Summertime Skin Problems

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

The skin that covers the body of all mammals is quite an amazing organ. Skin disease is one of the most common health problems that can affect our pets. Summer is a season when a number of skin problems are more likely to occur. Here are some of the more frequently seen problems in our area and how you can help your pet deal with them.

Fleas and ticks: We must never forget the trouble these two skin parasites can cause for dogs and cats. They can be terribly irritating, causing pets to scratch, lick or bite at parts of their body where these parasites are located. Fleas are probably the most common cause for hypersensitivity or allergic dermatitis in pets. Pets with this problem are made doubly itchy and usually cause enough damage to the skin from self-trauma to allow secondary bacterial infection of the skin to occur. Swallowing a flea when a pet is biting or licking their skin can lead to tapeworm infections. Ticks can also spread other diseases with their bite. Fortunately there are now very effective flea preventive and treatment medications available for pets. There is a tick collar that works best to safeguard against ticks. Any pet that may be exposed to outside areas where these parasites can be picked up should have protective measures in place.

Sunburn: A dense haircoat protects most small animals from excessive exposure to sunlight. In some dogs, the skin is pigmented, which also protects from ultraviolet radiation damage. However, whenever nonpigmented, unhaired skin is exposed to sunlight, sun damage can result. Predisposed areas include ear tips in white cats, the body underpants in breeds like Dalmatians and bull terriers and other hairless areas. Protection from the sun can be achieved by staying indoors from 10 AM to 4PM, Tanning the skin and by using sunscreens. For use in animals, water-resistant sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or greater should be used.

Hot Spots: Pyotraumatic dermatitis or acute moist dermatitis is the proper name for this commonly encountered summertime skin problem. It develops when an animal bites or scratches at a part of the body, attempting to relieve some pain or itch. Flea allergies or other allergic skin diseases, anal sac problems, dirty unkempt coats, ear infections, foreign bodies in the haircoat, psychoses and  painful musculoskeletal disorders may be the cause of initiating the self-trauma. The intense trauma can produce large, red, moist skin lesions in only a few hours. Animals with a dense undercoat such as Golden and Labrador retrievers, Collies, German Shepherds and St. Bernards are particularly susceptible. The problem is much more common in hot humid weather and lack of ventilation in the coat may be a significant factor in development of the problem. Veterinary care is usually necessary when hot spots occur. Preventive measures may include having some medications on hand to use early in the course of the problem if an individual suffers recurrences.

Squamous cell carcinoma: This malignant tumour of the skin can occur on the ear tips and is more common in cats than dogs. It is most likely to occur in cats with white or light-coloured hair and skin. Prolonged sunlight exposure is an important cause of this kind of cancer. It is first noticed as crusty, eczematous lesions that develop at the edges of the ear flap. With time the condition worsens as it proliferates and ulcerates. Surgical removal of the affected area is the only treatment.

Atopy or Atopic dermatitis: Also called allergic inhalant dermatitis this is a genetically influenced disease that is much more common in dogs than cats. It occurs when an animal becomes sensitized to something in their environment that does not bother nonatopic animals. The sensitizing substances can be pollens (grasses, weeds and trees), moulds, house dust mites and many other environmental allergens. Animals with this problem may suffer all year long but summer means increased exposure to certain trigger substances. There are certain breeds that definitely have increased likelihood of becoming atopic; West Highland white terriers, wire-haired fox terriers, golden retrievers, Cairn terriers, Dalmatians and Scottish terriers being some of these breeds. Affected animals experience extreme itchiness, especially at the extreme body parts - the feet, face, ears and tail. They will continuously lick, scratch or bite at these areas. Often this reaction will cause secondary problems to develop, hair loss and bacterial infection being two of the most common. Treatment will include the use of anti-histamines, steroid medications, immunotherapy, including hyposensitization, frequent bathing and diet supplements.

Summer is a great time of year but be on the lookout for skin problems that may affect the pleasure your pet enjoys in this season.