Note:  The author has had no veterinary or medical training - only a highly allergic dog with dreadful skin problems. She has merely documented her experience with her dog's health problems. Use the following to assist you in tracking down the cause and finding a solution. Be sure to check with your veterinarian before acting on any information you see here.

So your dog has skin problems. Claudia Lewis, DVM says about 80% of the problems she sees in her veterinary practice are skin related. Probably you have noticed it starting as one thing such as dandruff, and it's turning into something worse, like non-stop licking or chewing fur or redness or an odor or sores.


If it is not an emergency, there are two things to do before you go to the vet. Put in writing your observations about the pet's skin problem. Then review skin information on the Internet. The more you know, the easier it is to narrow-in on what the problem might be.

1. Fill out the Dermatology History Form.

The first thing to do is to write down as much as you can remember about the symptoms. When did they begin? When did you notice a change? Be as specific as possible with dates and descriptions. Did the intense licking start before the bout with fleas? Did the back chewing start before or after your camping trip? Is there any connection to a change in weather or environment? Take the time to do this. Ask family members to contribute their observations. This is important. Notice how the problem first starts and how it progresses.

Look at the coat with a light behind it. A rusty color can be an indication of mites or other parasites.

Aside from what you would expect as a skin problem, such as inflammation or dandruff, the dog itches and may rub the face and eyes. Often Amie rubs her face against us as an act of affection. Allergic rubbing is repeated behavior. Amie's allergic reaction starts with her licking her paws. Then she rubs the sides of her face on the rug or her blanket. She can actually rub the fur from around her eyes.

Although scooting is usually associated with worms and anal glands, I think she's scratching an allergic itch.

Amie has licked her feet and tail until they were raw. Itching and irritation are caused by an overactive immune response. Constant licking can cause infection.

Lately Amie has been constantly licking, rubbing the top of her mouth with her tongue. When I'm allergic the roof of my mouth itches. Can't yet relate the licking to anything, yet, but I think it's an allergic reaction.

Note where on the body the hair loss begins. When Amie begins really chewing her feet, tail and back she chews the fur off. One summer she lost all the hair around her tail and anus and was beginning to lose her back hair.

When Amie started really reacting she developed pimple-like lumps under the skin on her back. They changed to hard, flea-sized red bumps that she didn't want touched. This is a sign that she's in a serious allergic state. Later she had lumps behind her ears that were about 1/2 inch in diameter and were really hard. Dandruff develops, changing to large white flakes, then to yellow, crusty flakes.

Ears may be waxy. If they have an odor and are red, take the dog to the vet. Scratching of the ears can be a sign of inner ear infection. Recently I read that dry, red, smelly ears are associated with kidney problems and her ears flare up when her kidneys do.

Sometime after her ears get smelly, and long before a fever develops, her hair feels greasy. She smells very dirty, with a faint urine odor (related to kidney problems?). Her skin gets very hot and inflamed with large red welts in spots (mostly along her spine) and then she gets red all over. Usually the skin has an odor when there is an infection. Her sores were puss-y and red. She had a fever and I was very concerned. Why wasn't the vet?

2. Next, check out Amie's Skin Links. There are some fine, easy-to-understand sites on the web that describe possible causes, diagnostic techniques and possible remedies. Go to these places because from this information, you will be crafting your dog's diagnostic plan.

Call Hill's Pet Food Company  (1-800-445-5777) and request the pamphlet called "Allergic Dermatitis: An Owner's Guide to Pet Care". It is a really good overview of what to look for and how to find the cause and treatment for a dog with skinproblems.

Plan your veterinary consultation. When your pet has skin ailments, it is not easy to figure out what the cause is. It can be many things. Any time you ask your vet to do more than to give shots, to do regular fecal flotations or heartworm tests, you're asking for an expertise that is probably beyond the routine care a vet is accustomed to giving.

Therefore, you need to be an informed consumer. Vets want to fix dogs and they want to do it quickly. So if most skin ailments have a particular cause, it is easiest for the vet to try something, especially if it doesn't hurt and if it is inexpensive. And if that doesn't work, its easiest to try something else.

Vets continually said things to me like: "Well, these things are hard to figure out. Sometimes you never do." And then they say, "Try chunks of beef suet." "Try vitamin E and C". "Try some brewer's yeast"."We'll try some steroids".

Have you seen the movie "King George"? True story. King George had an undiagnosed liver ailment (or was it kidneys?) which made him do bizarre things. He was treated in horrible ways, enduring tortuous medical procedures, only to recover by himself. One torture prescribed by a vet was to lather Amie and her open sores with a medicated sulfur shampoo (Sebalyt). Then we wrapped her in towels and held her for 20 minutes before rinsing. This actually irritated her skin, instead of helping. I am still apologizing to her and kicking myself for trials we subjected her to in the trial-and-error approach to fixing her skin condition.

Allergies can be complicated by fungal or bacterial infections, hormonal disorders or a combination of allergies. They can generalize so more and more things cause a reaction. If you discover one thing that causes an allergic response there may be other things the dog has become or will become allergic to. There can be layers of causes. Don't just treat symptoms because there is an underlying cause that won't go away. Topical treatments are a short-term solution and prolong the inevitable search to find the cause of the allergies.

Do not "try" a solution unless the symptoms are mild or you can't afford other options. We "tried" many things. Meanwhile her condition got so bad Amie's new vet, thought Amie might not make it. A systematic approach to determining the cause is important or you'll waste a lot of time and prolong your pet's discomfort.

Read How to Work with Veterinarians and prepare yourself to take charge of dealing with your pet's condition.

