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My Dog Won’t Stop Scratching: Understanding Pet Allergies

My Dog Won’t Stop Scratching: Understanding Pet Allergies

Are Pet Allergies Causing Your Dog To Constantly Scratch And Chew Themselves?

Fall in the Ozarks brings less humidity, cooler weather, colored leaves, and unfortunately ragweed.  Fall means hay fever symptoms in people and allergic dermatitis in our pets. Unlike humans, most pets show signs of allergies through their skin. So, what are pet allergies? An allergy is a state of over-reactivity or hypersensitivity to an allergen. Most allergens are proteins. The allergen protein may be of insect, plant or animal origin.  Some allergens are inhaled, some allergens are ingested and some allergens cause contact irritation. No matter the route of exposure, the end result is an itchy dog if your pet suffers from allergies. The itching is caused by an overactive immune system reaction. This can sometimes happen with the first allergen exposure but often it requires multiple exposures to the offending allergen. An antibody in the blood called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) binds to the allergen protein.  This allergen-IgE complex then attaches to a Mast Cell. When attached to an allergen complex, Mast Cells break up and release potent inflammatory compounds such as histamine. This starts the inflammatory cascade and the allergic reaction. This allergic reaction can happen anywhere on the skin of your dog.  The medical term for this is allergic dermatitis or atopy.

ALLERGENS:

There are numerous substances that can act as allergens. Flea saliva, tick saliva, tree pollens (cedar, oak, ash), flower pollens, grasses and weed pollens (ragweed), as well as molds, mildew, and house dust mites are the most common allergy offenders.  Some plant and animal proteins found in foods can cause allergies as well as some food additives.  The most common cause of allergies in our pets is fleas and the least common cause of allergies is food.  Up to 80% of our pets with allergic dermatitis are very allergic to fleas so flea control is absolutely essential in the allergic pet.

SIGNS OF ALLERGIC DERMATITIS:

The most common sign of allergies is itching of the skin –either in one area or generalized over the body. Itchy signs can include chewing and licking of the feet, rubbing or pawing at the face or eyes, rubbing the head or ears along the carpet or sofa, rubbing the belly or rear on the floor, and redness of the skin in the affected areas.  Many pets will lick their armpits, thighs, belly or abdomen. Scratching at the ears or ear flicking and head shaking is also indicative of allergies. The constant scratching and licking can result in a secondary bacterial skin infection.  Other signs of allergies may also include reoccurring ear infections, full anal glands and anal gland infections.

BREEDS PREDISPOSITION :

Many dog breeds are predisposed to allergies.  Terrier breeds as a group are the most commonly affected dogs that we see in our practice. Schnauzers, Westies, Scottish, Cairn, Welsh, Fox, Boston and Jack Russell Terriers are just a few that can be afflicted with allergies.  Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Boxers, Bulldogs, Shih Tzus, Cocker Spaniels, and Shepherds are also commonly affected breeds.   Most pets will start showing allergy signs between one and three years of age.  Initially, many allergies will occur seasonally when the allergen is at its peak.  But each year, the allergy season starts a little earlier and lasts a little longer and the allergies worsen. Eventually, with time, allergic dermatitis can become year-round.  Allergens such as house dust mites, molds and mildew are present any season and pets sensitive to these will suffer year-round.

Happy Puppy Dog Free From Allergy Symptoms

Happy Puppy Dog Free From Symptoms of Pet Allergies

TREATMENT:

The best way to treat allergies is to individualize the treatment to your pet and to treat that patient with the lowest dose or frequency of medication possible because allergies are a life long problem. Eventually, your pet may need medication daily to control its allergies so starting with lower dose therapy initially will be of benefit. Keep in mind that some animals will respond better to different aspects of the therapy than others and some therapies may not work at all.  Also remember that allergies are controlled and not cured. Seven possible allergy treatments include frequent bathing, antihistamine therapy, fatty acid supplementation, anti-inflammatory therapy, cyclosporine therapy, desensitization therapy, and/or food allergy trial.  And as mentioned earlier, flea and tick control is essential in the allergic patient.

