Dear Dr. Z,
My dog Ratatouille is chewing himself day and night, and his skin looks awful. I use flea prevention, groom him monthly, and feed him a hypoallergenic diet, what am I doing wrong?
Scarlett and Ratatouille
Dear Scarlett and Ratatouille,
Summer in San Diego is in full force, and allergies are at their all time worst. Ratatouille could be suffering from environmental allergies, and his skin is literally throbbing with discomfort. There are many reasons for itching in animals and a thorough work-up is strongly recommended before blaming old Mother Nature.
If his other tests are normal, there could be a strong correlation with the very air he breathes. Environmental allergies, termed "atopy," can cause ear infections, itchy feet/ armpit/groin, and can result in trauma to the skin of your pet. Not to mention the lack of sleep you get listening to him scratch.
Controlling Ratatouille's reaction to the environment is tricky. We can't just put him in a plastic bubble and roll him through life.
Another option is to allergy test him, just like with people, and determine the source of his allergies. He is then desensitized to these individual allergens with injections. The advantage of this method is your pet may not need medications to control his itching, except for the occasional flare-up.
A common option is to use antihistamines or steroids. Some pets do well with antihistamines alone, like Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec, etc., but unfortunately many require the help of steroids. Now don't worry, steroids will not make your pet buff or give him "roid rage" but instead suppress his immune system. The goal with steroids is to suppress his immune system just enough to control the itching.
Steroids are harmful if used in large doses or if used long term. Antihistamines and steroids control symptoms; they don't necessarily fix the underlying problem.
Itching during the summer is common and many pets suffer from the itch. An animal that is itching is extremely uncomfortable and often even in pain.
Dr. Dustin Zimmer works for VCA Bonita Animal Hospital in Bonita.