Itchy skin is a very common problem, especially in dogs. Unfortunately it can be a very frustrating problem too. It’s not nice to see your dog uncomfortable and scratching, and sadly there’s not always a ‘quick fix’ treatment. This is because there are a host of conditions that can cause your dog to itch, and pinpointing the cause can be difficult. In order to figure out the cause of your pet’s itchy skin the vet will go through a step by step process to ensure the best care and treatment for your dog and to make sure as to not miss anything.
Signs of yeasts and allergies
You may see your pet licking, nibbling or gnawing at their feet, scratching their ears or generally overgrooming. Some pets may do this in secret. For example, when they’re alone or at night, so we have to look for clues like red skin, hair loss or brown saliva staining between their toes. These are telltale signs that your dog may be suffering from an allergy.
A little more about allergies
Skin allergies can be caused by environmental allergens such as grasses, weeds, trees, moulds, dust mites and pollen. Or by an allergy to a protein in their diet – for example, chicken. A blood test (or a skin test) can be performed to help identify if an environmental allergen is the cause. To rule out a food hypersensitivity, your vet may suggest an elimination food trial. This requires a prescription hydrolyzed hypoallergenic diet – for a minimum of 8-12 weeks. This is a diagnostic test in itself.
So what about the yeast?
During your pet’s examination the vet will check for any evidence of a concurrent skin infection. Skin infections can be caused by bacteria or a fungi/yeast known as Malassezia. Malassezia is a type of yeast that is commonly found on the skin of normal healthy dogs (without causing any problems).
However, in dogs with damaged skin, a reduced immune system or an underlying allergy, this Malassezia is able to cause skin disease. They could have a reduced immune system secondary to an illness such as diabetes, cancer, an underactive thyroid or due to long term skin allergies. As the skin’s resistance to the yeast lowers, the yeast can multiply and spread. This results in red itchy ‘yeasty’ smelling skin. This type of yeast infection is common in Basset Hounds and West Highland White Terriers.
It’s not that the dog is allergic to yeast. It’s that they’re allergic to something else which has allowed the yeasts to overgrow.
How are these diseases treated?
Malassezia yeast infections can be treated with special medical shampoos or creams, or in more severe cases a course of tablets. It’s important to note that because Malassezia infections occur secondary to other problems, in order to resolve the problem the underlying cause will need to be successfully managed.
This will involve identifying other conditions (eg Diabetes or Thyroid disease) if your pet is showing other clinical signs seen with this disease. They can be picked up via a blood test and then managed appropriately.
In the case of skin allergies, there are a variety of treatment options available. Some treatments work by suppressing the immune system to reduce the inflammation or itch (eg immunosuppressant drugs). Others involve training the immune system to react differently (immunotherapy – producing a vaccine specific to your dog’s allergens). As with any medicines, each option comes with its pros, cons, and costs. This is something your vet can discuss with you to find the best option for you and your pet.