Keep in mind that each allergy patient is different and each treatment will be individualized to that pet. Some therapies will work better than others for different pets. Above all, remember that allergies are controlled at best.  Allergies are not cured. Close communication with your veterinarian is essential in keeping your allergy pet as comfortable as possible.

BATHING:

Frequent bathing helps physically remove irritants that are on the surface of your pet’s skin.  Bathing also helps control and removes infection causing bacteria from the skin.  Some pets need be bathed weekly. It is very important to use a high-quality, hypoallergenic or medicated shampoo that will not dry out or irritate your pet’s skin when used regularly. Be sure to thoroughly rinse your pet after its bath. Your veterinarian will recommend the best shampoo and the best bathing schedule for your pet.  Consider having your long-haired pet’s coat shaved during allergy season to assist you in bathing.

ANTIHISTAMINES:

Antihistamines work the same in our pets as they do in us.  By decreasing the release of inflammatory mediators, antihistamines help alleviate the symptoms of allergies.  As is the case with people, different antihistamines will affect our pets in different ways.  Some pets will become sleepy, others may become excitable, and some may show a decrease in appetite.  Despite these few side effects, antihistamines are relatively safe to use on a daily basis and are most effective when given prior to and regularly through the allergy season. The biggest benefit to using these medications is that it allows us to avoid using steroids or allows us to use a lower dose of steroids.

FATTY ACIDS:

Fatty acids are compounds in the body that are used as building blocks to form compounds such as histamine and prostaglandins.  Histamines are compounds that can cause inflammation and allergies.  Supplementing the diet with a non-body source of fatty acids may actually help decrease the amount of inflammatory mediators produced by the body because the oral fatty acid gets metabolized into different, less potent inflammatory mediators. Fatty acid supplements work in about 30 % of our patients. It is believed that some antihistamines and fatty acids work synergistically to achieve an even greater effect.  Fatty acids also help moisturize and improve the condition of the hair coat which is important in our allergy patients.

STEROIDS:

Steroids are used when the above therapies are not effective or the allergies are so severe that the patient needs relief.  Steroids are often used to help a patient survive through allergy season until allergy testing and desensitization therapy can be initiated. Steroids basically turn off the over-reactive immune system. Steroids do have side effects some of which can be serious. The most common side effects are increased thirst and urination, increased appetite and weight gain.  Steroids also predispose pets to infections, especially bladder infections. Steroids can also interfere with your pet’s own hormonal regulation. There are short acting and long acting steroids. The severity of side effects is directly related to the potency of the steroid used.  There are two basic forms of steroids. There is an injectable form and a pill form.  The injectable form can last in your pet’s system for 2 to 3 months. The tablet form usually lasts for about a day.  It is safer for your pet to be on the oral tablets at a graduated, tapered dose.  The injectable form is used when your pet’s allergies are so severe that immediate relief is needed.  Steroid treatment is a serious therapy that requires close attention by your veterinarian.

ALLERGY TESTING & DESENSITIZATION THERAPY:

This is the gold standard for a patient with allergic dermatitis.  Your pet may either be skin tested or have blood drawn for an allergy test.  The skin test involves injecting diluted allergens into your pet’s skin and looking for a flare skin reaction.  The blood test is done in a specialized laboratory. The test looks for blood levels of IgE in response to antigens. Most allergy testing is done in the winter when your pet is no longer receiving medications. Once it is determined what your pet is allergic to, an allergen-specific immune serum can be compounded.  This serum will have low levels of antigen that your pet will be exposed to by injections over a period of time – in effect desensitizing your pet to the allergens.  The exact mechanism of action of immunotherapy is still unknown in the dog but it is postulated that immunotherapy decreases the levels of IgE antibodies and increases the levels of IgG antibodies along with altering T-helper cell response.  Overall, desensitization improves allergy symptoms in about 50% of patients and the results can be very gratifying.

