Pet Detective: Dealing With Skin Issues
By Dr. Cliff Faver
Facebook post: I have an itchy dog, what shampoo should I use?
Within 2–3 hours there will be 150–250 responses. But how can you solve this case with only one clue? That is equivalent to solving a murder and all you know is that the front door was open. There is so much more information that is needed to offer a solution. A good detective would examine the crime scene, ask several questions, look at motives, research the relationships of the deceased, etc.
So, as a groomer pet detective, let us start breaking it down.
I know the dog is itching, so, what could cause that? We tend to assume allergies, and often suggest changing the food.
Hold up! We are already jumping to conclusions.
Food allergies are just one of many reasons that dogs itch, and only make up about 12% of the dogs that have allergies. So, we need to add some other possible causes to our “rule out” list, like inhalant allergies, contact allergies, fleas, mites, lice, bacteria, fungus, bug bites, dry skin, harsh grooming products, being clipped too short, products that are skin irritants ( “hot” essential oils, fertilizers, some cleaning products), etc.
With that long list, you can see why we get so many different suggestions. These assumptions are based on everyone’s past experiences. Since all of these are possibilities, we need to start thinking about ways to rule things out.
Let us stick with the theory of food allergies for this purpose. What characteristics would be consistent with food allergies?
Here are a few things to think about: How long has this been going on? Is it year–round? What is the pattern of the itching (where on the body)? Are the ears infected? Was there a food change that occurred within a couple of months prior to the “allergies” showing up? Remember, oral supplements will also react the same as food, so do not leave that out of your questioning.
Why these questions?
Food is something that is given constantly, so typically it will not be a seasonal problem. Food allergies tend to show up around the head and face, underbelly, anal region and feet. If it is the whole body or only on a specific area of the body, you may not have a food allergy. If the dog was okay, and then the owner had a diet (or supplement) change right before the itching started, then we need to put food allergy higher on our list. Another important thing to know is Apoquel/steroids, antihistamines and Atopica (cyclosporine) have variable to no benefits with food allergies. (see chart.)
Many (if not most) dogs have a secondary bacterial or fungal infection by the time the owner seeks help. So, even if we get them on the right diet, the infection will perpetuate the itching (pruritis). To solve the food allergy, we have to address the secondary infection.
On that same Facebook post, there will be multiple suggestions for a change of diet or switching to raw. What is the science that these suggestions are based on? Food allergies are typically driven by the proteins and carbohydrates in the diet. How can you make a diet change suggestion if you do not know what they are on to start with? If the dog is allergic to beef or chicken, and you recommend raw food which has beef or chicken in it, you jumped from one allergenic diet to another. Raw is not the answer here; it is the protein source that needs to be changed. Most frequently, we need to go to a novel protein (one the dog has not been exposed to) or a hydrolyzed protein (modified protein so body doesn’t recognize it as a protein).
Did anyone ask if the coat was dry? Is this the problem instead of food allergies? If harsh products are used or no conditioning is being done, the problem (in this case, food allergy) might be complicated or exacerbated by the fact that the sebum layer is depleted. When the skin is compromised because of the food allergy, it is important that we give the skin extra nutrients, minerals and hydration that are lost with the condition.
Many of the suggestions on the Facebook post are different shampoos, conditioners, bathing systems, essential oils, etc. Of those listed, which ones will “fix” a food allergy? The answer is, none of them! If you fail to address the source of the problem, products will not “fix” the issue. This is a prime reason it is important to understand the science.
As groomers, the most important job we do is restore the skin back to normal. The issue here is that the body is fighting us. That is why it is also important to be working hand in hand with a veterinarian. Hopefully, they will take care of the medical part so you, as a groomer, can do your part. To have complete success, it takes both sides. The veterinarian also needs to be a good detective, or they too will fall into the trap of false conclusions and treatments.
We should always question ourselves when we see these types of posts or deal with problems in our own salons. Has the problem been defined in a way where we can answer the question? What is the science or issue that needs to be addressed? Is this a problem that would be best addressed from the veterinary side, the grooming side or both? Do the suggestions follow the problem, or are they just suggestions that do not apply to the problem at hand?
To get our best results for the pets put under our care—whether a veterinarian or groomer—we need to critically evaluate what we do. The worst thing we can do is just throw drugs or products at a problem and hope for good results. ✂️
Dr. Cliff Faver graduated with a BS in Biology/BA in Chemistry before getting a Veterinary degree in 1987. He is the past owner of Animal Health Services in Cave Creek, Arizona and now the US distributor for Iv San Bernard products, teaches the ISB Pet Aesthetician Certification program, and speaks internationally on hair and skin. His passion is to merge groomers and veterinarians to aid in helping and healing pets. He is also a member of AVMA, AAHA, AZVMA, Board member with Burbank Kennel Club, and has served on Novartis Lead Committee, Hill’s International Global Veterinary Board, and a Veterinary Management Group.