By Michelle Knowles
Many of us have seen “bad skin” come through our shop at one time or another and have been frustrated by the lack of improvement. I interviewed seven veterinarians and asked them about the most common skin issues they see. The unanimous answer was secondary bacterial infections resulting from scratching. They also stated that 95% of all visits for allergies were merely extremely dry skin.
Many veterinarians are also frustrated with skin cases and commonly prescribe steroids and/or a shampoo product that maintains the issue rather than “fixing” it. Our profession has come a long way in gaining credibility and knowledge about basic skin care, but there are those hard-to-fix cases that leave us stumped. Many clients have lost hope and bring in a prescribed shampoo for their pet to be bathed in, knowing that the pet will not be worse but not better either.
In order to understand how we can better help the pet with compromised skin, we must first understand how that skin functions in the first place. Once we understand how healthy skin functions, then we can modify our products and techniques in order to balance damaged skin.
All pets can be divided into three groups: short, medium, and long coat. These groups are categorized by genetics and not how long the hair is trimmed at the time. Short coats need more oil, medium coats need more minerals, and long coats need more collagen. All three types need all of those things—just in different proportions. Good skin care really is the key to a healthy coat, as hair is simply an extension of the skin.
The hair (or coat) of cats and dogs protects and isolates their body, helping to keep the pet’s corporeal temperature. A healthy coat prevents the body from wasting warmth and protects the pet against mosquitoes. The coat also acts as a protection against ultraviolet rays, heat, cold, humidity, and all external agents. Essentially, a healthy coat, according to the breed, keeps the pet healthy.
Coat protects skin. Many essential metabolic activities take place at skin level. The cutaneous immune system (or skin) is one of the most important immune defenses against microorganisms, allergens, and parasites. The skin glands produce a protective layer, which plays a fundamental role as a physical and chemical barrier for substances and is useful for the skin defenses. It is called the superficial hydrolipidic layer, and it is made out of lipids (or oils) resulting from the decomposition of the horny layer, capable of a better antibacterial activity than lipids produced by skin glands.
A good skin “regimen” starts with a detoxifying step followed by a cleansing step and finally a hydrating step. The only thing that ever changes is the cleanser, depending on what type of issue you are treating. The next thing to establish is what exactly is wrong with the skin you are working on. Is there infection? Is it bacterial? Is it fungal? Are there parasites? Many times the prescribed shampoo product will give you a clue if the client won’t share vet records. The idea here is not only to eradicate the offending infection but also to help the skin normalize and start processing in a healthy way on its own. When you have no idea what the issue might be, use a cleanser for bacteria and fungus together. This prevents the overgrowth of one over the other.
I went to the dermatology classes at the North American Veterinary Conference a couple of years ago, and the title of the class was “New Techniques in Treating Dermatological Disorders.” The new technique was the fact that we should not be using dish liquid on our pets to degrease them. This year at the same conference, there was much talk about “Leaky Barrier Syndrome.” This syndrome simply refers to dry skin and that we should always use conditioners after bathing pets, even when treating damaged skin. Little by little, veterinarians are realizing the value of our knowledge as groomers and are proving it with “new” research every day.
Another issue to remember while working on compromised skin is to PROTECT YOURSELF! Many of us don’t realize how easily bacterial and fungal infections can spread, not only to other pets in our care but also to our coworkers, spouses, and children. Make sure to keep a box of gloves on hand and maybe a box of gowns and face masks for the occasional scabby pet. Researching a good germicidal cleanser for your tables, tubs, and kennels would help keep transmission to a minimum. Bleach is no longer the cleaner of choice in this day and age of antibiotic overuse. A good rule of thumb: wash and scrub everything (tools, kennels, tubs, floors, and entrance) in your shop weekly to keep everything clean. If you have worked on a scabby or rashy pet, scrub everything that the pet touched or came into contact with the same day of the visit.
If the pet has an infection of the skin or ear, it is always best to leave the pet dirty and unwashed so the veterinarian’s job of diagnosing the issue is easier. NEVER POUR ANYTHING INTO AN INFECTED EAR. The tympanic membrane could be ruptured, and “flushing” the ear could result in leaving debris inside the middle ear and condemning the pet to hearing loss and possible ear-closing surgery.
Prescription shampoos need to be diluted according to the directions, and five to ten minutes of contact time is required in order for the chemistry of the product to be at maximum efficiency. After rinsing shampoo, a quality conditioner should be applied to replace the natural oils of the skin. With a few changes in technique and protocol, anyone who is willing can ease the discomfort of a pet with skin issues and bring a much-needed service to their salon.
Michelle Knowles, Master Groomer and a certified Pet Medical Aesthetician, has apprenticed, volunteered, worked, owned, and managed in salons, kennels, zoos, and veterinary hospitals across the country. A professional pet stylist with 25+ years of experience, Michelle is Spa Director of The Tender Paw Day Spa in Animal Health Services Surgical and Diagnostic Center in Cave Creek, AZ. She has an ISB certification in skin and coat care, extensive experience with fear and trauma recovery, elderly pets, and a focus on managing allergic/dermatological disorders. In 2011, Michelle became the first American instructor for the Iv San Bernard Pet Aesthetician certification program and is a valuable participant in developing the much anticipated ISB American Grooming School. Michelle is also the U.S. product consultant for Iv San Bernard pet products.