CYCLOSPORINE THERAPY:

Cyclosporine is a chemotherapy drug. It has been altered and formulated into a low dose oral tablet called Atopica. Atopica is a potent immunosuppressor of T- helper cells and inhibits interleukin -2 which is an inflammatory mediator. These two actions help turn off the over reactive immune system response and provide relief for the allergy pet.  Atopica does not suppress cell- mediated immune responses and therefore overall doesn’t adversely affect the pet’s ability to fight infections.  It is only approved for use it dogs.

APOQUEL:

Is the newest generation anti-inflammatory medication used to control itching associated with allergic dermatitis? We have now treated over 80 patients at Deerfield in the past year with this new medication and have seen very positive results.  Apoquel targets the pet’s immune system. It specifically addresses that part of the immune system that is involved in the itch and inflammatory response.  Unlike

DON’T FORGET ABOUT FLEAS:

No amount of allergy treatment in the world will relieve your pet’s itching if your pet has fleas.  As stated earlier, 80% of our pets with allergies are also allergic to fleas.  It may take only one or two flea bites to cause an allergic reaction in your pet.  One flea is one flea too many for a pet with allergies.  Flea control is essential for an allergy patient.

We know it can be stressful to see your pet suffer. Feel free to contact us for further help and advise regarding your pet.

Got Questions? Just Ask. We’re here to help!

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What Fall Flea Freeze Out? Busting a Myth That Leaves Pets at Risk

As we head deeper into fall and the temperature starts to chill a bit, it’s easy to worry less about our pets suffering through flea infestations. After all, fleas and other blood-thirsty parasites don’t thrive in the freezing cold, right? That’s true for the most part, but it only paints part of the picture. Many great pet owners who love and provide dedicated care for their dogs and cats simply don’t realize the risk of fleas doesn’t fade with the summer heat. In fact, a quick Google search for winter flea protection prompts far too many results pointing to the common misconception that fleas won’t attack pets during the fall and winter. It’s time to review the facts, so we can help put that myth out to pasture.

The Fall Flea Surge

As a trusted veterinarian in Springfield, MO, where it gets awfully hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the dead of winter, I field all kinds of questions about why our patient families would need to treat their pets for fleas all year round. The answer is that the cooler temperatures and increased precipitation September tends to bring leads to the fall flea surge—as Dr. Michael Dryden, widely trusted Professor of Veterinary Parasitology at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Manhattan, has deemed it.1 In fact, Dr. Dryden has found that wild animals carry 70 percent more fleas in the fall than in the summer! How did he discover that? He and his team actually sedated wild animals and then counted their fleas. One poor opossum played the unwilling host to over 1,000 fleas at the time of the research.1

A veterinarian in Springfield MO, Dr. Denise fights fleas from initial kitten shots to elderly dog care checkups.

It’s time to fight the fall flea surge.

The increased flea population during cooler months makes sense when one considers that thicker winter coats hide fleas when wildlife attempts to groom the pests away.2 Fleas find warm places to survive as long as possible, and there’s no host quite as a warm and cozy as a furry animal—including any dog or cat who enjoys free run of the house. When fleas attack pets and then make their way inside, they quickly make themselves at home. Fleas nest and lay 40 to 50 eggs every day, wherever they please. Carpets, clothing, and beds make it particularly easy for fleas to thrive throughout the winter.

Compounding the issue, fleas adapt to extreme cold with varying degrees of success during the different stages of life. For example, both adult fleas and flea eggs struggle when temperatures remain at 37°F or below, and they die if it remains that cold for more than 10 days. Flea pupae, on the other hand, are bundled up in a protective layer that can keep them alive in the frigid weather throughout the winter and beyond—for up to a full year.

The Winnable Fight Against Fleas

Unlike wildlife that can only rely on grooming to control fleas, your pets have an advocate to help protect them from fleas throughout the year. Whatever the season, a monthly flea preventive is critical to stopping flea infestations, and fall is the absolute worst time of year to cut back on flea control. If we erroneously let fleas off the hook during the cooler weather, those pesky parasites have a far better chance to invade our homes and happily overwinter with our pets.

The proven need for year-round flea control applies to pets of all ages. You already know the importance of scheduling preventive kitten shots and puppy vaccinations, but many people don’t realize even young animals can safely receive flea control medicines. At Deerfield Veterinary Hospital, we urge pet owners to begin a monthly preventive plan during the very first visit for their new kitten or puppy. That lets us protect the pet right from the start and gives our caring staff the opportunity to show new pet owners how to properly administer the medicine.

