By Dr. Becker
If your dog suffers from itchy skin, either seasonally or year-round, he’s not alone. Atopic dermatitis (the technical name for itchy skin) is a growing problem in today’s pets, especially dogs.
Canine atopic dermatitis (CAD) is a condition in which a dog’s skin is very itchy and can develop lesions, especially if he scratches a lot. CAD is most often caused by a hypersensitivity to either food or environmental allergens, including pollens, molds, dust mites, and insect antigens. Holistic vets also find multiple chemical hypersensitivities can contribute to CAD.
Evidence-Based Research Proves Effectiveness of Non-Drug Treatment
One reason some animals suffer with itchy skin while others don’t has to do with how well the skin functions as a protective barrier against allergens. Epidermal barrier defects caused by loss of structural proteins in the outermost layers of the skin are thought to play a significant role in the development of atopic dermatitis in dogs and other animals (including humans).
Fortunately, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which include omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, have now been scientifically proven to have a beneficial effect on the epidermal barrier, probably because they are able to change the lipid composition of the skin.
The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for pets with atopic dermatitis has been well established in holistic veterinary circles for years, but it’s wonderful to see the traditional veterinary community doing evidence-based research on a natural remedy. This will hopefully lead to more veterinarians adding omega-3 supplements to treatment protocols for itchy patients, especially since PUFAs also have anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating effects.
Itchy Dogs Show Substantial Improvement with Drug-Free Spot-On Treatment
The goal of the study, which was conducted in Munich, Germany and published in the Veterinary Journal1 earlier this year, was to evaluate a spot-on formulation of PUFAs and essential oils on patients with canine atopic dermatitis.
There were 48 pet dogs in the study, and each received a spot-on (topical) application of either a placebo or PUFAs plus essential oils to the back of the neck once a week for eight weeks. The polyunsaturated fatty acids used were alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6). Essential oils included neem oil, rosemary extract, lavender oil, clove oil, tea tree oil, oregano extract, peppermint extract, and cedar bark extract.
The owners of the dogs reported itchiness scores before and after the study, and veterinarians determined skin lesion severity scores for each dog.
The results of the study showed that individual improvements in lesion and itchiness scores were significantly higher for dogs that received PUFAs and essential oils, and more of those dogs also showed a 50 percent or greater improvement in itchiness. Significantly more placebo-treated dogs deteriorated over the eight weeks (hopefully at the end of the study those poor dogs were also given the PUFAs/essential oils treatment).
No adverse effects were observed from the PUFAs and essential oils treatment.
“A safe long-term alternative.”
According to Clinician’s Brief:
“This study is the first to demonstrate clinical improvement in atopic dogs with a topical spot-on product. Although improvement was observed, complete remission was not. Thus, this product is likely to be an adjunct to other anti-inflammatory or immunomodulatory treatments, such as allergen-specific immunotherapy.”
“Although PUFAs are typically less efficacious than glucocorticoids and cyclosporine for CAD, they offered a safe long-term alternative and appeared useful as an adjunctive therapy.”
Glucocorticoids and cyclosporine are powerful drugs designed to suppress the immune system. That’s how they achieve “complete remission” in dogs with atopic dermatitis – but typically, symptom relief lasts only as long as the drugs are given. Once they are stopped, it’s a matter of time before the same or new symptoms reappear, because the underlying problem has not been addressed.
In addition, the side effects of these drugs can be devastating and include increased hunger and thirst, increased urination, lethargy, restlessness, mental confusion, GI problems including ulcers, hair loss, weight gain, a potbelly that often signals the presence of Cushing's disease, blood clots, diabetes, pancreatitis, and secondary infections. The last thing you want to do while trying to relieve your dog’s itchiness is create a much more serious, potentially life-threatening health crisis.
It’s important to try to discover the underlying cause of your pet’s atopic dermatitis, whether it’s dietary or environmental. Many integrative vets see tremendous improvement of CAD symptoms by eliminating pro-inflammatory and GMO sources of grains, unnecessary preservatives, synthetic vitamins and toxic processing techniques in addition to adding omega-3 essential fats to the diet. In the meantime, for symptom relief, I always opt for safe, natural remedies rather than immuno-suppressant drugs. You can find my recommendations for treating atopic dermatitis here, and also here.
Although the PUFAs/essential oils formulation used in the Munich study is not yet available commercially, the promising results achieved by the researchers demonstrate the potential for other undiscovered benefits of PUFAs and essential oils, in this case, the topical application of both.