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Skin problems Part I – Allergies or Food Intolerances

Itchy skin, redness, weepy eyes, head shaking, foot licking and gunky ears! Sound familiar? These issues seem to plague our dogs and despite the fact the issues are so common, the problems are both difficult to diagnose and cure.

Dog owners frequently search for solutions to these problems, yet they do not always know where to start. This two-part newsletter will hopefully provide you with a tips that to help you better approach these issues and steps and ideas on how to successfully resolve these problems.

This is a large topic, so it will come to you in two parts. This month's newsletter helps define the differences between allergies and food tolerances, their symptoms and their effects on the immune system. Part II offers more information on the immune system and steps you can take to stabilize and maintain your dog's immune system health to ward off some of the effects of the allergy and food intolerance issues discussed this month.

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Once your dog starts itching and scratching, it can create irritation and sores. Continued scratching can cause both bacteria and yeast to grow. If this is happening to your dog, I encourage the technique of tests to not only rule out what the problem might be, but to also rule out what the problem is not! Therefore, the first step is to schedule a visit to see your veterinarian.

A good rule of thumb with these issues is to start with a skin scraping and culture of the affected areas on the skin and a culture of the ears if they are affected. This means having your veterinarian take samples and send them off to a laboratory. These tests will determine if yeast and/or bacteria are present. If bacteria are present, the specific bacteria can be identified. Once identified, your veterinarian can determine which antibiotic will best treat the symptoms. A skin culture will eliminate any guessing and avoid the possibility of overusing antibiotics.

Proper treatment of bacteria and/or yeast issues is the best place to start, however treating the symptoms does not determine the actual cause of the problem. However, treating the symptoms helps eliminate some of your dog's discomfort, pain and irritation.

Bathing your dog weekly in a good oatmeal-based shampoo (or a special preparation for yeast conditions) can help keep the skin and coat clean to prevent further development. Rinsing with a solution of ¼ white vinegar and ¾ water can also help to kill yeast and cleanse any remaining shampoo from the skin and coat.

There are some good ear washes for dogs, but you need to know if you are treating your dog's ears for yeast or bacteria, as each requires a different approach! Again, a visit to your veterinarian will determine this! Most importantly, when treating the ears, never flood them with liquid. This can cause deafness! Use a small amount and carefully wipe out any excess!

Whether your dog's issue is yeast or bacteria related, you could either repeatedly treat the symptoms or choose to get to the root of the problem so you do not have to treat the symptoms any longer.

When we read about skin and coat issues in books and magazines, and explore the different health conditions on the internet, we find a lot of information that defines the symptoms as allergy issues or food intolerance issues. In many cases, you will find information that discusses allergies vs. food intolerances. While you may find allergy vs. food intolerances on both human and canine sites, you will see there is a specific difference between the two. I find these ideas interesting, but they really do not quite describe the problems I have seen in dogs.

Allergies are defined as allergens that cause the dog to itch and scratch, cause redness of the skin and may cause ear problems. Occasionally vomiting and diarrhea may occur, but these are less common side effects.

While allergies indeed can cause redness, welts on the skin, redness in the eyes and more, food allergies are rare in dogs, and for the most part occur after the dog is over two years old. I see food allergies when dogs have been fed the same commercial food or fixed diet, day in and day out. When the body is repeatedly exposed to the same allergens (same proteins/ingredients) for prolonged periods of time, the body can develop an immune response where the body no longer recognizes these foods as 'normal. The allergic reaction is an autoimmune system response.

Food intolerances are described as only affecting the digestive tract and the symptoms only include vomiting and/or diarrhea. These issues are NOT about the immune system as food intolerances are not immune mediated. They are a reaction to a substance or toxin in the food that the body reacts to. For example, some dogs, such as Miniature Schnauzers, commonly have lipid problems and therefore have trouble with high fat diets. Dogs that have gluten intolerance suffer from gas and diarrhea issues. Many dogs get diarrhea and intestinal discomfort when fed uncultured milk products because they are lactose intolerant. Additionally, foods contaminated with bacteria or other toxins can also cause diarrhea and vomiting.

Prolonged use of these foods can eventually cause the digestive tract lining to become inflamed and a chronic digestive condition can develop. These problems can include Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Colitis. However, if these problems develop and go untreated, it can lead to a suppressed immune system, which can lead to other health issues.

Based on what I've said, one might guess that if their dog is suffering from chronic itching and scratching and the diet is varied, they may be dealing with an environmental allergy issue as opposed to an allergy issue they thought might be food related. Allergy testing for environmental issues is more reliable than testing for food allergies and can be helpful in determining the root cause of your dog's condition. Of course, you can also get disheartening news like I did when I did allergy testing on my horse last summer. The test results showed that my horse was allergic to grass and pine trees! Disappointed, I opted for allergy shots. However, you may find that the allergy is caused by something you can easily remove from your home or yard and the issue can be cleared up in no time.

If you are feeding a varied fresh food diet with at least four different proteins, which I hope you are, the chances of your dog having a food allergy is slim, especially if your dog is young. However, there are many different types of allergy issues. If you are dealing with allergies, it could be that the symptoms are the result of an autoimmune system issue. You can treat the symptoms and make your dog comfortable for a while, but if you don't find the root cause of the problem and work to fix it, you will end up treating the same problem over and over. When you know the root cause and work to fix the issue, you may find you no longer have to treat the symptoms!

It is worth investigating the issue further to see if the problem is either causing an over-active or suppressed immune system, what you might be able to do to help regulate your dog's immune system, and determine what is 'normal' and what is not.

If your dog is diagnosed as having food intolerance, your veterinarian may suggest a prescription diet or suggest trying a dog food with a different protein source. Oftentimes, trying these diet changes brings short-term results but within a few weeks, you may see the symptoms reappear. This oftentimes sends people on a frenzy trying different foods to see if they will fix the problem.

What often happens is the dog seems to improve at the start of the food change, as switching the diet and the ingredients oftentimes helps. If the dog is suffering from diarrhea, the veterinarian may prescribe a high fiber diet, which may also make the dog's symptoms appear to improve. This is because the high fiber in the diet will absorb more moisture in the large intestine, which creates a firmer appearing stool. However, the intestinal lining continues to be irritated. This condition will eventually worsen and the problem will return. Further, if the dog remains on a 'fixed' diet without variety, there is a higher chance a real food allergy may occur.

If the cycle persists, dog owners tend to change the food again and see a short-term improvement again. However, in no time at all, the diarrhea and vomiting start to occur again. At this point, the veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics and oftentimes prescribes steroids. As the months and years go by, the problem continues. What many do not realize is the issue actually worsens internally. An endoscopy is often done at this point and commonly, the dog is diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and a lifetime of prescription foods and drugs.

While much of this is labeled 'Food Intolerance', I see it as an irritated and inflamed digestive tract lining that is never given the chance to heal. Continued rounds of antibiotics continually strip the digestive tract of good flora and fauna intestinal bacteria that helps with digestion AND supports the immune system. Lacking this, the dog may show further symptoms, such as bad breath, thinning hair coat, weight loss, and anxiety or nervousness. Long-term use of steroids can also have harmful side effects, such as hair loss, behavioral changes, harsh effects on the liver and kidneys as well as increased appetite, increased thirst and can depleted the immune system.

We will continue next month by looking at some of the things that can compromise and negatively affect your dog's immune system and steps you can take to help stabilize your dog's immune system and maintain good immune system health. We will have some good diet and supplement tips that address the issues we have talked about this month. We will see you again next month with more information on how to deal with the allergies and food intolerances.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!
Don't forget to save the turkey neck, gizzard and heart as a nice treat for your dog!

Bon Appetit & Happy Thanksgiving!