When Good Pets Get a Bad Itch

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itchy pets show their discomfort in lots of ways. dogs may incessantly lick their paws, rub their faces, chew on their flanks or scratch at their ears. cats may pull out their fur until their tummies are bald, dig at their ears or develop scabs. as varied as their symptoms may be, itchy pets have one major thing in common: frustrated pet owners.

the first step in helping an itchy pet is to figure out why the pet itches. there are many causes of pruritus (itchiness), but treatment without knowing what's causing the symptoms is unlikely to succeed and can result in the animal receiving inappropriate medications, some with the potential for significant side effects. (corticosteroid injections can cause diabetes, for example.)

your veterinarian can learn a lot before even touching your pet, beginning with an in-depth discussion. is the pruritus seasonal, or year round? has your pet traveled out of the city, or had contact with other animals that have? are other pets (or people) in the household showing similar symptoms? what flea prevention do you use?

your vet will perform a careful physical exam, looking in hidden areas such as the armpits, groin and between skin folds. he or she will also look for external parasites, including fleas (and for pets with an allergy to fleas, even low-level exposure can cause a severe reaction) and tiny mites, which are found by scraping the skin and evaluating this sample under the microscope. your vet will also check for evidence of bacterial or yeast infection, even using his or her sense of smell.

if no other cause is found, your vet may suspect an allergy. food allergies can be treated with a special diet, and inhaled allergens that make humans sneeze may cause itching in pets. your vet may prescribe an antihistamine. if your pet's condition is persistent or severe, the vet will refer you to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist for specialized testing and advanced treatment. dermatologists are great not only at diagnosing why pets are itchy, but at knowing just what do to about it. and for an itchy pet and her owner, that's a real relief.


louise murray, dvm, dacvim-director of medicine, aspca bergh memorial animal hospital and author of vet confidential: an insider's guide to protecting your pet's health.

the aspca's bergh memorial animal hospital is open to the public for appointments and emergencies monday through saturday, and can be reached at 212-876-7700, x4200.

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