by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
What does one have to do to plan for summer? Well, better make sure your gardening equipment is all in good working order. Hopefully, there will be some vacation planning to do. Of course, you will want to be sure your pet is protected against heartworm, fleas and ticks. In addition, if you happen to be a veterinarian, you had better be prepared to deal with skin problems in your patients. There's no question about it, summer is the season for skin disorders to become more common for our pets.
There are likely several reasons for this fact. Pets are outdoors more often. This means they are exposed to many things that can cause skin problems - skin parasites, insects allergens, mechanical and chemical irritants. Even things like sunshine and water can cause trouble. Of course, there are also a number of diseases that affect other organ systems, but the skin may be the place where signs of such a problem are most easily noticed.
Fortunately, most skin diseases are able to diagnosed and successfully treated by veterinarians. As with any disease, it is very important that an accurate diagnosis be achieved in order to successfully treat and manage skin problems. There are a number of things a veterinarian will always need to do in the proper diagnosis of a pet's skin troubles. One of the most important things will be to get from the owner an accurate history detailing the nature of the problem - when did it begin, has it changed since it was first noticed, how is the pet's health otherwise. That is why it is so important for an owner to know their pet well. A thorough physical examination of the pet will be performed by the veterinarian. That examination will certainly include, but not be limited to, the skin itself.
In many cases there will be other tests a veterinarian may recommend for a pet with skin problems. If itchiness is a problem, a skin scraping should always be done. It is the best way to determine if skin parasites may be the cause of the problem. Microscopic examination of hair samples from the pet will be necessary to check for yeast infections of the skin. Cultures may be collected in attempts to identify bacterial or fungal infections that cause skin problems. Blood tests may be helpful, especially if other organ systems may be involved with the problem.
A less common, but sometimes essential part of a proper diagnosis is a skin biopsy. This test has the potential to provide the most information in the shortest period of time. Many people are concerned when they hear the word biopsy, worried that skin cancer may be involved. While it is true that a biopsy is usually a part of dealing with that disease, it also is an important diagnostic aid with many other skin disorders. At a minimum a skin biopsy can put the skin disease into one or more of the following groups: a disease due to an infection; an immune system disorder; hormone influenced disease; allergies; cancer. If the biopsy is not able to assist in pin-pointing a specific skin disease, it may be very helpful, once initial classification is made, in identifying other tests or procedures needed to make a final diagnosis.
A skin biopsy usually involves collecting two or three small pieces ( approximately 0.4 mm - 0.8 mm in diameter) of skin from, or near, affected skin areas. Often these sample can be collected using a local anesthetic to numb the area, perhaps with a sedative to assist in relaxing the patient. In certain areas of the body or if a larger sized biopsy is needed, a general anesthetic may be required. Preserved skin samples are submitted to a dermatopathologist (a pathologist specially qualified to deal with skin problems) for evaluation.
Once accurately diagnosed, an appropriate treatment plan for a pet's skin problem can be developed. Both the pet and their veterinarian will enjoy a better summer once improvement is achieved. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca