Atopic Skin Disease – Itchy Dogs And Cats

Owning a pet with a severe allergic itch problem can be upsetting and frustrating for owners, not to mention distressing for the pet in question. In this blog we will discuss the signs and some new innovative and effective treatments available for this irritating condition.
What is Atopic Skin Disease?

Atopic Skin Disease or Atopy, is a genetically-predisposed tendency to develop an allergy to environmental allergens. The most common allergens are house dust mites, storage mites, pollens, moulds, grasses and skin dander, with dietary proteins being less common. In atopic animals, the immune system over-reacts to contact with these foreign substances, causing inflammation that leads to itchiness.

Common Signs of Atopy in Dogs:
  • Red, itchy skin
  • Increased scratching
  • Chewing / nibbling the skin, especially at the base of the tail and paws
  • Itchy ears and recurring skin infections
  • Constant licking
  • Certain breeds appear to be predisposed, for example: West Highland White Terriers; Labrador Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels to name a few.
Common Signs of Atopy in Cats:
  • Pruritus (itchiness), especially of the head and neck
  • Symmetrical alopecia (hair loss)
  • Skin lesions and scabs (miliary dermatitis)
  • Chronic relapsing dermatitis
  • Excessive licking and over-grooming
Diagnosis of Atopy

Diagnosis of skin conditions can be lengthy with mounting costs, as investigations may need to be performed to rule out differential diagnoses such as parasitic disease, bacterial infections and adverse food reactions, using food elimination trials.

In some cases, intradermal skin testing may be offered to your pet which involves injecting tiny volumes of specific allergens into the skin, under sedation or general anaesthesia, and observing the skin’s reaction.

With recent advances in allergy testing, it is now most common to send blood samples to a special laboratory to test for common environmental and food allergies.

Treatment Options

The main priority of treatment for atopy is to reduce the factors that may cause the skin to be inflamed. A combination of management options may be required, and will be tailored to your pet’s individual condition.

  • Regular and effective ectoparasite control is a must. Flea allergies and mange infections are more likely in atopic animals.
  • Allergen avoidance has a small role in management of atopic skin disease. For this to be successful, the problem allergen/s must have been identified, however many patients have multiple allergies making avoidance difficult if not impossible.
  • Immunotherapy with allergen specific desensitising vaccines, tailored specifically for your pet’s allergies, can help to reduce the pet’s overreaction to allergens over a period of time. Treatment is generally lifelong with monthly injections.
  • Corticosteroids are a relatively inexpensive medication, but can have several potential side-effects.
  • Antihistamines have variable effectiveness, and several types may need to be trialed for an individual patient. They are more effective in preventing pruritus (itchiness), than bringing the problem under control. Sedation can be a side effect of antihistamine treatment, with cats being especially sensitive to side-effects.
  • Secondary bacterial or yeast infections must be controlled – this may be with medicated washes or ear cleaners, with appropriate antibiotic use where indicated.
  • Regular cleansing of the coat, ears and paws to mechanically clear surface allergens and assist with natural skin shedding can be beneficial.
  • Systemic and topical anti-inflammatory medications can be useful alongside other strategies. For example, shampoos; sprays and gels.
  • Complete diets with higher levels of essential fatty acids can help repair the skin barrier (of course any food allergens that have been identified will need to be avoided).
  • ATOPICA (Ciclosporin), is an expensive, but generally well tolerated and effective oral medication. It works by suppressing the patient’s immune response to allergens, but can induce other serious infections due to it’s immunosuppressive action.
  • APOQUEL is a different category of immunosuppressive treatment given as an oral tablet, which is fast-acting with a high safety margin. This is one of the newer treatments available, and we currently have many patients successfully managed with this medication on a long-term basis.
  • CYTOPOINT is the newest treatment we have available for treatment of atopic dermatitis in dogs. It is given as a monthly injection in the scruff of the neck, and contains monoclonal antibodies to target and neutralise interleukin (IL)-31 – a key itch-inducing cytokine in atopic dermatitis. It is fast acting and long-lasting, and can be used alongside many other medications and with other disease processes.

Atopy is a frustrating and sometimes distressing disease for both our pets and us as owners, but due to continuous advancements in veterinary research and medicine, we are now more than ever able to offer a variety of effective treatments to control this irritating condition.