The most common skin problems we see locally in our cats and dogs are:
- Bacterial or fungal infections
- Allergies and itches
- Skin cancers or lumps and bumps
Pet Care Information
Skin diseases are one of the most common problems noticed by pet owners. The skin is one of the largest organs of the body and as it is on the outside it is subject to a lot of wear and tear, luckily it has many defensive mechanisms which help it stay healthy and functional. Occasionally things do go wrong and they develop symptoms like itchy coats or red skin which lets us know they need some help to make them comfortable again.
The most common skin problems we see locally in our cats and dogs are:
The skin and ears are often affected by the same problems, some dogs with a skin allergy may only have one ear which is recurrently itchy or uncomfortable, and it is common for an allergy to make a dog more susceptible to skin infections with bacteria.
Ear mite infections in cats are not as common as they once were; if you have an older cat with an ear problem it is more likely to be an infection (bacterial/yeast) rather than ear mites.
What are they?
A pet’s skin may be affected by hundreds if not thousands of different diseases, some may affect only the skin or sometimes they mainly affect other parts of the body, with the skin being secondarily involved. Unfortunately, the skin only has a limited number of ways it can respond to being damaged; hair loss, rashes, sores, skin colour changes, change in the type of skin oil, itchiness; are some of the symptoms that may be displayed. Usually we get a few symptoms together which may be sufficient to give some idea what type of disease may be involved; but in a lot of cases some testing may be involved in narrowing down the list of possibilities.
Rashes and itches are among the most common things owners will notice happening with their pet’s skin. Everybody can feel a little bit uncomfortable in hot weather and pets with mild skin problems may become itchy when they otherwise would not scratch. A trip to the groomers can also cause your pet to become itchy, as the skin will be slightly rubbed by things like clippers or combs which may be sufficient to make the skin irritated.
Never underestimate the ability of fleas to make a pet itchy, in some pets it may only take a few of these little pests to make them miserable. The flea bite itself can be an irritation, if your pet is unfortunate enough to also have an allergy to the flea saliva then things can become very uncomfortable.
Even if you only see one flea on your pet, it is well worthwhile using a good quality Flea product to remove the fleas before they have the chance to set up residence in your home. Fleas are very hardy; their breeding cycle contains a number of stages which cannot be killed by commonly available chemical treatments. Once they establish an infestation in a home they can take a very long time to eliminate.
Mites and lice are not as common as they once were, most of the newer generation flea and tick treatments can very effectively control mite infestations that were difficult to treat not that long ago. If an infection with these parasites is suspected one of these products will quickly clear it up.
Allergies are a common cause of itchy pets. An allergy is caused by an unusual reaction of the immune system with a commonly found item in the pets environment. It may either be floating in the air (pollen, spores), be something that contacts the skin (plants, wool) or something eaten (beef, wheat). It takes time and repeated exposure to an item for an allergy to develop and it is less common in pets under a year of age. A very itchy pet with warm red-flushed skin and no other symptoms may be showing signs of an allergy. Sometimes the allergy may only affect specific areas of the skin; only the feet or the ears may be red and itchy.
Allergies tend to be lifelong in pets and will flair up and settle down depending on whether or not they have been exposed to what is causing the reaction. There are a number of drugs and treatments which can be used to control but not cure an allergy. In many cases medication will need to be used periodically over the pets life to keep it comfortable.
Some pets, like the Sphinx breed of cat, are naturally hairless. However the majority of pets should have a nice coat of hair; if they unexpectedly go bald it is a sign that something is not right with the pet's hair coat.
Like a lot of health issues, the problem may be with the skin itself or be part of a larger problem occurring elsewhere in the body. One of the first things to consider with hair loss is the pattern and potential cause; (where is the hair being lost from and is it falling out by itself or is the pet chewing or scratching it out) then look for other associated skin changes like sores or damage, and if the pet generally shows signs that may suggest the hair loss is associated with a hormonal or other disease.
Hair loss can be a complicated problem in some cases and may require some form of testing to get to the root of the problem.
Small sores can be due to trauma, infection or neoplasia. Any sore which is not being self damaged by the pet and does not heal within two to four weeks should be considered unusual and be examined by your Vet. The skin can usually heal most small sores quickly, anything that persists may need professional advice.
Most owners discover their pet has an ear problem when they see their pet shaking its head a lot or holding the ear down on the sore side; closer examination finds a very red inner ear or a bad odour. Some pet owners think the ears may be painful because the pet makes a groaning sound when their ears are rubbed; the groaning sound may indicate the ear is a little itchy and the dog enjoys having them rubbed. A truly painful ear will make the pet wince, pull away from contact or make a yelping vocalisation.