The year-round approach is equally important for elderly dog care and senior cat care. Although our older pals generally don’t go outside as often, that doesn’t mean they are at less risk of contracting fleas. As older pets slow down, they become easier targets for fleas and other parasites. Older cats typically aren’t as fastidious of groomers, so your elderly cat may not keep up that beautiful coat as well as when she was younger. Thankfully, we can prevent the discomfort and pain fleas cause for older pets. That’s even more crucial when considering any chronic underlying issues your beloved pet may be enduring.

Our Preferred Flea Control Methods

Thanks to the many powerful breakthroughs in parasite prevention in recent years, dealing with fleas and flea bite allergies is something our pets no longer need to do—at any age.

It is, of course, always important to consider the unique needs and living situation for individual pet patients before making a final choice of flea control medicines. So stop by Deerfield Veterinary Hospital or visit your local veterinarian to learn which option is best for your pet. While you’re there, ask about a few of the flea control methods I find to be particularly reliable and effective:

  • Topical Flea Prevention for Dogs: Frontline and Revolution are great choices.
  • Oral Flea Prevention for Dogs: Nexgard and Trifexis are known to work well.
  • Topical Flea Prevention for Cats: Revolution is a reliable option.
  • Oral Flea Prevention for Cats: Currently, there are no approved oral options for cats.

If you have any questions about flea prevention, we would love to meet your pet and recommend the option that’s right for his or her needs: Get in touch with a Deerfield Veterinary Hospital staff member.

References

  1. “No Foolin’ Fall Is Prime Flea Season.” Dale, Steve. Oct. 18, 2011. “Steve Dale’s Pet World” on the ChicagoNow website. Accessed Sept. 15, 2014 at chicagonow.com/steve-dales-pet-world/2011/10/no-foolin-fall-is-prime-flea-season/.
  2. “Why Fleas Surge in the Fall.” Dr. Bramlage, DVM. The Revival Animal Health website. Accessed Sept. 15, 2014 at revivalanimal.com/articles/Why-Fleas-Surge-in-Fall.html.
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The Confusing World of Pet Parasite Prevention

According to PetsAndParasites.com, a website devoted to tracking the occurrence of parasites in our pets, the prevalence of deadly heartworms continues to cause problems.  More than 1% of dogs tested will be positive for heartworms in the US every year.  That’s almost a million pets suffering from a preventable disease!  Rates are even higher for parasites like roundworms, whipworms and hookworms!

Thankfully, we have had safe and effective parasite treatment and preventive products available for many years.  So, why are we still seeing so many cases? There are many theories.

Despite the claims of Internet sites who say rising resistance among heartworms or massive failure of preventives is to blame, the reality is probably a little closer to home.   Dr. Sheldon Rubin, a past president of the American Heartworm Society is quoted as saying that human error or forgetfulness is probably the biggest reason for pets developing heartworm disease.  His comments are echoed by research in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana that reviewed cases of presumed heartworm preventive failure and found that owner compliance was actually much lower than originally reported.

Graphic of various pillsBut, an uncertainty among pet owners about which product to use (market confusion), as well as economic factors, are fueling at least some of the issue.  Generic heartworm preventives can now be found in many human pharmacies and online pet pharmacies are offering six to ten different medications to the public.  It’s frankly hard for a pet owner to choose.

Experts from the American Heartworm Society recommend giving heartworm preventive year round.  Just be sure you are using a prescription product that contains one of these known compounds; ivermectin, milbemycin oxime, selamectin or moxidectin.  Then your pet needs to receive a dose once monthly, every month, all year long.

Some of these medications are also effective against intestinal parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms.  A few of these preventives are also now using compounds to treat tapeworms in addition to the other parasites.  It’s even possible to get heartworm preventive that also includes means to help control fleas!!

Part of consumer confusion is whether to buy the least expensive product or the one that covers every possible parasite.  Veterinarians do understand how this can be such a confounding problem.

