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

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Stop Itching!

Pet Column for the week of January 15, 2009

Related information:

Services - Dermatology

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

Being woken up in the middle of the night by an itchy dog is not fun for the owner or animal. Although many pet owners are desperate for treatment that will stop the problem instantaneously, skin problems can be frustrating to diagnose and even more troublesome to treat.

The most common reason for an itchy dog or cat is fleas. "Flea allergies are much more common than food allergies," says Dr. Domenico Santoro, a dermatology resident at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. Even if your dog or cat only lives inside, it can still pick up fleas that you drag in on the bottom of your shoes.

It is inevitable that if you have a dog or cat, you will have fleas in your house. But it is hoped that routine administration of flea preventatives can keep these pesky parasites under control. Unfortunately for our pets, just as some humans are allergic to specific foods, certain dogs and cats are very allergic to fleas and, more specifically, their bites.

In order for a flea to be successful, they have to find a dog or cat and then inject their saliva (which prevents blood from clotting) into the animal. Then, while holding on for dear life, they can begin to enjoy their blood meal.

The one good thing about dog and cat fleas is that owners needn't worry about contracting them from their pets. "Fleas generally don't like humans, we are very far down on their list" of favorite meals, notes Dr. Santoro.

Dogs afflicted with flea allergies have very distinct clinical signs. "They have hair loss, scabs, and flakiness, especially localized at the base of the tail, thighs, and abdomen. They also are really, really uncomfortable because of the itchiness," mentions Dr. Santoro.

Fortunately, there are several products on the market to treat fleas, some of which are better than others. But Dr. Santoro cautions that, "the only real way to prevent a dog from ever contacting fleas is to put it in a bubble," and we all know our pets probably would not enjoy that.

Many of the flea products available in the grocery stores are less expensive than what can be purchased through your local veterinarian. However caution should be used when purchasing such products over-the-counter without the supervision of your veterinarian. Some ingredients can sound similar to one another and while one may be okay to use, the other one may be deadly.

Even among the flea preventatives sold only through veterinarians, some actually prevent the flea from even coming near the dog, while others only kill the flea after it has had its last supper and bitten the dog. Therefore, it is crucial that you talk to your veterinarian and get the right product for your pet.

It is important to note that fleas are by no means the only reason an animal would be itchy. Dogs can have allergies as the seasons change as some humans. Food allergies could also be to blame, as well as a long list of other parasites, bacteria, and fungi.

If you are concerned that your dog is excessively itching, contact your veterinarian so they can diagnose the problem and provide the right treatment.