Itchy and Scratchy

I don’t know about you, but being itchy is one of the worst sensations for me. Several years ago I had a severe allergic reaction to the new laundry detergent I used. I had full body welts and I was scratching myself bloody in my sleep – I wouldn’t wish that kind of torture on my worst enemy…much less a poor dog or kitty. 

If you’ve been any of our three locations for any length of time, then you’ve heard us talk about the importance of your pet’s diet in their overall health. We aren’t shy about pointing out the damage that crappy diets loaded corn, wheat, soy, dyes, unnamed meat sources, sugar and other poor ingredients can do when your pet eats it every day. When a customer comes to us to ask about skin allergies and itching, our first conversation is inevitably about food. We can sell you topicals and sprays that might help the symptoms but it’s really important for us to help you find the root cause and, hopefully, an answer to the itching.

So what causes itchy skin in dogs? Environmental factors can play a part – some dogs and cats can be allergic to grasses and molds. Believe it or not, we’ve had quite a few of our grooming dogs that had itchy skin rashes that turned out to be as a result of the Febreeze their owners were around the house. Parasites are another cause of itching. For dogs sensitive to fleas, a single bite is enough to send them into full-body itchies and can lead to painful hot spots. 

Far and above, however, allergies are most often blamed on the food. However, the truth is that “food allergies” are actually very uncommon. Dogs can be more sensitive to things like corn, wheat or soy…or even to protein sources such as chicken or beef…but true food allergies are actually not all that commonplace. Food *does* play a role, though.

Did you know that about 70% of your pet’s immune system is dependent on his gut? Yup, the stomach. Your pet’s stomach lining is like a filter that keeps bacteria and toxins out of the blood stream. However long-term abuse of the stomach lining causes this filter to break down, allowing bacteria, toxins and even the food itself into the bloodstream. These foreign invaders can trigger an immune response and the most common stage of this “leaky gut” is…you guessed it!  Allergies and itchy skin!

That includes hot spots and ear infections and, over time, an overabundance of yeast both inside and out. Leaky Gut is known as a mimic disease, because it is so often mistaken for other problems such as skin allergies, chronic inflammation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and more. It’s a hidden problem that manifests in so many different ways it can be difficult to diagnose and unfortunately, some common treatments for allergies can actually make a leaky gut worse, not better.

Causes of leaky gut vary, but it all comes down the destruction of the good bacteria in your pet’s gut and the breakdown of the stomach lining. Poor diet that is highly processed and filled with starch and sugars starves the good bacteria in your pet’s stomach, which in turn leads to a yeast overgrowth. Worms and other stomach parasites can also contribute. It has also been said that over-vaccination and even some flea and tick treatments can be contributing factors in leaky gut syndrome. 

If your pet has issues with itchy skin and chronic ear infections and you’ve been at your wit’s end, it might be beneficial for both of you to adjust the way you are viewing the problem and make some small changes in your treatment. Rather than addressing the symptoms, it wouldn’t hurt to treat the possible root cause and attempt to heal the gut itself.

Start by feeding a good quality diet. In the beginning, you might even try a raw diet. However if that’s not in the budget or seems like too much work (yes, even the pre-prepared raw diets can be inconvenient) look for something that has LOTS of meat protein (not plant protein!), low starches, low sugar, no dyes and plenty of good, healthy fat. Make at least 25% of your pet’s diet something other than kibble. Whether it’s raw, freeze-dried or canned (good quality!), you will be adding much-needed moisture and meat content to your pet’s diet.

Next, you should look at a few supplements to add to your pet’s meals. A good diet is a step in the right direction, but if your pet has a leaky gut it’s going to require some help healing. Start with a good probiotic. Many high end foods add pre and probiotics. However, if your pet’s stomach bacteria has been decimated you need more than the minimum to help it out. Ark Naturals makes a product called Gentle Digest that contains bacillus coagulans and dried chicory root to promote the growth of good bacteria in your pet’s digestive system. It’s good for both dogs and cats!

Omega Fatty acids should also be added – fish oil and hemp seed oil are great. Ultra Oil for pets is a new product that has been gaining steadily in popularity. Quite a few of our customers have begun using it and have had nothing but good things to say about it. It contains Hempseed Oil, Flaxseed oil, Fish oil (sardine and anchovy), and Grapeseed oil. Grapeseed oil in particular is great because it has antioxidant properties, while hempseed oil is easier to digest than fish oil. It’s also non-GMO and cold-pressed. The anti-inflammatory properties of these oils helps to ease the inflammation of the stomach lining.

Bone Broth is another supplement that’s worth taking a look at. Not only will it add important moisture to your pet’s food, but it’s also a great source of minerals, collagen, gelatin and glucosamine, which can help repair your pet’s damaged stomach lining. 

You might also need to reconvene with your veterinarian and discuss the use of steroids, NSAIDs and antibiotics. All of the above can continue to damage the stomach lining, making all your work for naught. The new drug for itchy skin, Apoquel, is great for acute issues but it is an immunosuppressant which can make an already leaky gut even worse. 

Being itchy is the worst and there is only so much shampoos, powders, sprays and even drugs can do to help, especially if they aren’t treating the root cause. Because it’s so easy to miss, it’s worth the time and energy to focus on your pet’s digestive system. Since so much of their immune system is dependent on the functionality of the gut, that’s a great place to start.