Skin disease is one of the most common reasons for pets to be taken to the vet. From balding cats to itchy dogs, there's a wide range of possible presentations. And from mites to fleas to ringworm to allergies and hormonal diseases, there's an even longer list of causes of skin disease. When choosing how to treat a pet with itchy skin, what should an owner do? Here are some simple tips.
First, talk to your vet about the specific diagnosis. As with all diseases, the diagnosis is everything. If necessary, you may wish to ask for a referral to see a skin specialist: veterinary dermatologists are now widely available.
It is true, however, that there are some general skin treatments that can be helpful in may skin conditions, regardless of the cause. These fall into three main categories.
First, so-called nutraceuticals, which means nutritional products that have some degree of pharmaceutical effect. For skin to be in optimal health, a diet rich in essential fatty acids is important. These are in two main forms: omega-3 fatty acids (most commonly found as the oils from fish) and omega-6 fatty acids (very widespread in plant based oils such as sunflower oil). To optimise skin health, the aim is to have plenty of essential fatty acids, with a ratio of between 5 and 10 omega-6 to one omega-3 included. Since most diets have plenty of omega-6 without anything being added, the focus tends to be on supplementing with fish-based oils. The easiest way to supplement is to use formulations of skin-supportive oils that have been designed specifically for dogs: most vet clinics stock this type of product. Daily oil supplements take around six weeks to have an impact: it takes this long for them to be fully assimilated by the body. But when the effect does become apparent, the coat starts to look shiny, and the skin sometimes looks visibly healthier. So any animal with skin disease should benefit from regular essential fatty acid supplementation.
Second, sprays, ointments and creams. If the skin is damaged, it's common for the area to become inflamed and infected. Simple skin hygiene can help to reduce this: clipping the fur away from the edges of a damaged area, and cleaning it gently (a teaspoonful of salt in a pint of boiled water is very effective). Cleaning like this twice daily is often sufficient, but sometimes, if the skin is red and sore, it can help to apply soothing topical products. Vets often use sprays or creams that include potent anti-inflammatory medication like cortisone, but simpler creams (such as anti-histamine) or even just moisturising creams, can help to soothe mild cases. It's always wise to use products that are marketed specifically for pets, rather than hoping that human products will "do".
The third general treatment involves shampoos, and this can be a tricky area to navigate. If you go into any pet shop, you'll find dozens of brands of shampoos, all claiming to help with skin disease. In my mind, there are five different types of shampoo, each with their own particular role.
First, general gentle shampoos for routine bathing of pets. Animal skin and hair is different to human hair, with a lower pH (i.e. it's more acidic). This means that human shampoo is not appropriate for animal skin. So if you want to clean your pet's coat, use a dog or cat shampoo, and choose one that claims to be "gentle".
Second, there are a number of shampoos that specifically treat bacterial and yeast infections of the skin: the best of these are only available on prescription from your vet. In many different types of skin disease, it's common to have secondary bacterial and yeast infections which then contribute to the further deterioration of the condition. By-products of these infections cause itchiness, greasiness and a musty smell ,so it often makes sense to control them using this type of shampoo. You can also get a type of "dry shampoo" which has anti-bacterial and anti-yeast properties: this is a mousse which is massaged into a dog's coat.
Third, there are some specific shampoos that are the equivalent of human anti-dandruff shampoos: they are very effective at helping with skin conditions where there is excessive scaliness, helping to remove dead skin cells. Examples include those that include sulphur or salicylic acid type ingredients.
Fourth, shampoos that include an ingredient called benzoyl peroxide are useful for so-called "follicle flushing": these shampoos help to clean out the hair follicles, which are the narrow cylinders in the skin that hairs sprout from. There are many conditions where the hair follicles become full of debris, and follicle flushing shampoos can help to clear this,
Finally, shampoos that include oatmeal have been found to be effective as a way of soothing itchy skin in a non-specific way, so they are often recommended for any itchy animal.
The best answer may be to set up your own mini-armoury of general treatments for skin disease, choosing from a selection of the products above. You won't be able to cure many skin diseases (that's the vet's job) but you should be able to give effective support to most pets suffering from a wide range of dermatological problems.