The best treatment for your itchy pet may be only skin deep

When it comes to treating itchy skin and allergic skin disease in dogs, are some approaches all wet?

Itchy skin can drive dogs crazy. The sound of a dog slurping, chewing and scratching doesn’t do much for his owner, either. The quest for relief from these symptoms is one of the top reasons dogs are taken to the veterinarian.

Many pet owners expect the vet to prescribe anti-itch medications and antibiotics, and those drugs are often necessary. But an increasing body of research and clinical experience suggests the best approach to treating canine allergic skin disease and chronic infection is from the outside in.

Chronic allergic skin disease in dogs is known as atopic dermatitis, or AD. Dogs with this condition have a defect in their skin’s barrier, which allows substances like bacteria, yeast and pollens to leak into the deeper layers of the skin. Because the body perceives them as invaders, the immune system revs itself up to destroy them, bringing local inflammation to the area as part of the immune response.

That inflammation causes itching, redness and irritation, and dogs react to the discomfort by chewing and scratching their skin. That further damages the skin’s barrier, allowing more bacteria and yeast to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin, triggering more irritation, itching and inflammation.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, dogs can become allergic to the bacteria and yeast, setting off a cascade of itching and infection that leaves the dog hairless and in pain.

Worst of all, the antibiotics that have long been an integral part of treating skin infections are losing the battle with drug-resistant bacteria, particularly against the strains of staph commonly associated with canine AD.

So what’s a dog owner to do with her itchy pet?

“The new finding here is the effectiveness of topical therapy,” said board-certified veterinary dermatologist Dr. Douglas J. DeBoer of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in the proceedings of the 2016 NAVC Conference in Orlando, Fla.

“Although we’re used to thinking of topical products as adjunct treatments used in addition to antibiotics, that thinking has changed, and dermatologists are now advocating that topicals be used instead of antibiotics wherever possible.”

Not only do topical products kill even drug-resistant bacteria, he said, but reducing antibiotic use can protect human health by reducing the development of even more resistant bacteria. Topical treatments also address the skin barrier defect that human medical research suggests is the primary cause of AD.

“Historically, AD was viewed as a disease that began on the ‘inside’ of the individual – the immune system,” DeBoer said. “More recently, this ‘inside-outside’ view has come into some question, and a different view is evolving.”

That different view includes something that might surprise dog owners: weekly or even daily baths and topical “leave-ons” that are designed to repair the skin’s barrier defect.

One obstacle to this simple therapy is that many pet owners believe frequent bathing will dry out a dog’s skin, thus making his itching worse.

“That’s a widespread misconception, and I wish it wasn’t still out there,” said board-certified veterinary dermatologist Dr. John Plant. “We know that bathing removes allergens and infectious agents like bacteria and yeast, and helps restore epidermal function in humans. Can it do the same in dogs? It’s a bit unclear, but I’ve observed it helps a lot with my atopic patients. Some can even be controlled that way alone.”

Of course, there’s still a place for oral medications in the treatment of canine skin disease, but when it comes to AD, suds, not drugs, may be just what the doctor ordered.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with