Vet Series: Seasonal Scratching
Scratching. Every dog does it. But, did you know that it can be seasonal, meaning your dog may be more affected in the warmer months? That’s right. Your dog may have allergies.
By delving into our data from one month to the next, we have noticed an increase in itching and scratching when it starts to get warm. AKA right now.
Pet Insight Project sat down with Dr. Aletha Carson, DVM, to discuss seasonal scratching: what to look for, how to treat it, and how Whistle devices are helping speed up the detection of these allergies.
Pet Insight: First thing's first, itchiness can be seasonal?
Aletha Carson: Itching can definitely be seasonal. And part of that is because there can be different amounts of allergens in the air. You’ve got pollen, you’ve got mold. Depending on where you live in the country, the seasonality can vary significantly because you have different things coming at different times. Pets can also be allergic to things like fleas. Fleas like to come out when it’s warm. Other bugs can bite and cause our pets to be scratchy. Mosquitos (as a side note, carry heartworm and are particularly nasty little buggers) can cause our pets to be pretty itchy as well. So, there are a lot of things that can make our pets itchy.
PI: What are some signs that your dog itching/licking more than usual is due to seasonal factors?
AC: This actually can be really hard to sort out. I think that getting to the bottom of what’s causing allergies is one of the most frustrating things we as veterinarians have to deal with. Normally, we’re not with our dogs 24/7. We’re in kind of a unique situation right now. They don’t always sleep with us and they don’t always wake us up when they’re itching at night. Getting an accurate gauge of how much they’re itching without that bias of when we happen to see it or not is another piece that is a really important factor in determining how badly they’re scratching. A lot of times, you may not notice them scratching until they get a really severe issue from it.
PI: What would you recommend as treatment for seasonal scratchiness?
AC: There are so many different treatments out there and it really depends on the cause. There are some fundamentals and starting with a good flea medication is foundational. There are so many different kinds out there, so ask your vet which one they would recommend specifically for your pet. If allergies like pollen and grass are suspected, bathing your dog with a gentle allergen shampoo after they have been playing outside can help remove the allergens from their skin. But you must be careful when you pick the shampoo because, if you use a topical flea medication, many shampoos can wash that off and then you can have your dog be overrun with fleas. So, it’s a little bit of a balancing act.
AC: There are so many treatments. The best thing is to work with your veterinarian to figure out what is ideal for your pet, so they can help you avoid a situation like I just mentioned, where one helpful thing (washing your pet) could lead to other problems (fleas).
AC: There are also allergy shots, just like there are for people. And those can be helpful. You could have a pet that’s having bad allergies year after year, and allergy shots can knock them down to a level that might be manageable. And then we have tons of really great allergy medications that are out on the market. When I first started practicing, we didn’t have as many options. We had antihistamines, which don’t traditionally work well in dogs, though some pets respond to them better than others. We had some steroids, which work really well for itching, but have a lot of potential side effects. It can change a pet’s behavior, they can be a little moody, or it can make them anxious. New medications, like Cytopoint and Apoquel, have been game changers for itchy dogs. There are even special diets that can help strengthen the skin of a dog from the inside out. One of my favorites is Royal Canin Skin Support.
AC: Having had to take prednisone myself, I really empathize with my patients if they’re on it. And if a dog has to take prednisone, they get really hungry and thirsty and have to drink and pee a lot, and that can be really challenging. So, we have to think about the effects that these medications have on the client as well as the dog as we start to put together this holistic treatment plan.
PI: What could happen if this is left untreated?
AC: They’ve been scratching away and all of a sudden, that itch gets a little bit worse. And what usually happens is that they keep scratching, and as their toenails start tearing at their skin, they’re introducing bacteria into their skin. Then that bacteria starts populating inside those scratch marks in their skin and it gets even itchier. Now, we have something that, at first, was just a little bit of an itch and after they get a couple of scratches in there, then it gets really itchy. And that’s the beginning of what we like to call a hot spot.
AC: When they start to do that, it can go from zero to 60 pretty much overnight. It can go from almost nothing to this giant oozy wound of horrors and then it’s a pretty big issue that needs to be aggressively treated because those can get painful and really uncomfortable. And then the dog usually earns the cone of shame and some medication. The really nice thing is, if we can catch that itch before it does something really detrimental like that, it’s a lot more positive.
AC: Also, leaving an itch untreated can lead to a lot of frustration. And then that often comes out in the veterinarian/client relationship or in the client’s relationship with their pet. They love their dog but, at a certain point, the dog becomes a frustration. Maybe the dog is smelly and they’re scratching and there’s hair everywhere and they start to feel like maybe they didn’t sign up for this. Then their relationship with their dog suffers, and that’s really sad because they’re not getting the joy out of pet ownership that they could. That’s something I feel really passionate about so I want to try to solve some of these problems.