1) Assemble your notes in chronological order and make them easy to read. Include shots and shot dates, significant events such as neutering dates, camping trips, flea infestations, etc. Date it and make a copy for yourself and for the vet. I know, the vet probably already has most of this info. A 1 or 2 page summary will be fresher and easier for the vet to grasp and the vet doesn't have to look through the records to get a snapshot view of your pet's history. If nothing else, this should show your vet that you will not be taking a casual attitude about your pet's health care. Include the Dermatology History Form.

2) Print the Diagnostic Worksheet.

3) Make a list of your questions.

4) The diagnostic course of action will depend on your pet's history and your financial situation. Determine your budget for this. Take a look at Amie's Expense Log to see what the diagnostic steps cost and decide how far you will take it. Knowing this before you get to the vet takes away external pressures. If you intend to do the least expensive options first, let your vet know, but do not abandon an organized plan of action to find the cause.

4) When you make the appointment tell the receptionist that you have a lot of questions and ask if you should be scheduled for more vet time than usual.

Point out the symptoms that you see. It may be fairly obvious to the veterinarian what is wrong. However, it may not. Do not accept a first diagnosis on face value. Remember, the vet most likely will be thinking, "It's probably such-and-such. We should try this."

Explain to the vet that you don't want the trial-and-error method because you don't want the pet to get worse or to suffer any longer than it needs to. Explain that you want to do a step-by-step process of diagnosis that discovers the cause.

Present your summary of your pet's history. Review it with the vet.

Ask the vet to look over the Diagnosis Worksheet. Ask if any diagnostic procedure is missing and have the vet prioritize the procedures that will be done to discover or to rule-out causes. Based on symptoms, history and likelihood of causes, your vet should outline for you what you can expect in terms of procedures, time involved and expense. If your vet is unwilling to do this, find another. Period.

Resist the temptation to start giving your pet Prednisone. Many vets turn to this first because it is relatively inexpensive and effective for airborne allergens. It masks the problem and can cause others. Also, some vets are prescribing Prozac as a last resort. It can work for a short time but is not usually effective for allergies. If it looks like your pet is at the last resort stage, consider research-grade hypericum (St. John's wort) instead - less side effects, less expensive.

If I had it to do over again I would do the skin biopsy, skin scraping and thyroid tests all at the same time. If you have the money, why wait and why put your pet through three separate assaults? My vet says that most people can't afford to do all these tests at the same time. Usually the process is to do the least invasive tests first.

We wanted a quick and easy way to determine what Amie's allergies are, but many say that blood tests are inconclusive. We couldn't find a vet who believed in and who would do blood testing for allergies - they all were suspicious of the results. Amie's skin was so plagued with open sores and infections, that we couldn't get her in good enough condition for her to have skin tests. The vet says skin testing is much more accurate than blood tests.

Animals are often allergic to the same things humans are. Check your pet's living environment. This is part of the diagnostic process which does involve trials. Try to find out if there is anything in your pet's environment to which it may be allergic. These things are easier said than done, but you might as well expose yourself to a little inconvenience than expose the animal to blood tests, etc. if the cause is really a toxic environment.

At your first appointment your vet should be able to rule out flea or tick infestation. If your pet has fleas, see Amie's Flea Recommendations.

Pay attention to your dog over a 24 hour period. Look for anything it is exposed to that could be causing an allergic reaction. Are the symptoms different during the week versus the weekend?

Is mold, mildew or mustiness present? Thoroughly clean the area with bleach or peroxide and rinse well. Fix whatever is causing the problem. We used mold test kits and cleaned until the results were normal. If you keep your dog in a damp basement move it to a different area for a few weeks and see if that helps.

Is there a lot of dust? Carpeting can hold a ton of dust and mites. Keep the pet in a room with a clean wood or linoleum floor and see if there is improvement. Stir up a lot of dust and see if the pet runs away, sneezes or otherwise reacts. You may need to have your ducts cleaned and treated with a fungicide. Since dust is a problem for both Amie and me, we have installed a Spaceguard paper medium air filter on the furnace (better than electrostatic) and we sleep with a 4 filter hepa air purifier in the bedroom. We installed central air conditioning and we leave the storm windows on all year.

Are there dust mites? When was the last time you cleaned the bedding? Throw it out and start fresh. I cover Amie's bed with a blanket and wash it when I change my own sheets. I use non-scented clothes washing soap without fabric softener. Use a high temperature.

Where does the dog hang-out? Is the couch full of mites? Put a clean sheet or throw on top for a few weeks and see if that tells you anything.

What cleaning chemicals are the dog exposed to? I can get a swollen mouth if there is a dishwashing soap residue on our plates. Make sure the food and water bowls are really clean and rinsed well.

Get a humidity gauge. If your humidity is under 55% you probably notice the dryness. Get a humidifier. Use a dehumidifier in summer and clean weekly with peroxide.

Bathe your dog no more than once a month unless treating it for fleas. Even a mild human shampoo is too harsh for animals. Rinse three times for every lathering. Soap left on the skin can be very irritating.

Does the dog get a good dose of second-hand hair spray every morning? My nose actually burns when I smell perfume. Could your pet be allergic to fragrances or scented candles? How about second-hand smoke? Amie loves to sit by the fire, but will find a hiding spot if she is near someone who is smoking (extremely rare).

Does the dog chew on anything that looks benign but may cause allergies?

Does the weather affect skin condition? Hay fever season, wet and moldy leaves, tree pollens, smog days - these can affect a dog, too.

Start to correlate a change in symptoms to something the dog has been exposed to. This is the hardest part of trying to figure out what is wrong. It requires a heightened awareness and vigilance. Maybe there is nothing in the environment that is causing the problem. But I suspect if an animal has skin sensitivities, there is a good chance the dog will be sensitive to things in the environment that it wouldn't be otherwise. Keep track of what you think is and may not be the problem. Add it to your worksheet notes.

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