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Recently I was asked to answer an “ask the vet” question:
My 3 year old mini. schnauzer constantly licks his paws. I tell him to stop but he ignores me. He is always licking his paws, mainly the front 2, but at times the back paws as well. His fur around his paws have become discolored from the constant licking. He probably licks his paws 12 hours a day. I took him to the vet and they don’t really know. They gave him some topical cream which did not work. I put some bitter tasting lotion on his paws, but that didn’t deter him either. After every walk, I clean his paws off with water and unscented baby wipes. I try to play with him but at times he’ll stop playing and start licking his paws. I don’t want to continue bringing him to the vet as this could get very expensive. This problem started happening around the time my son was born. We take him to doggy day care occasionally to socialize with other dogs. I don’t know what the cause could be? My dog is currently eating Canidae, dry food.
Here is the answer in all of its glory:
Allergic skin disease is the most common reason for dogs to visit my practice and foot licking is one of the most common symptoms of allergies in dogs. While allergies in people typically manifest themselves as sneezing, watery eyes and sinus congestion, allergies in dogs cause itchiness. Where on the body the itchiness is, depends upon the type of allergy that we are dealing with and there are 3 distinct allergies in dogs.
The most common allergy by far in dogs is called flea allergy dermatitis. Symptoms of this allergy which affects up to 90% of allergic dogs, are chewing at the tail base and thighs, licking the belly and scratching with the back legs on the flanks. You can spot dogs with flea allergy a mile away by the classic symptoms of sudden itchiness on the back end that results with them chewing on themselves as if they were just bit by something. That behavior is due to the allergy to the saliva of the flea that has been deposited under the skin when they were bitten by the little suckers. Dogs that have an allergy to flea bites can be itchy for up to 3 weeks from one bite. Many times it is difficult for people to come to grips that their dog has a flea allergy due to the fact that they do not see any fleas on their pet, in their house or on themselves. Unfortunately, we live in one of the worst areas in the country for fleas due to the high number of wildlife animals and the lack of a significant freeze.
As a reminder from the last “Ask The Vet” question, the most effective flea control is Comfortis, which is an oral tablet that can be given once monthly, has the fastest flea kill at under 30 minutes and is the only “green” flea prescription. Despite misinformation on the internet, this medication is extremely safe, but does cause vomiting in a very small number of patients. Another option is to use Frontline or Advantage every 3 weeks but the downside to these topical chemicals is that they take several hours to kill fleas. I am not impressed with the effectiveness of Revolution, Vectra, Promeris, Sentinel or Program for flea control.
Affecting at least 25% of allergic dogs, the next most common allergy in dogs is an environmental allergy. This severe form of “hayfever” actually affects dogs in a very different way than people and causes them to be itchy on their feet, face and underbelly. Notice that there is a distinct difference in the regions of itchiness with this allergy compared to flea allergy dermatitis. The way that environmental allergies work is that the dogs come in direct contact with the offending allergen or breathe them in. The allergens then get attacked by an immune system that believes that it needs to fight off the outside invaders, but this is a futile effort of course. The result then is that the immune complexes (the antigen and the immune attackers combined) float around in the bloodstream and eventually land in areas of special skin in the dog and cause severe itchiness. These areas of special skin are feet, muzzle and sometimes underbelly. More uncommonly, itching will be seen around the eyes, nose and genitals.
The last type of allergy is food allergy. While I do believe that grain is a significant problem for dogs to eat and can absolutely contribute to allergies, true food allergy (an allergy to the protein source) is extremely rare in dogs, only accounting for about 3% of allergic dogs. The distribution of itchiness is very similar to the dogs with environmental allergies (feet, face and underbelly.)
As a brief aside, ear infections are exceedingly common with all skin allergies, especially environmental allergies. It is one of the most frustrating conditions for owners to deal with due to the fact that sometimes veterinarians do not seek to identify the true source of the ear infections (allergies) and the ear infections just continue to come back time after time.
Treating environmental allergies also offers some distinct challenges. The medications are either ineffective, have too many side effects or are expensive. There really are only 5 options in dealing with allergies in dogs.
1. Holistic: Grain free food and Omega-3 supplementation. I covered grain before and the old article can be viewed here: http://tinyurl.com/petudt. Omega 3 Fatty Acids are potent natural anti-inflammatories and decrease the allergy at the cellular level, before the cycle gets started. There is a new product on the market that takes advantage of the much more potent source of omegas called the Green Lipped Mussel from New Zealand. The product is called Moxxor and makes a huge difference managing these cases. More information can be obtained here: www.omegas4pets.com.
2. Cortisone: Corticosteroids are the strongest anti-inflammatories around and are frequently used for allergy treatment in dogs. The upside is that they work quickly to decrease the symptoms; the downside is that long term use causes too many side effects to list here. This is not a long term option to consider.
3. Antihistamines: In my experience, antihistamines have a failure rate of about 80%. If they help they must continue to be administered to give relief. These medications are extremely safe and inexpensive.
4. Allergy testing and Immunotherapy: Lots of people want to know what their dog is allergic to. I believe that these tests are an expensive exercise to satisfy owner curiosity. However, the information can be used to formulate injections to desensitize dogs to the allergens identified. Unfortunately, the shots only work about 50% of the time and in varying amounts. Additionally, they are really expensive and the owner must commit to trying them for a year prior to giving up. I have not chosen to use this therapy since I started using the next option, Atopica.
5. Atopica (cyclosporin) is a an immune modulating medication that came to market about 5 years ago. This medication blocks the T-helper cells, which is a small branch of the immune system. This selective immune modulation is part of the reason why this medication is so effective and has minimal side effects. Additionally, Atopica attains higher concentrations in the skin, which obviously creates a huge benefit when dealing with skin allergies. Atopica has a success rate of at least 95% after two months but is extremely expensive.
More information on skin allergies in dogs can be obtained by viewing these two videos: http://tinyurl.com/kuq2sy.
So, in answer to the short question, you got another long answer. Here is the short version: Foot licking in dogs is caused by environmental allergies about 95% of the time. The remaining 5% is composed mostly of food allergy dogs and rarely those with obsessive compulsive disorders.
Dr. Matthew Wheaton
Alicia Pet Care Center
25800 Jeronimo Rd. Ste 100
Mission Viejo, CA 92691
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