Scratching the surface of atopic dermatitis


For many people and pets, spring (aka “allergy season”) is a time of excessive sneezing, itching, and scratching. However, for some pets, allergy season never ends and lasts through summer, fall, and winter.

The veterinary dermatologist Dr. Adam Patterson, clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, talks about allergic skin conditions and how best to relieve itching in affected pets, which can include dogs, cats, horses, and other species.

“Environmental allergy, also called atopic dermatitis, is a skin condition in which the immune system overreacts to pollen from grasses, trees and weeds, as well as indoor substances such as dust mites, mold and dander,” he said. “Clinical signs may be seasonal or perennial.”

Of these allergens that most commonly affect pets in central Texas are dust mites and grasses, as well as cedar and oak pollen. Many pets are also allergic to flea bites, which can perpetuate the effects of atopic dermatitis.

Unlike humans, who often sneeze and have watery eyes when they are allergic, itching is the main sign of pet atopic dermatitis. In addition to scratching, pets may try to relieve the itch by rubbing, licking, chewing, biting, shaking their head, or sliding.

“Common areas of the body that are itchy include the face, ears, paws, armpits, groin, rump, and anal region,” Patterson said. “Each pet has their own tolerance for itchiness, which means the intensity and reason(s) for your pet’s itch may not be the same as another animal’s.”

Recurring bacterial and/or fungal infections of the skin—appearing as red and/or black skin, red bumps, pimples, scabs, flaking skin, hair loss, or thickening of the skin—are often associated with allergic skin conditions. Similarly, owners may also notice recurring ear infections causing itchy red and swollen ears that may ooze pus.

If a pet shows any of these signs, a veterinarian can help identify the various causes.

If atopic dermatitis is identified as the cause, initial treatments may include baths, flea prevention and anti-infection medications, and possible dietary changes in addition to antipruritic medications.

“Given the safety and effectiveness of many allergy medications, central Texas dogs should have allergy symptoms at least five to six months a year before considering skin testing for environmental allergies so that the diagnostic tests and treatment are cost-effective over the long term,” Patterson said.

If left untreated, the condition can have mild to serious consequences.

“It can cause unrelenting itching, odor, ear canal remodeling (an increase in skin thickness and collapse of the ear canal), and multi-antibiotic-resistant bacterial skin infections,” Patterson said. “Removal of the ear canal, an expensive operation, may be required.”

To avoid excessive, costly treatments and additional discomfort for your pet, be sure to speak with your vet if your pet is showing signs of an environmental allergy to establish a plan, which may even include a referral to a veterinary dermatologist. Getting rid of that annoying itch will make spring, and possibly the whole year, more comfortable for everyone.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed online at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics can be sent to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

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