Health Concerns: Skin
My golden retriever is 8 years old and recently began losing pigment on his face. The black portions of his face around his nose and mouth have begun to turn pink. What is happening?
Dear Pet Owner:
Around the nose, mouth and eyes, the skin normally contains a dark pigment called melanin. For unknown reasons, the cells lose this pigment (hypopigmentation). For most cases, this can be a normal occurrence that comes with age. A complete loss of pigment on the nose is called Dudley nose. It can be seen mostly in Afghan Hounds, Samoyeds, Siberian huskies, yellow Labrador retrievers, white German shepherds, Golden retrievers, Poodles, Doberman pinschers, Irish Setters, and Pointers. In some dogs a seasonal, partial lightening of the nose is called snow nose. It can be seen seasonally where the nose gets lighter in the winter and darker in the spring. This seasonal change can be seen in Siberian huskies, Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and Bernese Mountain dogs. In some rare cases dogs may have an autoimmune disease (Vitiligo) where the body attacks its own pigment in the cells. There is no treatment for either case and neither is it harmful. The show ring is where most dogs with hypopigmentation will lose points and will be considered to be at fault. Any further questions should be directed to your veterinarian.
My dog suffers from recurring ear infections. I feel like it's a constant battle. No sooner do I think I've cleared it up and it starts all over again. I feel bad because my dog is in pain, scratching, shaking her head and the smell is terrible. What can be done?
Dear Pet Owner:
Otitis externa is a description of the clinical signs produced by an ear infection. The lining of the ear canal contains wax glands that enlarge and overproduce wax in the presence of infection. The skin of the canal then thickens and becomes fibrotic (hard) and this effectively reduces the width of the canal and its opening. This reduces the amount of natural drainage and leads to further infection. The dog's ear canal has two components: a horizontal canal similar to man's and a vertical canal that makes drainage difficult. These factors lead to a perfect environment for the growth of bacteria and yeast. If unchecked, chronic re-infections can lead to rupture of the eardrum and extension of the infection into the middle ear along with calcification of the entire ear canal.
Perpetuating factors can be secondary bacterial or yeast infections, progressive physical changes that prevent a return to a normal ear canal, middle ear infections, and underlying undiagnosed conditions such as hypothyroidism and allergies. Your dog probably needs a thorough examination under anesthesia that includes cultures of the discharge, x-rays of the skull and possible surgery. If your dog has more than 3 or 4 infections in a year or has a constant problem, he needs a more intensive work-up.
My dog recently had surgery to remove a lymphoma that had formed on the tip of her ear. After the operation, we cleaned her ears and used antibiotic drops. After the stitches were removed, the lymphoma came back. Is there any other treatment for this condition? Surgery has not helped. We even had the lymphoma drained but it came right back.
Dear Pet Owner:
Lymphoma of the skin is a very unusual finding, so please be sure this was the diagnosis, confirmed by biopsy. Lymphomas are not usually cysts and are not usually drained. They are usually solid tumors, and they are malignant.
It sounds as if your dog had a hematoma. This occurs when the dog shakes its head, often from ear discomfort or itchiness. The cartilage of the ear bleeds, and the space under the skin of the ear fills with blood.
Sometimes draining the hematoma doesn't end the problem. Often it is necessary to surgically open the skin, take out the blood and clots, and then to stitch down the skin of the ear with devices that help press the skin closed. Sometimes rubber tubing (called stents) is used, sometimes mesh with foam padding, and sometimes even buttons! The stitches are left in for about two weeks, which should be enough time for the ear tissues to adhere together. There have been cases where the first surgery did not work but the second did, so please allow your veterinarian to repeat the procedure using a pressure device if he thinks it is needed.
My gray schnauzer has a discolored face and paws from her persistent licking. Our veterinarian prescribed an antihistamine for possible allergies, but is there something I can give her to stop the discoloration?
Dear Pet Owner:
Your dog's saliva is staining her hair. Tears can do the same thing around the eye area. There is nothing that will get rid of the discoloration. However, if treatment for your dog's allergy is successful, new hair that grows in won't be stained if she is not licking any more.
Allergies are a very common problem in dogs. The itchy feeling they have can cause varying degrees of discomfort. You and your veterinarian may want to pursue a diagnosis of exactly what your dog is allergic to. In an inhaled or contact allergy, diagnosis can be made using a special blood test, or by skin testing. The skin test involves injecting tiny amounts of various proteins under the skin to see if your dog reacts to them by developing a raised bump called a hive. Inhaled and contact allergies can be treated with injections of a serum that reduces your dog's reaction to her allergenic proteins. This is successful up to 75% of the time.