PI: How can you tell the difference between seasonal scratching and a chronic skin problem?
AC: Chronic skin conditions can be seasonal scratching. Environmental allergies can have a seasonality component. And then you’re trying to figure out which piece is the worst. We’re trying to figure out, do we need to treat the allergies? And then is there a food allergy component? Are there fleas as a component of this? Are there other bug bites as a component of this? So, you can see it becomes pretty complicated to sort out exactly where the scratching is coming from. And sometimes, it’s a factor of all three different pieces.
AC: If you have a pet that’s really itchy already, make sure that you add some prevention that can protect against mosquitoes, if you live in an area that has a lot of mosquitoes. Itching tends to not be additive. I always like to say that one plus one isn’t necessarily two in itching. It can be one plus one equals 10 sometimes because, if they’re already itchy and they get something else, it just becomes unbearable.
AC: It becomes a little bit of a sleuthing game and trying to see what works. We put on our detective hats and we start to try to figure it out. We start asking questions: when did this start? Did anything change? Have you changed any bedding? Have you changed any shampoos? Did you wash your dog with something different? How’s the flea medicine going? As we’re sleuthing through these things that can cause itchiness, we’re trying to rule out some of the really obvious things, like the flea medication or changes in your house. Oftentimes as we’re trying to sort through this, if we suspect that there’s a food component to it, your veterinarian may recommend doing a hypoallergenic food trial. Recognizing that following those instructions from your veterinarian as you’re digging through this process to find out what the itchiness is caused by is important.
PI: How is Pet Insight Project helping owners better understand their dog's behavior?
AC: As a veterinarian, these are really frustrating cases to unravel. You’re asking the owners ‘when did this first start?’ ‘Well, I’m not really sure.’ You’re making an educated guess. We now see that, with the device, you can tell whether treatments worked or not. It takes the subjectivity and our observational biases out of the picture and gives us really objective data to then make these decisions.
AC: If we started to see a little bit of that increased scratching that does lead to a hot spot, and if we can catch that before it starts to ramp up, we can potentially avoid a major vet visit. If you’ve ever had an infection on your skin, you know there’s not much that’s more painful. It really hurts. And of course, you know that no dog likes wearing the cone of shame.
PI: Are there certain breeds that are especially itchy?
AC: We have certain breeds that traditionally we know have more allergies. We’re thinking it’s genetic, but we haven’t proven it just yet. We’re starting to think of ways to combat itchiness in different breeds. There are certain breeds that come in and you go, “yep, this Labrador has chronic ear infections. They probably also have food allergies,” or “this Pitbull has skin allergies, not shocking,” or “this West Highland White has skin allergies, not shocking.” There is definitely a whole collection of breeds that you see in your practice on a day-to-day basis and you’re not surprised when they have some sort of allergic component.
AC: There has been tons of research around which dogs are the itchiest and which ones have the most allergies. So, at the end of the day, even if this breed is known to have a particular condition, that doesn’t mean that the pet in front of me has that condition. So, you have to keep your mind open and you have to think about what other things this could be and then go through the diagnostic process to make sure that we’re not missing anything really obvious.
PI: Is the use of a Whistle device speeding up the detection of seasonal allergies and treatment process?
AC: I have a really great story about this. I think that owning a dog is a wonderful thing. But, there are frustrating parts. Especially if you have an itchy dog. A really good friend of mine got this puppy and he is everything she ever wanted. But, he is very itchy. So, it’s been a big challenge to try and understand this itching. He’s also been the hardest puppy she’s ever had to train and work with. He’s really difficult. But it wasn’t until we started looking at the scratching data that Pet Insight was providing on his Whistle that she understood his worst behavior was when he was really itchy. The next thing she said was really important. “Aletha, I realized he’s a jerk because he is so itchy. But, I’m able to forgive him for being a jerk because I realize that he’s miserable.” It was a really important moment for her to understand the behavior of her dog was impacted by a medical condition. All the trips to his allergist and trainer made a lot more sense.
AC: Having that objective data is game changing. Before, all we had was just our interpretation of what the dog was doing on a day-to-day basis. And that is really subjective and fraught with all sorts of different biases. It’s usually what you remember seeing last or what stuck out in your mind as most important. And that’s not necessarily what’s actually happening with your pet.
AC: Think of it as a trusted partner in your pocket to say, “hey, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Sandy’s not feeling well and maybe we better pay attention to what’s happening.” As a busy mom and professional, I appreciate that because my pets sometimes get things missed and there’s a veterinarian living with them. The value Whistle adds is almost unmeasurable because of the situations that we’ve managed to catch and detect. I’ve never been on a project before where I’ve got such prickly skin from excitement so often. It’s, hands down, one of my favorite things that I’ve done in my career.