Pets can develop one off or recurrent troubles with their ears. Problems may range from itchy ears, to smelly and sometimes quite painful ears. If there is a recurrent ear problem it usually means there is something else making the ear prone to infection that will need to be corrected to prevent future infections.
A healthy ear has a small amount of wax (sebum, which helps water proof the ear canal) and some bacteria and yeast cells which are kept in balance by the normal defensive mechanisms of the ear.
Hot humid weather, washing the ears when pets are bathed, or swimming all increase the moisture content in the ear which can help the bacteria and yeast penetrate the wall of the ear canal and help them reproduce more quickly. If your pet is prone to developing ear infections or irritations, it would be a good idea to make sure you keep their ears as dry as possible. Any closed in area of skin or ear is more likely to develop problems if it stays wet for too long.
Simplistically an allergy which affects the skin or ears is an abnormal response of the immune system that makes the pet feel very itchy and may make part of the skin appear more red, due to an increased amount of blood being sent to the area. There may also be an increased chance of infection due to self-trauma and changes in the skin as a response to the allergy.
An allergy can go on for a very long time or may be off and on again; if your pet develops repeated red itchy ears without infection, there may be something causing an allergic reaction.
Allergies may make the ears itchy to the point where the pet damages the ear by scratching and shaking, the allergy may also decrease the effectiveness of the ears defences.
An infection may occur when something happens that upsets the environment in the ear.
The infection itself may appear as a increased redness, increased amount of wax or even a canal coated with purulent discharge and a very sore ear.
Most ear infections respond well to medical treatment, but a small number will have significant physical changes which prevent the medication from working effectively. These will have infections that do not go away or only respond for a short time before the symptoms re-occur. Unfortunately, the only effective treatment for these extreme cases may be surgical correction of the ear structure.
Eye problems are easily seen by an owner commonly a pet’s eye may appear red, swollen, closed, weepy or have a purulent discharge.
- If there is a large amount of yellow discharge from the eye, there may be bacterial infection
- If the whites (conjunctiva) of the eye appear reddened, there may be inflammation
- If the eye is kept closed, there may be pain
All eye problems should be considered as potentially serious and be examined by a vet, many things if treated early may not develop into more damaging conditions. There are many conditions which can cause the loss of an eye, so referral to an eye specialist will be recommended.
Vomiting and diarrhoea are symptoms that may occur when something is going wrong in the body; they are a symptom that happens when your pet is sick and not a disease themselves; there are a large number of diseases that can cause either vomiting or diarrhoea or both at the same time.
Almost all pets will occasionally have soft motions for a day or two, any change in diet or minor irritation can cause this change in the consistence of the stool material. Diarrhoea is a more significant change, with soft or watery motions, usually an increased frequency and sometimes discomfort, small amounts of blood or mucus may also be present in the stool.
Diarrhoea can be associated with problems in the gastrointestinal tract itself or be caused by any number of diseases affecting other organs in the body as well as the bowel.
Most cases of acute (sudden onset, short term) diarrhoea can be treated symptomatically, without needing to find the exact cause of the diarrhoea, sometimes resting the bowel by not feeding the pet for 24 hours will help settle the problem down. Oral medication may be used to clear up protozoa infections, to speed up recovery or provide some relief from discomfort, depending on the pets needs. Along with many other causes of diarrhoea some common ones would include:
- viral infections
- food ingredients, food toxins, or other non-food material the pet has eaten
- internal parasites or other bowel infections
Chronic diarrhoea (Long term, more than three weeks), can be a more difficult problem to clear up and usually requires a full work-up to find out what is causing the problem. A lot of cases will require, food trials, drug trials or more or less extensive testing to find and eliminate the cause.
Vomiting is the forceful ejection of food from the stomach and is usually associated with nausea, a pet will be appear to be ill along with the vomiting. Regurgitation also involves food being thrown up from the stomach but there is no nausea; with regurgitation a pet may try to eat what has been thrown up because it isn't feeling ill.
Many illnesses and conditions may result in vomiting and can be due to problems in the upper part of the gut, stomach, small intestine or other body organs or systems.
-Some forms of vomiting may even be a normal part of a dog or cats life, many will bring on vomiting by eating grass, or a greedy puppy may overeat or suffer motion sickness.