Food allergies can be diagnosed by the exclusive feeding of a special prescription diet for a period of 8-12 weeks. This allows your dog not to be exposed to any of the food proteins she has had in the past. If her problems resolve on the prescription diet, your veterinarian would know the dog has a food allergy. Then he would recommend how to feed her in the future.
Short-term seasonal allergies can be treated with antihistamines and various other treatments.
My veterinarian thinks my dog Lily may have a food allergy. She is a 1 year old Boston Terrier. She is itchy all the time, and her skin is a mess. He is treating her with something for the itching and an antibiotic for the infection, but now he wants me to use a special prescription diet. She has had many kinds of food since I got her, but this problem is fairly new (about 6 weeks straight). I heard lamb and rice food is good for their skin, so I tried that and it didn't help. How could she be allergic? And why do I have to get a prescription food?
Dear Pet Owner:
Dogs can develop allergies to foods they have eaten for a long time. The allergy is usually to a protein in the food. There are no magical foods available over the counter that can help this problem. Many clients feel there is something special about lamb and rice diets, but there isn't. When veterinarians are trying to determine if a pet has a food allergy, they will take away any foods the pet has ever eaten and instead put them on a diet that has a protein in it that is new to the animal. The animal will not be allergic to the new protein right away because their immune system has not had a chance to develop a response to it. Years ago, we used lamb as a novel protein source because most dogs and cats had never eaten lamb. Now that is available over the counter, we have had to go to protein sources that are available as prescription diets. They may include protein from duck, rabbit, fish (for dogs), and even kangaroo! These diets also have the advantage of a constant carbohydrate source and formula. Also, the newest additions to dietary management of food allergy are diets with “hydrolyzed” proteins. The protein molecules are on such small sizes that the dog's immune system does not recognize them as foreign and does not start an allergic reaction. The special diet is used for 8 to 12 weeks, usually. If your dog becomes normal at that point, she probably does have a food allergy. She can then be challenged by feeding her prior food, and will usually develop a reaction within a couple of weeks. That really proves the allergy. Your dog will then have to be maintained on a diet that has components that do not trigger her food allergy, from then on.
Definitively diagnosing a food allergy is a good thing because then Lily probably won't need to take medicine all the time. You can just feed her the proper food and she should do well.
My cat is older and her hair is starting to feel course and dry and her skin looks dandruffy. Why and what can I do?
Dear Pet Owner:
As cats get older, just like in some people, the ability to absorb nutrients changes, as well as their metabolism. A diet change may be in order. There are some very good brands of senior food available now, as well as supplements that provide additional fatty acids to help the coat and skin. Regular brushing with a dry skin spray is also helpful, as well as providing interaction with your pet.
There may also be underlying metabolic diseases which can be manifested in an unkempt appearance. For example, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, and diabetes may affect an older cat. Of course, the best thing is to have your senior kitty checked by the veterinarian for any underlying problems. There are blood and urine tests available which can screen for these diseases, as well as any other problems that may be brewing.
Sometimes parasites that live on the skin and fur of cats can cause the coat to look dull and scaly. Fleas are the perfect example. Also some cats may develop allergies and infection that will make the coat appear unhealthy.
Your veterinarian will be able better tell you the underlying problem, so make an appointment soon!
My Labrador Retriever, Jake, was running in the park when he cut his paw pad on a piece of glass. It bled quite a bit so I wrapped it with gauze. He still has a deep gash in his pad. Can Jake get stitches there?
Dear Pet Owner:
Veterinarians can certainly suture cut pads but this may not be the best option for Jake at this time. The pad heals slowly, so sutures should remain for a few weeks. Despite your best efforts, Jake may lick his stitches as he attempts to nurse his wound.
If a cut is cleaned and closed within six hours of injury, healing can rapidly progress. Older wounds begin to mend on their own and simple suturing will not hold the tissues together. In these cases, the cut edges must be trimmed and a more elaborate surgery performed.
Infection is possible with paw injuries as your dog continues to walk through yards and fields. Oral antibiotics are often prescribed. Unlike horses and humans, dogs do not need a tetanus shot as they are luckily resistant to the bacteria.