In fact, certain parasites are less common in some areas of the country and your pet’s risk factors vary quite a bit.  These risk factors also include exposure to parasites through trips to dog parks, hiking or camping, interstate travel or even the presence of other animals in the household.

Veterinarian with petVeterinarians follow these trends every year.  They couple this information with their understanding of the different life cycles, knowledge of your pet’s specific medical conditions, the reputation of the drug manufacturers and your region of the country.  They are ideally equipped to help you more fully understand exactly which product provides the best parasite protection for your pet and your family.

Also it is so important for you not to fall for advice in online forums that recommend odd-ball alternative methods of protecting your pets against any parasite, but especially heartworm disease.  Many of these simply fuel speculation about diminishing effectiveness of heartworm preventives and they are not well researched.  These sites often misinterpret data or are actively promoting products that have not gone through proper testing and safety research.

This is an area of pet care where we have made great advances, but bad advice and a confusing market have created unnecessary risks and vulnerabilities. Trust your pet’s healthcare advice to your family veterinarian and team.  Trusted products from Deerfield Veterinary Hospital can be found at our hospital.  Our pharmacy is price competitive with most online and local big box retailers.  Call the hospital today to setup your account with Deerfield.

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Pet Poisonings Often Happen At Home.

According to veterinary experts, each year hundreds of thousands of our canine and feline friends are exposed to dangerous poisons in the very place where they should be safe.   From corrosive cleaning agents to supposedly healthy snacks, our homes can harbor a wide variety of potentially hazardous materials.

The Animal Poison Control Center of the ASPCA handles almost 200,000 calls every year from worried pet owners.  Additionally, the Pet Poison Helpline reports their call center handles another 100,000 reports of animal poisonings annually.  So, what are the problematic substances in our homes?

Both of these organizations show the number one reason for calls is human medications.   From Tylenol, Advil and other over-the-counter products to prescription antidepressants, pain medications and heart pills, drugs meant for people find their way into our pets far too often.  In some cases, sneaky pets will gobble up tablets dropped by their owners, but in many instances, these drugs are purposefully given to dogs or cats in a well meaning but wrong attempt to treat some illness or pain.

Human medications can and do cause serious problems for our pets.  Their different metabolism and small sizes often means that a common drug like acetaminophen can be deadly.  A single 500 mg Tylenol can actually kill a cat!

Next up on the list are products designed to help our pets, like popular flea medications and other insecticides.  In general, the topical drops are very safe, but when used incorrectly, the consequences can be severe.  Our feline friends are especially susceptible to the mis-use of these products and more than half of the calls to poison hotlines involve cats exposed to insecticides.  Organophosphate products designed to protect plants from marauding insects are often involved in poisonings of both dogs and cats.

We have all heard that feeding “people food” to our pets can be problematic and the number of calls to both poison centers confirms it.  Chocolate can cause serious heart arrhythmias, garlic and onion ingestion can lead to red blood cell abnormalities and the artificial sweetener, Xylitol®, has been implicated in liver failure and death in dogs.  Even supposedly healthy foods aren’t necessarily safe.  Macadamia nuts cause dogs to become weak and unable to walk and grapes and raisins will create kidney failure in some dogs.  Unfortunately, the exact reason why this happens is not known.

Beyond these very common items, household cleansers, automotive products, rodenticides, dietary supplements and even veterinary drugs also have a strong potential for problems.

Pet owners can protect their four legged friends by following a few common sense rules.

First, we are accustomed to “baby-proofing” our homes, why not consider “pet-proofing” it as well?  Make sure that any potentially dangerous chemical is safely secured behind closed or even locked doors.  Antifreeze, kitchen and bath cleansers and drain products need to be kept out of a pet’s reach and spills should be cleaned up immediately.

Next, any medication, human or veterinary, should be kept in a medicine cabinet or area where a pet will not have access.  If you are worried about dropping pills, take your medicine in the bathroom with your pets locked on the outside!

Never give your pets any medication unless ordered by your pet’s veterinarian.  As mentioned above, the wrong dosage or even a seemingly safe human drug can be deadly to your pet.   Always check with your veterinarian, not the Internet, whenever you have questions about medications your pet is receiving.

