Healthy cats and dogs are not itchy, smelly, flaky or constantly trying to scratch or bite at their fur. If your pet is displaying any of these tell-tale signals, it’s a major sign that something is out of balance in their system.
When all systems in your pet’s body are humming along in balance, their skin, eyes, ears, and digestive system are protected by their immune substances (IgA). In other words, your dog and cat feel good.
In a healthy animal (dog, cat, or human) normal inhabitants of the skin coexist in harmony, each doing their jobs and living their lives in a symbiotic relationship.
If an animal’s immune system is under more stress than it can manage, this symbiotic relationship can fall out of balance and skin problems -- hot spots, rashes, yeast overgrowth and bacterial infections -- can result.
Conventional medical intervention includes antihistamines, antibiotics, and steroids. All of these medications modify and suppress the immune system, and although sometimes required, your goal should be to help your pet’s immune system work properly, not to suppress it.
With species-appropriate nutrition, appropriate bathing and proper exercise, many animals regain their health and thrive without drugs.
“Allergic” Skin Problems
Skin infections and hotspots are usually caused by the Staphylococcus bacteria that normally inhabit the skin. While generally harmless, if your pet’s skin is irritated and itchy, it’s a sign that something has gone wrong.-- such as there may not be enough of the immunoglobin IgA protecting the skin.
Though it may sound surprising, one common underlying cause of an IgA deficiency on the skin is over-utilization of IgA in the gut. This happens when things are not well balanced in your pet’s gastrointestinal tract, so the IgA is needed more there, and there’s not enough left over to protect the skin.
Antibiotics and other medications that decrease gastrointestinal permeability can all contribute to an imbalance in your pet’s gut, so if your animal has taken any such drugs I recommend you provide a source of beneficial bacteria, to “re-seed” the intestinal tract and bolster GI defenses.
Is Yeast Overgrowth Harming Your Pet?
Yeast also naturally inhabit your pet’s skin, but when the proper balance is disturbed they can multiply rapidly and cause skin and ear problems. You’ll know your dog or cat has yeast if he starts smelling like a corn chip (some think cheese popcorn).Yeast causes intense itching and can grow in localized areas -- causing a creamy white accumulation between toes -- in the ears, or can affect the whole body.
An overgrowth of yeast is a signal that your pet’s immune system is not functioning well, as well as an indication your pet needs a good probiotic.
Often, there is a dietary connection as well, so if you suspect yeast overgrowth it’s a good time to try and eliminate extra carbohydrates (corn, wheat, rice, soy) from your pet’s diet. You see, yeast need sugar (carbs) as an energy source and reducing your pet’s intake of unnecessary carbohydrates reduces the yeast’s “fuel.”
Symptoms of Skin Allergies in Your Pet
Skin allergies cause a variety of symptoms in animals, such as:
- Fur may feel “sticky”
- Lots of flakes on the skin despite the fact your pet feels greasy
- Red spots with little white heads, which often have black areas around them
- Red, inflamed skin covering large areas of the body
- Your pet may act like his or her skin is crawling
Your dog might also lick her legs or chew her pads, and there may be inflamed spots between toes, in armpits and inner legs. “Hot Spots,” or localized moist skin infections, can seem to appear in an instant and can spread at an alarming rate. These oozing sores are extremely painful and can easily become infected.
If your pet’s immune system is highly reactive, environmental substances (ragweed, grass, pollen, mold) animals pick up just by walking outside can even provide enough irritating substances to cause a reaction.
Remember, animals don’t shower daily to remove these allergens and they don’t wear protective clothing and shoes to keep allergens at bay. The resulting allergic reaction is actually one reason why elderly animals and those in poor health often exude an unpleasant fragrance.
Common sense 101: Keep Skin Clean
If you have a rash, scab, infection, or injury to your skin, you don’t have much question about what to do -- you keep it clean! The same is true for dogs and cats. Your animals will feel better, smell better, and heal faster if their skin is kept clean. However, in the case of cats, they may not be happier -- bathing is not usually on their list of favorite activities!
Pets with Allergies Need Baths!
Why don’t you wash your animals more often? Because you have been told not to, or because it’s one more thing to add to your busy life. You may also have read that you will disturb the balance of your pet’s skin if you wash them too much, and their skin will get dried out.
The truth is, healthy animals may not need frequent bathing, and over-bathing with harsh shampoos can cause dry skin.
However, animals with skin problems often need baths several times a week in a medicated shampoo to reduce the bacterial load on their skin, reduce irritation and inflammation and provide a low cost, effective form of relief.
But each animal is different.
Bathe your pets when they need it, as in when they are stinky, dirty, greasy or irritated. I find many dogs in the height of the “allergy” season find significant relief by rinsing off their itchy parts daily or every other day. Doctors call this form of treatment “irrigation therapy” … I call it “rinsing off the allergens.”
Between baths, rinsing problem areas that are not infected can be extremely soothing as well. Cats especially appreciate this therapy! Localized inflamed areas may be washed without washing the whole animal, and this may help to stretch the interval between baths.