You should have Jake's injury evaluated by your veterinarian to plan the best method of treatment. Surgical suturing may yet provide the quickest cure. The pad can be stitched. There are advantage to prompt treatment for wounds – quicker healing, easier surgery, less pain and decreased risk of infection. Even if Jake's cut is not sutured, there are special topical treatments that speed healing and provide comfort for your pet.
I recently rescued a stray kitten that was hanging around at work. It has some bald patches on its face and my neighbor says it has ringworm. I administered an over-the-counter wormer. Will this take care of the problem?
Dear Pet Owner:
No, a wormer will not cure ringworm because ringworm in animals is not a parasite but a fungal infection of the skin.
Ringworm can affect both dogs and cats and, importantly, can be contagious to their human owners. Transmission is via exposure of the surface of the skin to fungal arthrospores in the environment. It is often seen in the long-haired breeds of cats such as Persians and Himalyans and these cats can develop a subclinical infection (one without skin lesions) and, as such, can be silent carriers of the disease.
The first step is to have your kitten seen by a veterinarian. He or she can examine your pet to see of the skin or hair around the lesions fluoresces under ultraviolet light (a positive test fro 50-80% of Microsporum canis infections) or the vet can culture the fungus by gently plucking a few hairs at the outside edge of the lesion. Both procedures are painless and easily performed. Most of the time simply applying a topical anti-fungal medication for 3-4 weeks is sufficient for a cure. However, if the animal has a weakened immune system, a more severe and generalized infection can take hold or be complicated by a secondary bacterial infection. In these cases oral medication clipping and/or dipping may be required. A vaccine has also been developed for use in such instances as an infected cattery or multi-cat household, in order to specifically boost the immunity toward this particular disease.
Good luck with your rescued kitten.
My dog Scruffy has been diagnosed with mange. I've heard it's contagious and I am afraid to let my kids touch him. The treatment seems to be taking a long time and my kids are unhappy and so is Scruffy. If is safe for them to play together?
Dear Pet Owner:
Mange in dogs is caused by microscopic mites that burrow under the skin causing intense itching and inflammation. There are two kinds of mites that can affect dogs: demodex mites and sarcoptes mites. Only one kind of mite is highly contagious from dog to dog and can affect humans transiently and that is the sarcoptic variety. So you need to find out which type of mange your dog has and your veterinarian can tell you usually on the bases of skin scrapings. The superficial layers of skin in affected areas are scraped and examined under the microscope.
Sarcoptic mange can be treated by bathing and then dipping the dog with an acaricidal dip weekly for 2-5 weeks. Other methods are injections or tablets usually used for heartworm prevention. Sacoptic mange usually resolves quickly, although this is the type of mange that can be transmissible to your children.
Demodectic mange is not contagious to humans but can be very difficult to treat or control. Transmission usually occurs from the nursing mother to her puppies and if localized in your dogs (confined in small areas) will resolve spontaneously in 4-8 weeks.
Some cases can become generalized or affect larger areas of the body if the animal's immune system is compromised. These cases of generalized demodicosis have a breed disposition and are found in the beagle, boxer, pug, pit bull terrier, and Doberman pincher. The treatment can be similar to sarcoptic mange (with bathing and dipping or ivermectin or milbenycin orally) but can be prolonged. It can be very frustrating for the owner because of the cost and length of treatment and the tendency for recurrence after treatment. Dogs with demodectic mange should be spayed or neutered because of its hereditary predisposition.
My house is wall-to-wall dog hair. I bough a short-haired dog, but there is still hair on my clothes, the carpet, and the furniture. I adore my dog, she's beautiful and a real sweetie, but I hate vacuuming every day and wearing dog hair to work. Is there anything I can do about all of her shedding?
Dear Pet Owner:
Face it, dog hair and dogs go together. But here are a few strategies for normal hairy dogs: bathe your dog once or twice a month in the summer and brush him really well after he dries, and brush him often, at least twice a week, and wipe him off with a damp towel. Sometimes excessive shedding isn't normal. Your veterinarian can determine whether your dog's shedding is due to illness. Sometimes, the answer is in a change of diet, the addition of a vitamin or fatty acid, or the elimination of fleas. Sometimes the answers are found only through laboratory tests, skin biopsies, and allergy testing. Dermatology is a recognized specialty in veterinary medicine. If your veterinarian thinks your dog has a rare and unusual skin problem, he may refer you to a veterinary dermatologist. If good grooming isn't solving the shedding problem, see your veterinarian.
