Q: Why is my dog/cat scratching and the hair starting to fall out?
A: There are many reasons why our dogs and cats can be itchy. The long list includes dry skin, fleas, flea bite allergy, atopy, food allergy, bacterial infection, yeast infection, mites (mange), contact allergy, and ringworm. Fleas and flea bite allergy are by far the most common cause of itchy skin in our pets, so this article will focus on this topic.
Fleas, especially when a pet is infested, can cause a great deal of irritation to your pet’s skin by the biting and crawling. However, some animals are sensitive to the saliva of the flea. When the saliva gets under the skin surface of a flea-allergic pet, the animal can become intensely itchy. It can be so bad that they are distracted from other things to stop and itch. The most common areas involved are the back area just above the tail, the base of the tail, the inner and backs of the thighs, the “armpits”, and the ears. Any area can be involved though. If your pet has hair thinned out or missing from the “waist” back, it is likely afflicted by flea bite allergy. In addition to the hair loss and itch, the animal often has red, swollen skin. Secondary bacterial and yeast infections are very common with flea bite allergy. This is because the inflammation that results from the allergic condition causes the local environment on the surface of the skin to change. This allows normal bacteria and yeast to flourish. When there is secondary infection, the skin has a bad odor (sickeningly sweet in the case of yeast), discharge can be present, and open sores can be found.
Cats tend to get miliary dermatitis when they have flea bite allergy. Miliary dermatitis looks and feels like multiple pinpoint scabs/bumps/sores, and it can be found anywhere. Most commonly, though, it is found around the head and neck as well as the back by the tail. Some dogs, especially Golden Retrievers, tend to get “hot spots”. In this instance, the dog scratches intensely in one area, causing the surface of the skin to be opened up. As itching continues and bacteria starts to flourish in the open skin, the area becomes even more itchy and can start to seep out a foul-smelling clear, cloudy to bloody discharge. Hot spots are often found on the side of the face and by the hips. Once a dog gets a hot spot, they usually need antibiotics, anti-itch medication, topical sprays, and e-collar and the area clipped and cleaned. Treating flea bite allergy in dogs and cats can be expensive and time-consuming. So, it is better for the pet and for your pocket-book to prevent a problem before it starts. We recommend Frontline Plus for fleas and ticks and Advantage for fleas. These monthly products should be applied starting in the spring (April) and going through summer to the fall (November). It is important that flea bite sensitive animals are not ever bitten by a flea, as one bit can trigger itch for weeks in some cases. So, these pets should get flea prevention every month year round.
It is important to note that many flea control products are not very effective and will not help with flea bite allergy. These include flea collars, flea shampoos, and permethrin/pyrethrin- based products. It is important to note a few particulars in cats as well. You must be careful, not matter what product you use, never to use dogs products on cats. Also, you can cause toxicity and even death in cats by overdoing the flea products (using a collar, bathing, applying a topical spot-on treatment to a cat at the same time). Always follow the manufacturer instructions and make sure you are using the product made for the body weight of your pet.