For example, if your dog has irritated and inflamed feet, you can devise a simple system to immerse one foot at a time in a bowl of cool water (see my Foot Soak article for more details). You can also soak itchy, irritated paws in a few inches of cool water in your bathtub or kitchen sink, depending on the size of your dog or cat.
Tips on Choosing Shampoos
From the wide variety of commercial pet shampoos available, choose as you do for yourself, trying to avoid toxic ingredients.
Also avoid shampoos that include oatmeal. Oatmeal has a great reputation as a soothing ingredient, but in animals that have a problem with grain (which is 80 percent plus of allergic dogs!) they are likely to have problems with oatmeal shampoos. Grain-based shampoos may also provide a carbohydrate food source for unwanted yeast and bacteria. The only pets that truly benefit from oatmeal shampoos are those that have poison oak or poison ivy reactions.
“Healthy” shampoos that include essential oils should be used with caution on cats, but they are usually fine for dogs. There are a variety of animal herbal shampoos on the market that are non-drying and safe to use on a very regular basis (several times a week).
And remember, do NOT use human shampoos on pets ... our pH is different. Always test shampoo first on a very small area if you are concerned about your pet reacting.
Options for Rinses
There are several great options for soothing post-bath rinses that can reduce skin irritation and extend time between baths. All homemade rinses should not be used above the head and neck (do not get shampoo or rinses in ears or eyes).
If your dog is stinky (yeasty), consider a vinegar or lemon rinse:
Disinfecting Vinegar Rinse
- Add 1 cup vinegar to 1 gallon water.
- Pour over dog (from the neck down).
- Rub into skin and towel dry.
- Do not rinse off.
Deodorizing Lemon Rinse*
- Cut one lemon in thin slices and boil in one quart water for 10 minutes.
- Cover and let stand for 3 hours until cool.
- After shampooing, pour solution over your dog (from the neck down) and massage into skin.
- Avoid eyes. Towel dry. Do not rinse off.
*Applying lemon rinse to dark-coated dogs can lighten their hair color if they spend lots of time in the sun. This is not a health hazard, but important to note.
If your dog or cat is prone to hotspots, skin infections or pimples, try this rinse:
Povadone Iodine Rinse*
- Add 1 cup povadone iodine (also called “Betadine” or 1% iodine solution from local pharmacies) to 1 gallon rinse water.
- Pour over pet from the neck down, towel dry and do not rinse off.
*This solution is iced tea color and will turn white dogs and cats off white. This is not a health hazard, but important to note.
If your dog or cat is restless or irritated from generalized itchiness, try this rinse:
Herbal Tea Rinse
- Add 5 green, chamomile or Tulsi tea bags to 2 quarts very hot water, steep until water is cool (I recommend 3 hours to allow for the maximum amount of polyphenols to exit the teabag and enter the water).
- Remove tea bags and pour over pet from the neck down.
- Massage into skin and do not rinse.
- You can also refrigerate used tea bags for a soothing topical poultice for hotspots or rashes.
Critical Points for Successful and Pleasant Bath Time
Wash thoroughly! Use comfortably warm water, not too hot. On very hot days, many dogs enjoy cool water, which can also reduce inflammation and irritation. Many dogs look forward to a cool hose bath in the front yard on hot, humid days.
Some pet owners have asked me if it’s okay to bathe their dog using a garden hose, since some hoses may contain lead. I believe as long as your water source is healthy, bathing your pet with a hose in the summer is a fine option. Wet your dog completely and consider pre-diluting your shampoo 50:50 with water to help spread it more easily over your dog.
Dogs with water-repellent coats (Labradors, poodles, retrievers, and Portuguese Water Dogs) are sometimes hard to get really wet, so diluted shampoo makes the job easier.
Be gentle! Keep soap out of eyes and ears. Irritated skin is delicate and easily injured. Animals will be worried that you are going to cause them pain -- do your best to keep bath time fun and stress-free. Hot spots in particular are exquisitely painful, so consider gently blotting sensitive areas with a shampoo-moistened sponge. Remember to wash paws and toes well.
Rinse, and rinse, and rinse! Soap left on skin is very irritating. If you choose to use one of my homemade soothing rinses, do it while in the tub.
Drying and trimming. Wring out as much water as you can before towel drying. Some coats air-dry very nicely, others require work. Human hair dryers are not appropriate unless used with a “NO HEAT” setting! Allow some distance between the dryer and the animal. Trim back your pet’s fur around any sores or scabby areas to allow air to get to the skin and to help these areas dry faster.
Stay away from “hot spots” with the dryer. Of course professional grooming is sometimes needed. Take your herbal shampoo and rinse to the groomer and ask them to please use them on your pet. Ask the groomer to not use any fragrances or sprays on your allergic pet.
Some animals benefit from a close cut during the summer. This makes keeping an eye on skin much easier, but remember hair is a great insulator from the sun directly contacting the skin. Although shaving dogs down will allow you to see what’s going on underneath all that hair, it also causes changes in their ability to thermo-regulate and allows allergens closer contact to their sensitive skin.
By taking the time to properly bathe your pet, engage him in regular exercise and feed him a high-quality, species-appropriate diet, it’s very likely that his skin problems will clear up naturally ... and your pet will be itch-free in no time!