications that include antihistamines are gaining in popularity. Histamine is a well known biological molecule that causes inflammation and is a key in the immune response. Often used in humans to limit allergic responses, it has been thought that antihistamines could be effective in dogs. Unfortunately, they are not quite as reliable in animals as humans but still constitute a useful treatment step because they are found to be helpful in 40% of dogs.
In addition to antihistamines, fatty acids have recently been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. Primrose oils and fish oils are popular alternative medicines for humans and as a result studies regarding their effects on animals have also become popular. Fatty acid supplements are slightly different for pets than humans but have been found to be useful in 10-25% of animals. Fatty acid supplements are often used in combination with antihistamines to try to produce a greater effect.
Another oral treatment that has shown some effectiveness is cyclosporine. Originally developed to ameliorate the side effects of transplant, cyclosporine has recently been discovered to modulate the immune system. Cyclosporine has similar effects of corticosteroids without the long term negative impact on internal organs.
Other than oral treatments, there are also a variety of topical treatments that are commonly used. There are a variety of shampoos and rinses that have been developed for their anti-inflammatory properties. These shampoos operate on the principle that they remove inflammatory elements from the skin leading to less itching. There are also particular “dips” that are utilised for their ability to kill parasites, fungi, and bacteria. When the cause of the itching is known to be an external agent (such as infection) then these dips are usually prescribed. Unfortunately, these chemical dips often smell putrid and can stain clothing. Plus, these dips are found to be effective only in a minority of cases.
Ultimately, treating your pet’s itching relies on determining the cause of the itching and flushing out the most effective treatment.
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan