Dermatitis in Dogs & Cats: A Helpful Guide

For any pet owner, seeing your dog or cat in a state of discomfort is always troubling. One of the most common causes of dermatitis – a skin condition that is typically associated with redness, swelling, sores, blisters and/or rashes – is due to allergies or skin sensitivities from external agents (such as environmental, chemical or food-related).

Just as humans suffer from skin irritations and allergic reactions, our four-legged friends are also susceptible to similar allergies and related conditions associated with canine or feline dermatitis. In this article, we’ll explore the two major types of dermatitis, along with the various symptoms, signs and treatments available to help manage your beloved family pet’s skin condition.

Allergies and Dermatitis: Knowing Your Pet’s Symptoms

Whether they’re scratching and biting to the point where they’re bleeding, or you notice profuse wheezing, sniffing, breathing difficulties, watery eyes or skin problems, your dog or cat may be an allergy sufferer.

Causes of Dermatitis

From seasonal allergies to specific allergies, such as food-related sensitivities, there are a number of factors which may be at the root of your furry friend’s misery. Here is a general list of possible offenders that could be the source of your dog or cat’s allergies and resulting dermatitis:

  • Pet food ingredients, including soy, corn, wheat, dairy products, beef, preservatives and chemical additives
  • Flea bites (in most cases, this is due to your pet’s allergic reaction to the flea’s saliva)
  • Environmental factors, such as mold, pollen, dust mites or certain plants

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Food allergies and sensitivities

As a pet owner, you want what’s best for your four-legged friends, and that may include a change in diet – be sure to read the ingredients carefully and monitor your pet’s reactions. If you notice a sensitivity to certain types of food, you may want to switch to organic brands or pet food specifically designed for allergy-prone pets.

If you’re not sure which pet food options are the best for your cat or dog, your vet may be able to suggest dietary guidelines specific to your cat or dog’s special needs. In addition, dietary supplements and capsules can help improve your pet’s overall health and boost their immune system for optimal health.

Flea bite allergies

If you’re noticing your cat or dog is biting, scratching, or licking areas of their body excessively, it may very well be due to a flea bite allergy. As mentioned, some animals experience a more severe reaction to flea bites, as they are actually allergic to the flea saliva.

A tell-tale sign of a flea infestation is known as ‘flea dirt’, which is actually dried blood particles left behind by the insect. You may also notice hair loss, blood stains on the skin and coat, a greasy or matted appearance of the hair/fur, inflammation of the skin (particularly inside the ears), scabs/crusting of the skin, and sometimes discharge in the affected areas.

While flea infestations are very common among cats and dogs, recognizing and treating the symptoms right away will reduce the severity of your pet’s discomfort and length of infestation.

However, because some pets are sensitive to certain types of medicated flea dips, shampoos, soaps, flea collars and other topical treatments, you may want to take extra precautions if you know your dog or cat has a preexisting allergic condition or skin sensitivity. Consult your veterinarian for a comprehensive year-round flea control routine, particularly for dogs and cats who suffer severe flea allergy dermatitis.

Seasonal and environmental allergies

If you notice your dog or cat is experiencing acute skin irritations associated with dermatitis, you will want to consult with your veterinarian for testing.

He or she may conduct several different tests, including skin swabs/scrapings to check for microscopic parasites, fecal and blood analysis to rule out internal parasites, and intradermal allergy skin tests to determine if your pet suffers from allergies (and if so, what specific allergens to avoid). If your pet is prone to biting or scratching, a cone (also known as an Elizabethan collar) or other alternative is recommended to prevent your dog from ingesting any topical treatments.

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Allergic Dermatitis vs. Irritant Contact Dermatitis: Knowing The Difference

Allergic (Atopic) Dermatitis

When your dog or cat becomes hypersensitive to substances in their environment, it is generally referred to as allergic dermatitis, also known more specifically as atopic dermatitis. Typically a result of repeated physical contact, chronic skin allergies do not always reveal themselves right away – in fact, skin sensitization may take an average of six months to two years to develop before you see any signs of a reaction.

Even if your furry pal has come in contact with a particular substance, food or chemical and the past without any issues, allergic dermatitis can develop over time and without warning. It should also be noted that while dogs are more prone to atopic dermatitis than cats, felines are also susceptible to this skin condition.

Common irritants linked to allergic (atopic) dermatitis include:

  • Airborne pollens (grasses, weeds, plants, trees, etc.)
  • Carpet deodorizers or household cleansers
  • Certain metals (such as nickel)
  • Dyes
  • Flea collars/powders and other treatments
  • House dust mites
  • Insecticides/pesticides and plant fertilizers
  • Materials including plastic, rubber, wool, and leather
  • Mold spores (indoor and outdoor)
  • Soaps, detergents and shampoos
  • Topical antibiotics

Allergic dermatitis affects the ears, wrists, ankles, muzzle, underarms, groin, eye area and in between the toes. Symptoms of atopic dermatitis in dogs and cats include excessive itching and scratching, hair loss, rubbing on the carpet, and specifically in dogs, flaky or greasy skin with a foul odor, excessive chewing on the paws, armpits and groin.

As your dog or cat ages, symptoms typically worsen, and become more pronounced during certain seasons (particularly if your pet is prone to seasonal allergies and environmental catalysts).

Atopic Dermatitis Treatment

In the case of allergic dermatitis, it’s important to recognize that it’s a chronic, life-long problem that needs to be treated on an ongoing basis. However, if you and your vet recognize the signs and identify the allergens early on (as well as how to avoid them), you can create a routine to ensure your pet’s well-being.

Maintaining regular check-ups with your vet is the most important preventative measure you can take. Experts also recommend bathing your pet with anti-itch shampoos and following up with your veterinarian if they are on any medication.

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Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Unlike allergic dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis is a much rarer skin disease and doesn’t require a period of sensitization – in fact, your pet will most likely experience a reaction the first time they come in contact with the irritant.

Although both forms of dermatitis are the result of allergic reactions to skin irritants and are often grouped together, it should be noted that they are two distinctly different diseases and need to be diagnosed and treated accordingly.

Common irritants linked to irritant contact dermatitis include:

  • Specific plant-based irritants such as poison ivy sap
  • Road salt (for melting ice)
  • Detergents, soaps and solvents
  • Acids and alkalis
  • Petroleum-based substances such as fertilizers, perfumes and petroleum jelly

Whereas allergic dermatitis affects the majority of the body, contact dermatitis is known to affect the areas that are less protected by hair, including the feet, nose, chin, lips, jointed areas (‘knees’) and the underside of your dog or cat’s abdomen. In addition, ulcers may also be present in cases of contact dermatitis. Both skin diseases share the following characteristic symptoms, including:

  • Skin rash including red bumps and inflammation
  • Blister-like lesions
  • Hives
  • Crusting, thickening and scaling of skin
  • Hair loss

In either case, the resulting discomfort will result in your dog or cat licking, biting, or scratching excessively, which can lead to a secondary bacterial infection. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to seek the medical attention of your vet as soon as possible, so that he or she may perform a full diagnosis of your pet’s condition.

A professional exam will not only identify what type of dermatitis your pet has, but determine the proper course of treatment moving forward, as well as rule out any underlying health conditions (particularly in the case of older dogs and cats).

One of the more difficult steps to identifying your pet’s cause for allergies is isolating the offending substance. Typically, there are two main methods: either through exclusion (placing a pet in a room free of any irritants and introducing them one by one), or by a patch test. During a patch test, possible allergens are applied to the pet’s skin and monitored for a reaction.

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Treatment for Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Although there is no cure for contact dermatitis, the most effective way to treat and prevent the disease is to avoid exposure to irritants whenever possible. For example, you may have to switch detergents, keep certain chemicals locked up, or even remove a particular plant from your property. In addition, your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatory treatments, such as topical/oral corticosteroids or antihistamines to control the itching and other side-effects associated with your cat or dog’s allergies.

There are also medicated shampoos and sprays that can provide temporary relief; be sure to ask your vet for recommendations if you’re uncertain as to which options are safe for your pet. Finally, there are things any loving pet owner can do to ensure optimal comfort to your allergy-prone cat or dog, including switching your regular pet shampoos and detergents to hypoallergenic options, providing them with a glass or stainless steel water/food bowl (versus plastic, which may contain parabens), and toys that are rubber-free.

Acral Lick Dermatitis

Another skin condition seen in dogs (and less commonly in cats) is known as acral lick dermatitis (ALD). Characterized by chronic licking and subsequent inflammation and irritation of the skin, ulcerated, thick spots known as acral lick granulomas form at sites where the cat or dog is repeatedly licking itself. Because the area grows more irritated, itchy, and inflamed over the passage of time, it becomes a vicious cycle where the area never heals. This condition can occur at any age or gender for cats and dogs.

There are several possible causes for this form of dog dermatitis and licking the affected area(s), including:

  • Boredom: high-energy dogs that are left alone for periods of time may resort to this bad habit
  • Itching: your dog or cat may have an itchy skin condition (an allergy, for example)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): similar to OCD found in humans, the same behavioral attributes can be seen in habits such as ALD.
  • Pain: your pet may suffer from arthritis or other bone/joint pain
  • Stress: anxious pets may alleviate nervous behavior through ritualistic licking

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If you believe your pooch or favorite feline is faced with this form of dermatitis, a trip to the vet is the best way to ascertain if it’s ALD or another skin condition. Your pet’s physician will likely recommend a skin biopsy and run lab work to check for bacteria and other possible infections.

Once your pet has been properly diagnosed for ALD, the real challenge is discovering the root cause – so be prepared to discuss your dog or cat’s daily routine, temperament, other health conditions and general history so your vet can better assess and determine a course of treatment.

Therapy varies based on diagnosis. Dogs and cats that are suffering from stress, anxiety, or trauma (for example, rescue pets) may require the assistance of a professional trainer or behavioral specialist; in other cases, surgery may be required.

It’s important to remember that just as every pet is unique, so is each case of ADL – you may have to combine different forms of treatment in order to manage your dog or cat’s condition. However, with time, patience and love, most lick granulomas can be controlled.

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