Chronic itchy skin, hot-spots, dandruff and a smelly, oily coat, are the bane of a worrying number of dogs, and can become chronic problems that cause years of pain and discomfort if the underlying cause isn’t pinpointed and addressed. Itchiness on the outside is often a sign of a problem that goes more than skin deep.
While the conventional approach to treating itchy skin and chronic ear infections is to medicate with antibiotics, steroid-injections and sometimes harsh, topical products, the side effects can almost be more harmful than the original problem, and the conventional ‘treatment’ doesn’t usually bring about a true cure – it merely masks the symptoms. 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.
In contrast, a more integrative or holistic 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.
First, let’s look at some of the causes of skin problems in dogs.
In the summer, fleas or environmental / contact allergies may be the culprit. Many pets are sensitive to certain types of grass and weeds - and traveling to new areas can also play havoc with a sensitive pup, if he comes into contact with new environmental allergens like pollens, to which he hasn’t previously been exposed.
Reactions to the environment
Any time a ‘non-seasonal’ bout of itching crops up, it’s worthwhile to look back at what might have been different in your dog’s environment in recent days or weeks. Did you switch to a new laundry detergent or fabric softener to wash his bedding, or get your carpets cleaned? Other possible irritants in the home include detergents used to clean upholstery, household cleaners (especially those used on floors where your dog may lie for extended periods of time), as well as sprays used in the yard.
One common cause that’s often overlooked by pet owners, is diet. Food sensitivities are prevalent in almost every breed, possibly due to genetics or that fact that many animals are fed the same food for months or even years on end, with no variety in ingredients, which in turn can deplete the immune system and make the animal more prone to ‘reacting’ to the diet.
One of the most common causes of food sensitivity in pets, is grain. Lots of pets are 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.
A grain-free diet is a great first stop in helping them to overcome this problem that can be uncomfortable for the pet - and frustrating and upsetting for the whole family.
If it’s not possible to feed a diet that’s completely devoid of grain, the next best step is to choose a food with only organic, whole-grains rather than highly processed simple carbohydrates or grain fractions. Grain fractions (gluten, husks, hulls etc) can be more problematic than the whole grain because the body may not recognize a food that has been industrially broken apart from its natural state.
Besides being free of chemical pesticides and other compounds that may harm your dog, organic food, by definition, cannot be genetically modified. One school of thought is that GM 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 is possible that a similar thing happens when other species consume GM grains – especially species whose systems aren’t designed to cope with a grain overload in the first place.
Some dogs are sensitive to ingredients other than grain, such as particular meats, vegetables or herbs. These sensitivities are generally less common, and in fact a pet who 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 that alters the amino acid structure, making the protein problematic in its processed form.
In general, lamb is not recommended for dogs with red, hot, itchy and inflamed skin conditions; in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) lamb is a warming Yang food that can exacerbate hot red conditions, especially where the animal is panting a lot and seeking out cool areas.
Food allergy testing or an elimination diet may be necessary to definitively pinpoint which foods your dog can and can’t tolerate.
A natural diet can enhance and support a healthy immune system in its own right. Supplementation with antioxidants can also help a pup to get out of her weakened, vulnerable state. Adding antioxidants to the diet a few weeks ahead of a planned trip may give the system the boost it needs to bolster its natural defenses against environmental pollutants, which can trigger off an itch. Some antioxidants like vitamin C have natural anti-inflammatory properties, too.
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 gels, sprays and lotions, which can be found in most good quality health stores are also excellent and do a great job at helping to sooth and calm skin irritation and hot spots.
Zinc based creams are also helpful, and can help to promote hair re-growth in the case of excessive hair loss and hot spots.
Natural, chemical-free oatmeal shampoos are also super-soothing to the skin and helping to reduce redness (be sure to rinse thoroughly). A natural ‘home made’ oatmeal bath can also be very helpful. Simply add a few large handfuls of rolled oats to a large pan of hot water, allow to cool and pour over your dog in the tub, 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 dog.
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.
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Foods, supplements and natural topical products, all form part of an over-arching ‘holistic’ plan to combat itchy skin and ear infections. Always consult a veterinarian to provide guidance on the plan that’s right for your individual dog. To find a holistic vet who’s open to the idea of using a natural diet and other more moderate approaches that reduce dependency on long-term steroids and other medications, the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association is a great resource.
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