Skin disease is frustrating no matter which system of medicine is used to treat it. It almost always requires a multimodal approach, meaning it needs to be attacked from several different angles. This is especially true when pet owners want to keep long-term medication to a minimum.
Most pet owners bring allergic dogs and cats to the veterinarian to address the itching associated with skin disease. For many, this is the symptom they would most like to see resolve. Some medications can alleviate itching almost immediately, such as Prednisone, Atopica and Apoquel; however, not every pet responds to these medications or does well on them long-term. In addition, some owners are fundamentally against using these types of medications long-term or even intermittently. Unfortunately, without them, the itch is often the last thing to improve.
An integrative approach to skin allergies combines natural remedies with medication to help with itching and infection as we give the pet’s body time to heal. Treatment can take anywhere from a few months to a year or even longer in some cases. Unfortunately, just as with a purely conventional approach, not every pet will respond to this type of therapy. It can be estimated that 50 to 60 percent will respond, another 20 to 30 percent will have a partial response and 10 to 20 percent will have a poor response to treatment.
It is also important to note that there is a strong genetic component to allergic dermatitis, also known as atopy. We have to ask ourselves, “Can we fight this pet’s genetics?” We certainly cannot change the genetics, but we do know that certain factors, including stress, diet and environment, have a profound impact on gene expression. Therefore, we may be able to affect change even in pets genetically predisposed to allergies with a few simple remedies.
Control what you can.
First, we should always make sure our pets do not have mites or fleas. These are very easy fixes.
We should also eliminate any foods from the diet that we know our pets have reacted to in the past.
Finally, we should identify and deal with predisposing factors like stress in our pets’ environment. The skin is thoroughly integrated with the central nervous system, immune system and the internal organs. In people and in pets, there is also a brain-skin connection. Careful observations of your pet’s individual behavior can help you figure out how to decrease his/her stress, but for most animals, regular exercise and human interaction is key.
Adjust your pet’s diet.
Stress also influences intestinal bacteria. Abnormal bacterial flora can cause leaky gut syndrome, which allows molecules that would not normally be allowed to pass into the body to get in. We often see pets with chronic intestinal disease also suffer from itchy skin. This does not necessarily mean a pet with loose stool or vomiting — sometimes, it is a pet with excessive flatulence, a variable appetite or simply a sensitive stomach.
In a naturopathic approach to atopy, the gut needs to be dealt with, even in pets without a diagnosed food allergy. This often starts with a diet trial of home-cooked food. Adding probiotics can help normalize gut bacteria and promote gut healing as well.
Evaluate the environment.
Indoor mites are a problem for a rather large subset of pets. Both house dust mites and storage mites can cause allergic reactions, such as itching, redness and recurrent infections. Fortunately, allergies to these mites can be easily identified with a blood allergy test.
If your pet sleeps with you and is diagnosed with a house dust mite allergy, it would help to get a house dust mite cover for your pillow and mattress. Pets that are allergic to storage mites would benefit from coming off of dry food as these mites feed on and often live in sources of dry grains.
Identify any factors that can be perpetuating the disease, such as yeast or bacteria.
Your veterinarian can easily determine these issues during a physical exam by performing a simple skin cytology. These organisms are common opportunists that colonize on allergic pets and cause itching.
Consider complementary therapies.
A naturopathic approach to allergies and skin disease often includes supplements like flaxseed oil, fish oil, B vitamins or zinc, as well as antioxidants like green tea and vegetables. It may also include anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial plant-based supplements known as adaptogens.
In addition, Chinese or Western herbal formulas, topical shampoos, tinctures or creams may be used.
One of the textbooks I read in veterinary school provided this amazing summary of skin disease: “Skin is synergistic with internal organ systems and thus represents pathologic processes that are either primary or shared with other tissues. Not only is the skin an organ with its own reaction patterns, it is also a mirror reflecting the internal world and at the same time, the capricious outside world to which it is exposed.”
No wonder skin allergies are so difficult to “cure.” Several factors — both internal, external and behavioral — contribute to an abnormal reaction in the skin.
Any pet owner willing to take on this type of approach to allergies must be committed and patient. Remember, there is no quick fix for most pets.
The upside is that if we can figure out how to alleviate the inflammation in the skin, we are most likely helping many other systems and promoting health in all areas, not just stopping the itch.
Do you have an itchy pet? Schedule an appointment with us today!
This blog post originally appeared on The Drake Center