I have a West Highland White Terrier named “Seamus”, but I'd like to change his name to “Itchy” or “Grumpy”. He is 6 years old, and he is scratching all the time lately! It's driving him and me crazy! We tried a special diet that my veterinarian recommended, for 3 months and he's no better. Now my veterinarian wants to test him for other allergies. I don't want them sticking a lot of needles into my dog. What should I do?
Dear Pet Owner:
Westies are very prone to allergies, but this can happen to any dog. If your veterinarian has ruled out a food allergy and other conditions such as mange (skin mites) and ringworm (a fungus), Seamus may have an inhaled or contact allergy. This is called “atopy”.
Many atopic dogs first start with signs of itching seasonally, if they are allergic to pollen or grasses. If they are allergic to something they're exposed to all the time, like wool or house dust mites, they may scratch all year ‘round. Dogs that have one allergy usually develop multiple allergies, so a dog that starts out allergic to ragweed may also develop an allergy to flea bites or to wool, or to a food protein. So, allergic dogs may start out with intermittent problems that occur a couple of times a year and are managed with oral medicine and some medicated baths or rinses.
As allergies get worse, if the dog requires treatment often and he is uncomfortable, it makes sense to try to identify what he's allergic to and to deal with that. Some allergic dogs improve with the use of antihistamines, but often they eventually need to take corticosteroids. (You may have heard of cortisone, which is used to treat inflammation. It is a corticosteroid.) One of the most commonly used is called prednisone. Corticosteroids are wonderful at stopping the itch and inflammation associated with allergy. Used wisely, they are an important part of treatment. But veterinarians know that it's not best to use steroids constantly unless all other options are exhausted. Steroids can be used safely long-term, but because of their potential side effects, allergy testing and treatment is often a better idea.
Many dermatologists say that the “gold standard” of allergy testing is the skin test. In this test, minute amounts of protein (allergen) are injected under your dog's skin with a very fine needle. About 20 allergens could be tested at one time, using allergens from local weeds, grasses and tree pollen, extracts of wool, house dust mites, even cat dander protein.
The injection sites (usually on the side of the dog's shaved chest) are observed for swelling (hives). The positive areas are identified. Then, an allergy serum can be developed which is individualized for your dog. You will then inject your dog with the serum at specified intervals, which usually end up being spaced out at about once every 10-21 days. The goal is to eventually minimize the dog's allergic response to the allergens. Also, if there are allergens you can avoid exposing him to, that will help. It can take a year before you see a major difference in Seamus' allergies, but about 75% of dogs do well and need very little medication to handle their allergies as long as they keep getting their injections.
There is another method used to diagnose what your dog is allergic to. It's a blood test, and often yields very useful results. Your veterinarian can draw blood from Seamus and submit it to a special laboratory. Many veterinarians have excellent diagnostic success using a blood test instead of skin testing. After the results are in, a serum is developed for your dog.
If Seamus is in this much discomfort, some type of allergy testing is a good idea. Then you have a good chance of keeping your “Grumpy” companion happy and healthy.
My dog has a lump on his belly that my veterinarian told me is a benign fatty tumor but it has increased in size over the past year. What should I do?
Dear Pet Owner:
Lipomas are soft round or oblong non-cancerous tumors composed of fat cells most commonly noticed under the skin of dogs over five years of age. They can be as small as a pea or as large as a pineapple. They are especially common in Labrador Retrievers and Doberman Pinschers, but are seen in all types of purebred and mixbreed dogs. Although lipomas often develop along the ribcage, they can be found anywhere on the body.
Lipomas are benign tumors which means they do not spread to other parts of the body or destroy or interfere with the function of other organs. However, they can steadily grow to become an unsightly lump or impair movement of a limb due to size and location. A large fatty tumor pressing between the muscles of the leg can cause lameness and pain. Sometimes they seem to slide in one spot, while other lipomas may feel hard or change in softness if they are wedged between muscle bundles.
More dangerous tumors mimic lipomas. Your veterinarian can test your dog's lump in several ways. In the exam room, the growth can be stuck and sucked with a needle. The cells that are removed are then examined under a microscope in the office or at a lab. This aspiration technique often identifies the worrisome growth. Sometimes a more accurate diagnosis is needed and a part of or all of the mass is surgically removed. This biopsied section is then sent to a histopathologist who examines the cells in the surrounding tissue. This routine requires anesthesia and is more expensive, but the results are almost always without doubt. Mast cell tumors, lymph nodes, and spindle-cell tumors can all look and feel like fatty growths so it is important to report any lumps on your pet to your veterinarian.