Scrub-a-Dub Dog

By Christie Keith

When it comes to treating itchy skin and allergic skin disease in dogs, are some approaches all wet?

Itchy skin can drive dogs crazy. The sound of a dog slurping, chewing and scratching doesn't do much for his owner, either. The quest for relief from these symptoms is one of the top reasons dogs are taken to the veterinarian.

Many pet owners expect the vet to prescribe anti-itch medications and antibiotics, and those drugs are often necessary. But an increasing body of research and clinical experience suggests the best approach to treating canine allergic skin disease and chronic infection is from the outside in.

Chronic allergic skin disease in dogs is known as atopic dermatitis, or AD. Dogs with this condition have a defect in their skin's barrier, which allows substances like bacteria, yeast and pollens to leak into the deeper layers of the skin. Because the body perceives them as invaders, the immune system revs itself up to destroy them, bringing local inflammation to the area as part of the immune response.

That inflammation causes itching, redness and irritation, and dogs react to the discomfort by chewing and scratching their skin. That further damages the skin's barrier, allowing more bacteria and yeast to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin, triggering more irritation, itching and inflammation.

As if that wasn't bad enough, dogs can become allergic to the bacteria and yeast, setting off a cascade of itching and infection that leaves the dog hairless and in pain.

Worst of all, the antibiotics that have long been an integral part of treating skin infections are losing the battle with drug-resistant bacteria, particularly against the strains of staph commonly associated with canine AD.

So what's a dog owner to do with her itchy pet?

"The new finding here is the effectiveness of topical therapy," said board-certified veterinary dermatologist Dr. Douglas J. DeBoer of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in the proceedings of the 2016 NAVC Conference in Orlando, Florida.

"Although we're used to thinking of topical products as adjunct treatments used in addition to antibiotics, that thinking has changed, and dermatologists are now advocating that topicals be used instead of antibiotics wherever possible."

Not only do topical products kill even drug-resistant bacteria, he said, but reducing antibiotic use can protect human health by reducing the development of even more resistant bacteria. Topical treatments also address the skin barrier defect that human medical research suggests is the primary cause of AD.

"Historically, AD was viewed as a disease that began on the 'inside' of the individual -- the immune system," DeBoer said. "More recently, this 'inside-outside' view has come into some question, and a different view is evolving."

That different view includes something that might surprise dog owners: weekly or even daily baths and topical "leave-ons" that are designed to repair the skin's barrier defect.

One obstacle to this simple therapy is that many pet owners believe frequent bathing will dry out a dog's skin, thus making his itching worse.

"That's a widespread misconception, and I wish it wasn't still out there," said board-certified veterinary dermatologist Dr. John Plant. "We know that bathing removes allergens and infectious agents like bacteria and yeast, and helps restore epidermal function in humans. Can it do the same in dogs? It's a bit unclear, but I've observed it helps a lot with my atopic patients. Some can even be controlled that way alone."

Of course, there's still a place for oral medications in the treatment of canine skin disease, but when it comes to AD, suds, not drugs, may be just what the doctor ordered.


Cat up a tree?

Why he can't get down

Q: We live in a wooded area, and our cat has access to the outdoors. As we were coming up our driveway one evening, the headlights shone on our cat, who had treed a possum twice his size. Despite his hunting prowess, though, he was having trouble getting down from the tree. How come cats can go up a tree, but not down? -- via email

A: A cat's claws anchor him as he races up a tree (think rock-climbing crampons), but they're not so convenient when he's trying to make his way back down. While a cat is graceful and quick on the way up, he moves much more cautiously and awkwardly in the opposite direction. That's because digging the claws into the trunk on a downward trajectory can result in clunky movement that more closely resembles a series of semi-controlled crashes instead of the smooth moves that took the cat upward.

What should you do if your kitten or cat is stuck up a tree? Some people stick by the notion that the cat will come down when he's darn good and ready, but most of us are more softhearted than that, especially when the weather is cold or wet. The easiest and least expensive method is to open a can of cat food while standing beneath the tree and hope the aroma wafting upward is enough to tempt him down.

You can try calling the fire department. If you're in a small town and the firefighters are having a slow day, they might come out and offer assistance -- but don't count on it. There's a good chance they're prohibited by statute from using their equipment for anything other than fires or human rescues.

I once rented a bucket truck to rescue a cat in a tree jam. That's extreme, but in some instances, it may be the only way to get your cat back on terra firma. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


Small turtles tied to

salmonella outbreak

-- Four multistate outbreaks of human salmonella infections have been linked to contact with small pet turtles or their habitats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and other public health, veterinary, agriculture and wildlife agencies. The shelled reptiles may look healthy, but they shed salmonella germs in their feces. Turtles with shells smaller than four inches in diameter are a well-known source of human salmonella infection, and their sale is banned, but people still acquire them. When humans -- especially children or people with compromised immune systems -- touch the turtles or come in contact with water or other areas where they've been, they can become infected. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling or caring for any reptile.

-- Back to the future? We know from archaeological digs that it wasn't unusual thousands of years ago for animals and humans to be buried together, but over the millennia, the practice came to be frowned upon. Now the New York state legislature has passed a bill that would give people the option of being interred with the cremated remains of a pet, although cemeteries wouldn't be required to permit the practice. The bill must be signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to go into effect.

-- Legal eagles have finally started to recognize that dogs have more than sentimental value to their humans. Georgia's supreme court ruled recently that in cases of a pet's injury or death arising from another party's negligence, owners may try to recoup costs incurred trying to save the animal, as well as the animal's market value. Factors that may be used to determine market value include qualitative and quantitative opinion evidence, such as breed, age, training, temperament and use. In the case ruled upon, the owners are seeking to recover more than $67,000 spent to treat their dog, Lola, after a kennel gave her the wrong medication. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.

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