Finally, take action if you suspect your dog or cat has ingested something harmful.  Calling your veterinarian or an accredited veterinary organization should be the first step.  Both the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center and Pet Poison Helpline have call centers open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  These specialists can help you decide if your pet needs immediate veterinary attention or if it’s okay to wait.  Each group charges a small fee, but isn’t that a tiny price to pay for peace of mind and your pet’s well-being?

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Do Generic Flea Products Meet Your Pet’s Needs?

For a long time, flea control consisted of harsh products that were related to nerve gases of World War I. Many of these carbamates and organophosphates worked well at killing fleas, but unfortunately, they weren’t very safe for pets and had the potential for severe toxicity. Then, about fifteen years ago, modern chemistry helped give us safer topical flea treatments. Because fleas, ticks and other parasites are medical problems that need educated medical recommendations, the companies producing the new products chose to sell these flea medications only through veterinarians.

Fast forward to present day and you can find many flea products both over the counter (OTC) and through veterinary or “ethical” channels. Annual sales of flea and tick medications exceed $1 billion and there are many companies eager to get their share of the pie.

Recently, the compound, fipronil became available for generic use. The original patent holder, Merial, produces an excellent flea product (Frontline®) that was our main choice for many years. Now, no less than 15 “generic” fipronil flea products will be offered in the OTC markets.

What does this mean for you and your pets? Can you feel comfortable with generic flea medications?

First, let’s look at what a generic medication is. When a specific pharmaceutical company develops and patents a new drug, they are allowed the exclusive rights to sell that drug for a period of time. When the patent expires, other companies can then market their own products that use that drug. Since the generic companies don’t have any research and development costs and very little advertising is needed, their costs are much lower and, therefore, their selling price is also lower.

Although generics utilize the same active ingredients as the original, they are not exactly the same product – and that is very important to know. Different inert ingredients that are generally recognized as safe may be included. In the case of flea medications, these inert ingredients are usually the carrier molecules, or what helps spread the medication across the pet’s body. The FDA requires that generic manufacturers prove their product exhibits bioequivalence to the original product.

In the case of topical parasiticides, many of these products are actually regulated by the EPA instead of the FDA. This means that a veterinarian’s prescription is not necessary to purchase the product, although, as mentioned above, most of the original pharmaceutical companies chose to sell their product “under veterinary supervision”. The generic manufacturers do not have that same belief and the new copycat flea products will be found on shelves of Wal-Mart, Target and other big box stores across the country.

So, if the product is essentially the same and at a lower cost, is it ok to buy these over the counter flea preventives?

Fleas, as well as other parasites, can cause a host of medical problems that go beyond simple itching. Serious diseases can worsen if the issues are not handled properly. In a general merchandise store, you will not find anyone with the expertise or training you’ll find at our hospital. Not to mention someone to call should your pet have an adverse reaction to any topical treatment.

Believe it or not, it might be more economical and more convenient to purchase the preventives through us at our hospital. Not only can you get all the products (flea preventive, heartworm preventive, etc) at one location, some of the ethical products sold can actually help with other parasite diseases.  So, a single product could be the answer for your pet instead of several that end up costing more.

We will also provide a single dose of the flea product instead of the six pack you find at the store. It’s another way we can help you save money!

It’s also important to note that the federal government has actually ordered multiple manufacturers of these generic flea products to remove some products from store shelves.

We understand that your pet is unique and may not tolerate certain products as well as others. We hope our medical advice has real value…especially since the wrong product used improperly actually have the potential to be fatal! We understand if there are other possible interactions between flea preventives and other medications your pet is taking.

Finally, our healthcare team  can not only show you how to properly use the products in question, but they will keep a complete record of what you have used in the past, taking the guesswork out and possible preventing future complications. And you already know we will keep track of your pet’s overall health and find medical problems early while they are still inexpensive to treat. We strive to be part of your pet’s health care team.

All of this valued information is not something you will get from a cashier at the grocery store or a display unit in a big box retailer.

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