-Occasionally vomiting can be due to eating the wrong thing, indigestible food items , food poisoning, irritants, poisons; can all result in vomiting with a variable degree of seriousness. Then there are physical changes that can happen in the bowel itself, cancerous growths causing obstructions, torsion of the bowel, or intussusceptions, most of these are very serious and can be fatal if not treated.
-Infections with virus, parasites or bacteria.
- Diseases of many other organs such as the kidneys, liver and pancreas will also make pets generally ill and result in vomiting.
When treating vomiting or diarrhoea, the initial step is to determine if the symptoms are a sign of a serious problem or a mild condition that will recover with symptomatic treatment, it is always important for the owner to monitor the pet closely at home for any signs of deterioration, if symptomatic treatment is given, as a patient which initially has mild symptoms may have a more serious hidden condition.
Treatment of serious conditions can be costly and usually involve testing and hospitalisation.
A cough is the rapid expulsion of air from the lungs, typically in response to some form of irritation of the airways. Usually to expel liquid, mucus or foreign material from the upper airways; sometimes the material being expelled is formed deeper in the airways and produces a cough when it moves towards the upper airways.
Most coughs associated with the inhalation of material will be a short term explosive type of cough designed to remove the solids or liquids from the tract. Coughing caused by material produced by the body (usually liquid) can be longer termed or come and go over a longer period of time.
As you would expect the majority of coughing in pets, is a normal response to minor irritations of the airways and not a serious disease process. A cough becomes more of a worry when it happens frequently or over a prolonged period of time. This may indicate there is something abnormal producing an ongoing supply of either fluid or mucus in the upper airways or the presence of solid material or an unusual anatomical structure.
The most frequent causes of coughing we see, associated with excessive amounts of liquid in the upper airways tend to be related to either allergies, infections (viral, bacterial) and heart conditions.
Allergies can cause coughing by causing inflammation and excess fluid or mucus in the nasal cavity, trachea or bronchi. Fluid from the nose may drip down the back of the nose and cause a cough and fluid from the lower airways move upwards where they are expelled.
Many coughs of unknown cause are lumped together under the catchall name “Kennel Cough”, (tracheitis or tracheobronchitis). These coughs may be produced by either a virus or bacteria and as they are infectious, more than one dog may develop symptoms around the same time. These infections are quite contagious and can be spread from dog to dog by contact with droplets in the air or on objects like water bowls or people’s hands. It can spread more easily in places where large numbers of dogs are in close proximity like dog kennels or dog parks. So, although it can spread more easily in kennels it can be caught almost anywhere dogs come into contact with each other. As this is the most common transmissible disease we see in dogs, we recommend annual vaccination even if your dog isn’t going to visit the kennels during the year.
Put simply, the heart is the pump that pushes blood around the body using the arteries and veins, to deliver oxygen and food to the tissues of the body and carry away the waste products. A lot of things may go wrong with the system during a pet’s life, but the body has many wonderful ways it can repair or compensate for any small failures that may occur. Unfortunately, at some point the heart will not be able to do its job properly and will start to fail, at this time the pet will begin to show symptoms. Early signs may be tiredness or a loss of interest in exercising, these are very general signs and may also occur in an aging pet without heart problems.
A cough will usually develop when the heart has enlarged and can no longer regulate the blood pressure in the lungs, when there is a higher than normal blood pressure in the lungs fluid can move from the blood vessels into the small air spaces in the lungs and from there to the larger airways where it can result in a cough.
In small dogs the heart problem usually begins as faulty heart valve (left mitral valve) and has an associated heart murmur which can be heard with a stethoscope more rarely a thrill (vibration) can be felt on the chest wall over the heart. In most pets a heart murmur may be present for many years before symptoms suddenly become noticeable, with distress and laboured breathing due to a build-up of fluid in the lungs.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are one breed which may develop problems sooner and more seriously than other small breeds.
We can’t stop the heart problem from getting worse and we can’t repair the existing damage; there are good drugs available which will help the heart work more efficiently and remove fluid from the lungs. So, while we can’t cure the disease we can make pets more comfortable and give them a longer more active life.
While old age isn’t a disease, there are a few minor problems that may arise in older pets who are otherwise quite healthy. Wear and tear can affect joints leading to arthritis, muscles can weaken, balance might not be what it used to be. Hearing and sight may weaken, and mental function and house training may suffer.
Very few older pets will be free of arthritis in old age, some may show obvious signs of discomfort and appear stiff or find it difficult to rise after resting for a while. Others will have arthritis but show no obvious outward signs. If you suspect your old pet has arthritis there are a few common medications you can use to help them be more comfortable, book an appointment to discuss treatment options. In very extreme discomfort some pain relief medication may be prescribed, these are not ideal treatments for long term usage.
Loss of weight can be a regular occurrence in old cats, a significant weight loss due to a loss in muscle protein rather than fat with normal appetite and food intake may be more common in some cats.
There is a group of diseases in old cats which can cause weight loss despite a good appetite, thyroid, Diabetes Meletus, kidney problems. Blood profiles are the easiest way to tell if your cat has one of these problems. More conditions like heart problems, cancer, liver problems may require more extensive testing including ultrasounds, biopsies and histopathology.
Pretty much all pets will develop some loss of hearing or vision as they age. Profoundly deaf pets do require extra care and may benefit from being confined to the house or yard, if taken for walks kept on a leash. We have heard numerous sad stories of deaf pets being run over by their owner’s car on their driveway either because the pet was asleep and didn’t hear the car or wasn’t quite aware of where the car was.
Even totally blind pets can have a relatively normal life with a little help from their carer. Around the home a pet can remember where all the furniture and walls are, using their other senses they can navigate about with little difficulty. A new environment or moving furniture can present more of a challenge, but most pets will adapt. There is more of a problem, if a pet becomes senile as well as blind; this type of pet represents a heavy challenge for most people, as they require a great deal of time and commitment to nurse adequately.
There are two forms of arthritis in dogs and cats, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, the commonest we see by far is osteoarthritis. Whenever a joint is damaged or becomes unstable arthritis can start to develop within 1 month, the age of the pet is unimportant and you can get arthritis in quite young animals. Arthritis can also develop over many years in an older animal due to the normal wear and tear in an active life. Arthritis itself is new bone being formed in the joint due to inflammation and pain can be due to this or to the bony changes.
For many years chewing on hard or abrasive food types has been suggested as a way to keep your pets teeth clean and healthy. This is by no means a certainty. There are some breeds in which dental calculi, gingivitis and tooth loss seem to be more common; and occurs regardless of whether or not they gnaw on bones. We tend to see a pattern of disease and tooth loss in small breeds such as Maltese and Cavaliers, and large breeds like Greyhounds. Many medium sized dogs don’t appear to develop dental problems even if they have never chewed in their lives. For these problem dogs you need a reliable way to remove plaque from the teeth before it becomes mineralised to form calculi. Plaque is a mix of bacteria and food by-products that forms naturally on the teeth quite quickly; within 24 hrs it can coat most dental surfaces. The most effective way to remove plaque would tend to be brushing. If done properly you can clean all the surfaces likely to develop problems and maintain good dental health. When given a bone or abrasive food types, some dogs will vigorously chew, but many will not bother to chew and simply swallow them whole or bury them. Even when dogs chew they tend to use the back teeth only, not the front teeth, which receive no benefit at all and may still develop problems.
Mostly causes problems when your pet manages to steal a large amount of this treat, usually at Easter time. Depending on the size of your pet and the type of chocolate it can be quite safe for your pet to have small amounts of milk chocolate. Different types of product contain more or less of the chemical Theobromine which can make anyone (person or pet) very sick if too much is ingested. Cooking chocolate is the most concentrated source, and should not be given to any dog, particularly small dogs. Too much of a good thing can make a pet very sick with panting, vomiting, and diarrhoea being common symptoms, while a large enough dose can be fatal.
Avocado pits contain a chemical called Persin. Birds are very susceptible to this chemical, so don’t feed it to your pet birds. It may cause diarrhoea and vomiting, in dogs (Dr Google), but small amounts of the avocado flesh (not the pit) is probably not a severe health risk for most dogs.
Not so much the corn part, but the cob part. We have seen quite a few dogs who have swallowed the cob whole; lucky dogs vomit it back up later, but some try to pass it through the intestine where it gets stuck. Unfortunately this results in an expensive trip to the Vet for major bowel surgery.
As a general rule don’t feed any large pieces of indigestible or hard foods to dogs and cats, they are lazy chewers and will try to swallow things whole. (We once saw a Burmese cat, regurgitate an entire bandicoot, from nose to tip of tail about 25cm long). Most people vomit infrequently and only when feeling quite sick; dogs and cats because they tend to not be choosy in what they eat, will regurgitate, to empty the stomach of inappropriate food or hair balls. They will also vomit if they are ill for other reasons.
These contain a toxin that can cause weakness, panting, swollen limbs, and tremors if eaten in sufficient quantity by some dogs. We first noticed this problem back in the late 1980s when Staffordshires were very popular and Macadamia nuts became more available. It can occur in any breed of dog and with most nut types, in an unpredictable way.
