When our skin feels irritated, we will itch and scratch until it starts to hurt or the irritation subsides. This is the same for dogs and cats except that, whereas we know when to stop, pets will scratch themselves continually, until they are red raw and twice as sore.
Far from helping the situation, excessive scratching, licking and biting of affected areas only exacerbates existing problems and may cause secondary bacterial infections to develop. These cause further irritation and support a vicious cycle of self-harm. Pets with skin complaints may display lesions, flaky skin, bald patches and angry-looking rashes.
Knowing what is behind your pet’s skin complaint is half the battle as many causes prompt similar symptoms that make finding the right treatment difficult. Skin problems account for a large number of veterinary visits every year and are some of the most complex chronic conditions to treat.
Skin problems can be a vet's nightmare. Often the first sign of a negative relationship in the gut is disturbances to the skin and coat" - Nicholas Larkin, BVScDSc MRCVS, a leading veterinary scientist at Natural Vetcare.
So, what is causing your pet’s itching and scratching?
Skin complaints can be triggered by a range of things – from fleas and parasites, to allergies, environmental changes and stress. While the symptoms of these can be similar, each requires a very different course of treatment. That is why getting the diagnosis right is so important.
When it comes to fleas in both cats and dogs, prevention is the best method of defence. Frustratingly, it takes just one bite from a flea to onset severe scratching that can last up to 2 weeks. Some animals are hypersensitive to flea bites and will display an allergic response that is either confined to one area or generalised all over the body.
Other parasites, such as ear mites and Sarcoptes scabei (responsible for sarcoptic mange) cause intense irritation in their hosts and produce redness and swelling of the skin. Infested pets then itch, scratch and bite themselves manically until the discomfort subsides.
[If you suspect parasitic infection, take your pet straight to the vet. Scabies is easily transmissible to humans and other domestic animals so needs treating sooner rather than later.]
Allergies are another common cause of skin problems, whether seasonal or food-related. Seasonal allergies tend to flare up in spring/summer when there is pollen in the air, although some pets suffer year-round allergies – to dust, for instance.
Food allergies may also trigger an autoimmune response, with the most common offenders being chicken, beef, corn, wheat and soy. Dietary fillers such as cereal and corn are known to exacerbate skin problems and make itching worse.
Nicholas Larkin, BVScDSc MRCVS, says, "The old maxin ‘you are what you eat’ especially applies to skin and coats in cats and dogs. [...] Great skin and a shiny coat are real reflections of good health, and as pet owners we want to help our dogs and cats who are suffering from skin challenges."
Pets that continually scratch themselves are susceptible to secondary skin infections, which are usually bacterial or fungal in nature. However, bacteria and fungus can in fact be the primary cause of an inflammatory skin response, with microorganisms entering the dermis and causing itching and hair loss.
Unfortunately, the list of causes is exhaustive. Some dogs and cats are more prone to inflammatory skin conditions than others; the West Highland White Terrier, for example, is genetically predisposed to itchy/allergic skin disease, in a similar way to Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Shar Peis.
Stress and boredom also play a part in skin complaints, as persistent grooming (licking and biting) becomes a coping mechanism for cats and dogs that aren’t content or stimulated. If you and your vet have ruled out all other causes and yet your pet continues to lick itself, it is safe to assume that stress or boredom could be the cause.
We spoke to Nicholas Larkin about the benefits of supplements and he had this to say: "Many supplements contain one or two skin friendly ingredients, but it is best to choose one that contains a wide range of nutrients which will work together synergistically to give full support."
The inclusion of MSM (sulphur) contributes towards the repair and rejuvenation of broken, damaged skin and hair, while herbs such as liquorice and yam will help soothe any skin irritations naturally. Both nutrients also help support the body’s own anti-inflammatory processes. The addition of superfoods such as marine algae will provide nourishment for dry, irritated skin, while omega 3 and 6 promote a glossy coat. If your pet suffers from poor quality nail growth, ensuring your supplement contains the vitamin biotin will help to support good strength and growth.
When considering specific support for cats, look out for the amino acid taurine which is often lacking in the feline diet, and can result in hair loss. By combining these key skin-friendly nutrients in your supplement, you can ensure that your pet is getting the best support possible to keep him looking great from the inside out, all year round.
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