January 5, 2011

Itchy skin problems are among the top reasons dogs and cats are taken to the vet. The skin is an organ and is often the only outward reflection of upset on the inside. With a truly holistic approach, the entire body can be restored to optimal health, which is reflected in the condition of the hair and skin.

A lackluster, brittle or coarse coat, dandruff and red, bumpy, scaly or oily skin can be signs of problems that go more than skin deep. Toxins can build up in a pet’s system – either from excessive western medications or a poor quality diet – and affect the body’s internal systems.

Hot spots are painful, red eruptions that can occur anywhere on the body. These are localized ‘concentrated’ lesions, which can become worse when the dog licks it to try to relieve the itching. Depending on the breed of dog and the severity of the hot spot, the hair may become matted over the area or fall out completely. Any time your dog is licking at one localized area for a prolonged time, investigate to see if a hot spot is brewing.

In the summer, fleas or environmental / contact allergies may be the culprit – many pets are sensitive to flea saliva as well as certain types of pollen, grass and weeds. Traveling to new areas can also play havoc with a sensitive pup, if he comes into contact with new environmental allergens, to which he hasn’t previously been exposed. Other possible irritants in the home include detergents used to wash blankets and bedding, household cleaners, or sprays used in the yard. Topical flea medications can cause skin itching (and other health problems).

Any time a non-seasonal bout of itching crops up, it’s worthwhile to look back at what might have been different for your pup in recent days or weeks. Did you switch to a new fabric softener or get your carpets cleaned? Did you visit a new place and let your pup romp in a field where the flowers were blooming?

One common cause that’s often over looked is diet. Food sensitivities are abundant in almost every breed, possibly due to genetics or the fact that many animals are fed the same food for months or even years on end, with no variety in ingredients or alternative sources of nutrition. Skin lesions or itching along with red and inflamed ears and possibly diarrhea, are classic signs of food allergies. A dull, coarse ‘staring’ coat and / or oily, smelly skin are hallmarks of a poor quality diet being fed.

One of the most common causes of food hyper-sensitivity in pets is grain. Lots of pets are especially sensitive to gluten, which can cause an inflammatory response that manifests itself as itchy skin or red and inflamed feet, GI Upset or persistent ear infections. Grain fractions such as corn gluten are even more problematic than whole grains.

Using food to help the skin

A grain-free diet is an excellent first step in combating skin problems. Many commercial pet foods are overloaded with processed and genetically modified grains, which also contains lots of gluten.

If it’s not possible to feed a completely no-grain diet, then one with only organic, whole-grains would be the next best choice. Grain fractions (gluten, husks, hulls etc) can be more problematic than the whole grain. Another factor is that organic food, by definition, cannot be genetically modified. One school of thought is that genetically modified grains are more likely to cause an adverse reaction in a sensitive pet; studies show that when butterflies and other species come in contact with pollen from genetically modified crops, they suffer a number of health problems and genetic mutations eventually occur. It’s possible that a similar thing happens when other species consume genetically modified grains – especially species whose systems aren’t designed to cope with a grain overload in the first place.

Some pets are sensitive to ingredients other than grain, such as certain meats, vegetables, fruits or eggs. These sensitivities are generally less common, and in fact a pet that seems to be allergic to a certain meat, say chicken, because she gets itchy every time she eats her chicken flavored kibble, may actually be just fine when eating real, home-prepared raw or lightly cooked chicken. The problem is high-heat processing, which alters the amino acid structure, making the protein problematic in its processed form because the body doesn’t recognize it.

Although a lamb and rice diet is often recommended for dogs with skin sensitivities, lamb is actually once of the worst possible meats to feat a ‘hot’ itchy dog according to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, because it is a warming ‘yang’ food. Instead, cooling ‘yin’ or neutral foods should be served – including white fish, turkey, duck or beef.

A natural, minimally processed diet that’s also free of chemical preservatives and fillers, can help to combat itchy skin, from the inside out. Pet guardians are usually delighted with the results they see when switching to better quality food and under veterinary supervision, they may even be able to start reducing the long-term steroids and antibiotics they’ve had to administer to their pets. Many cats and dogs show a noticeable improvement in just a few days after starting a no-grain diet.

The most common, conventional approach to treating itchy skin and chronic ear infections is to medicate with antibiotics, steroid-injections and sometimes harsh, topical products. Though effective for treating the symptom of itchiness itself, some steroids like Cortisone can actually weaken the immune system, liver and kidneys which in turn can make a dog more vulnerable to infection and metabolic problems. Many prescription creams and lotions can be overly drying to the skin or ears, and exacerbate the problem in the long term.

Natural skin remedies

A more integrative plan looks at what is causing the problem, and helps the body to heal itself by boosting up the immune system and as far as possible, reducing exposure to the substances that’s causing the problem – and providing natural relief with supplements that don’t have too many adverse side effects.

The homeopathic remedy sulfur in the 30c potency is indicated for eczema-like rashes and other skin complaints. Or, for more complex problems, a consultation with a homeopathic vet can help pinpoint the constitutional remedy that’s right for your individual pup.

A single dose of homeopathic psorinum is helpful for animals who feel chilly but are very itchy with lots of slow-to-heal scabs accompanied by a putrid smell, moist skin and itchy ears.

For a natural treatment that works wonders from the outside, in – calendula is the herb of choice. A tea made by steeping calendula flowers in hot water and then applying to problem areas after it has cooled, can soothe and promote healing at amazing speed. Many calendula-based gels, sprays and lotions available at good quality health stores are also excellent and do a great job.

Aloe vera is another soothing herb that can be used topically. Many pet guardians grow aloe in pots at home and cut off a piece when skin problems arise; a gel is emitted when this succulent plant is cut, and this gel can be rubbed right onto the skin.

Witch hazel is helpful for skin irritation that occurs in conjunction with pustules.

Natural, chemical-free oatmeal shampoos are also super-soothing to the skin and helping to reduce redness (be sure to rinse thoroughly). A natural oatmeal bath can also be very helpful. Simply add a few large handfuls of rolled oats to some hot water and pour over your pup once cooled – or place the oats in some muslin cloth and immerse in the bath water itself to create a milky soak, in which to stand your pup. Frequent bathing is not recommended for pups with skin and coat problems – once a month at most, is all that’s required.

Dandelion greens, celery, spinach and lettuce are all cooling foods which are recommended to help with skin eruptions. Since the liver is often out of balance when skin problems surface, nourishing herbs such as nettle are also recommended.

Supplementation with vitamin C, as well as a good quality fish or plant-based oil that’s rich in omega 3 and 6 EFA’s (essential fatty acids) can be very helpful for the skin and coat. Vitamin C is found in abundantly in herbs such as rosehips.

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Check out some other articles about natural remedies for itchy dog skin and coat problems:
Herbal Remedies for Joints, Bumps & Bruises
Fleas: An Eco-Friendly Approach to Management
12 Tips for Beating Fleas Naturally

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