Once again you need larger amounts of these vegetables to cause noticeable problems in your pet. The powdered form will contain a more concentrated form of the toxins (disulphides and sulfoxides) and be more dangerous. They can damage the red blood cells causing them to break down resulting in anaemia (not enough red cells in the blood), a little bit of onion off your plate won’t kill your pet, but keep your powdered onion on a high shelf.
This is usually an after Christmas problem with owners sharing the ham with their beloved pets. It is not so much the lean meat part of the ham but the fat content and maybe salt (Dr Google) that can cause problems. High fat meals (particularly if the fat has oxidised) can trigger a nasty inflammation in the Pancreas of some dogs and probably cats. In mild cases they may look uncomfortable, quiet and off their food for a day or two; in severe cases they can rapidly go into shock and pass away. Some dogs will be more susceptible than others, if you think your pet may have problems, do not feed them fatty foods.
Curiously the marrow in large beef leg bones is mostly composed of fat; if the bone sits around in the back yard for a while before the dog decides to eat it, the fat will go rancid; increasing its toxicity and the risk of triggering pancreatitis in some dogs.
The beach is a great place to take your dog to get some exercise and fresh air. Walking or swimming, chasing a ball, a lot of dogs will enjoy these activities well into their old age. There are only a few health issues to keep in mind on a trip to the beach, most of which can be avoided with a little care and attention.
Most pets move their heads a lot closer to the sand than we normally would, as they splash in the waves and rummage through the sand while playing. As you would expect, it’s not uncommon to develop red eyes due to irritation caused by the salt and sand; these mostly settle down by themselves in a short while. However, a persistent weepy, closed eye, may indicate that there may be more of a problem. Small corneal ulcers or sand or other material lodged around the eye can cause damage and pain. If you suspect this may be the case, a trip to the vet is a good idea.
It’s also a great idea to wash the salt and sand out of your pet’s coat after a trip to the beach, particularly if it’s going to the pet groomers soon after, as the sandy coat will quickly cause damage to clipper blades.
Some dogs do regularly drink large amounts of salt water when they are playing at the beach. This has the same effect as a concentrated salt purge, resulting in diarrhoea and possible vomiting. Ocean water is a listed cause of salt poisoning in dogs, but poisoning is unlikely to occur so long as a fresh supply of drinking water is available to dilute the salt intake. Most reported diarrhoeas tend to settle down quickly as the salt water moves through the system.
Dogs can get sunburn just as people can, in dogs the burn occurs on areas of white or pale pink skin; heavily pigmented skin or a thick coat of hair will protect the skin from damage.
Breeds that enjoy laying on their back and sunbaking their bellies can develop more serious long-term damage. Over many years the unpigmented skin on the belly can become damaged to the point where numerous skin cancers can develop; there are very few treatment options available and some type of surgical removal would be required. Breeds like the Staffordshire terrier, Dalmatian and their crosses seem to be more likely to develop recurrent skin cancers than other breeds. While sun creams are available, they need to be applied frequently. The only effective preventive measure in these pets is to avoid sun baking in the first place.
On a trip to the beach there are many tempting things for a dog to find and eat, or roll in and then eat, though luckily most things your pet may find will cause little more than an upset tummy. Watch out for discarded fish hooks as even those without bait can be irresistible to some dogs; discarded Puffer fish should also be avoided as these can be extremely poisonous to pets.
If your pet swallows a fish hook do not try to remove it by pulling on the line protruding from your pet’s mouth, this is more likely to bury the hook in part of your pet rather than remove it. Some, but not all hooks need to be removed either surgically or by using a scope to look down the oesophagus and remove it that way.
If you want to play fetch on the beach with your pet, a good quality throw toy or ball is preferable to a wooden stick picked up off the beach. Thrown sticks can occasionally cause injuries, for instance if one end of the stick catches on the ground and your pet then collides with the other end, injuring either it’s chest or mouth. These stake injuries often result in deep penetrating wounds, sometimes with parts of the stick left buried in the wound after most of the stick has been removed.
When choosing a throw toy ensure it is too large to be easily swallowed by your pet, a large breed dog is quite capable of swallowing a ball the size of a tennis ball.
Most dogs running free at the beach are friendly and will not bother other dogs, some however can be aggressive. One of the most common places for dogs to get bitten is at a free run beach or park. If you take your pet to a free run area, please be certain it will play nice with other pets, otherwise keep it on a lead, for everyone’s safety.
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