Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Itchy Skin May Indicate Infection

Pet Column for the week of October 15, 2001

Related information:

Services - Dermatology

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Itchy skin is a very uncomfortable problem for many pets, and while itching can be caused by obvious culprits, such as fleas, sometimes the source of the problem is less obvious.

The skin is normally covered with various microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast. Usually these organisms do not cause any problems because healthy skin is resistant to infection. When an underlying disease compromises the immunity of the animal or changes the skin's susceptibility to infection, the bacteria that are already there have the opportunity to multiply and cause infection.

Dr. John Angus, a resident in dermatology at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, states, "If your dog's odor seems worse than normal and is associated with itching, it may be due to yeast or bacteria, which digest skin secretions, resulting in an unpleasant, rancid smell."

Skin infection can produce many symptoms ranging from moist, irritated patches to small pustules that look like pimples. Infections can arise as dry flaky circles that peel or the area may become itchy and red. Dr. Angus says, "Once an infection like this has a foothold, sometimes it can keep going even after the original cause of the infection is gone."

Another condition that can cause skin problems is allergy. Allergies often lead to secondary bacterial and yeast infections that can hide the presence of the allergy. After the infection is treated, and the odor, redness, and sores go away but the itching remains, the dog may still have an underlying allergy. Animals can develop allergies in response to many environmental agents including mold, pollen, and fleas.

In general, dogs get skin infections more frequently than do other animals. Certain dog breeds, such as German shepherds, cocker spaniels, golden retrievers, Dobermans, West Highland White Terriers, and breeds with lots of skin folds also seem to have a higher incidence of skin problems.

The best way to resolve skin infections is to identify the original cause of the infection and treat it. To treat infections that are on the surface of the skin, antiseptic shampoos and other topical treatments can be applied.

For infections that are deeper, oral antibiotics or antifungal drugs may be prescribed. "Like all medications," reminds Dr. Angus, "they need to be given for the full course of therapy and not just until the condition looks better."

If you have any questions or you think that your pet may have a skin infection, contact your local veterinarian.