Itchy dogs and cats, the link between inflammation and diet

One of the most frustrating problems in veterinary medicine is the chronically itchy dog or cat.

So how can be get these guys so they are comfortable without getting stuck in the constant swing between steroids and antibiotics and without spending a small fortune?

Lets look at what is going on.

Why do dogs and cats itch?

Most itchy animals are allergic to something, be it food, plants in the environment or some other thing in their world such as dust, molds, or chemicals. The hard part is finding out what it is and even harder being able to do something about it. I have a number of dogs in my practice who are allergic to humans, dust, or grass which are all impossible to eliminate from their world.

Allergies produce inflammation in the body. In people this often presents as nasal congestion, in animals the most common way inflammation presents is through the skin.

So if they are allergic to something we can not eliminate this is an impossible problem, right?

No, there is hope.

Most animals and humans have some mild allergies or sensitivities. Most of the time we do not have any problems from them but if we are suddenly exposed to everything we are allergic to all at once or a very large amount of something we are allergic to we have a reaction. This is because we only have a reaction if the inflammation in our body reaches a certain threshold. Below that threshold nothing happens.

But my dog is allergic to everything and always itchy. How do I possibly get his body to be below the allergy threshold so he doesn’t itch?

Through using a diet that reduces the inflammation in his body! This means we need to feed a diet that is not processed, doesn’t have grain and takes a little longer to get absorbed and assimilated through the gut. A slow assimilation assures that there are not large spikes of nutrients and proteins that come into the body all at once and overtax the pancreas and liver creating inflammation.

Most commercial diets are too high in grains and carbohydrates and too processed for our companion animals. They create inflammation which overtaxes the body and leads to not just skin inflammation but also other inflammatory conditions such as colitis, pancreatitis, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and ear infections.

In addition many of these diets are not high enough in protein causing a decreased blood reserve in the body in some of these animals which leads to the skin not being properly nourished and a cycle of chronic skin infections which produce more itching.

Commercial high grain processed diets often make our animals overweight. Fat reserves in the abdomen cause more inflammation in the body, by producing free radicals, adding to the problem.

So what are the steps needed to raise the allergy threshold and stop or eliminate the itch through diet?

  1. Cut all grains out of your dog or cat’s diet. If for some reason your animal can not tolerate a no grain diet add in small amounts of brown rice or whole oats.
  2. Feed the least processed diet possible. Raw is best. From my experience I get the best results when I put animals on raw diets. If your animal can not tolerate raw or you can not feed it for some reason then home cooked or good quality grain free canned is best. If for some reason you can only feed dry, feed Orijen brand. The folks at Orijen have made their food so that it has a lower glycemic index and is processed by the body slower than other dry foods. (Remember if you feed raw to make sure it is frozen first) .
  3. If your dog or cat has more itching along the top of their back and on their sides add in a fish oil supplement. Fish oil helps to decrease the itch and heal skin lesions.
  4. Find a veterinary Chinese herbalist to work with in your community. Chinese herbs can work with the body to help to decrease the allergy threshold even more than with diet alone. Most of the animals I work with are on a program of Chinese herbs and diet change.
  5. Nettles extract can help with itching. Make sure you use a good quality alcohol based extract. Nettles needs to be given at 0.2ml per 5 lbs of body weight and works best if given at this dose three to four times a day. Nettles not only helps directly to decrease itch but also works over time to desensitize the body to allergens helping to reprogram the immune system.
  6. Eliminate anything you can that you know your animals is allergic to. If they flare up with certain foods or chemicals in your house get rid of those things.
  7. Make sure there are no fleas! These buggers make even the normal animals itchy but can quickly push an allergic animals over the edge

Remember that resolution of itching can take a long time. Many animals, especially the ones with severe skin disease, take up to a year to get better.

Please also see part two Treating Severe Skin Disease Herbally.

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2 Responses to “Itchy dogs and cats, the link between inflammation and diet”

  1. Lena McCullough, DVM Says:

    From Chris
    I have a question on your post: we have a cat with allergies as you describe here (itchy back, producing scabs that take forever to heal). can you speak at all about how effective allergy tests are? we’ve been thinking about it for some time, but are afraid it won’t be able to determine the actual cause of her inflammation. is it accurate?

  2. Lena McCullough, DVM Says:

    Allergy tests can be helpful if some of the things that they pinpoint as allergens are something that you can actually eliminate. The problem is that most animals (and people) with allergies have multiple allergies and often are allergic to things you can not eliminate like grasses, dust, etc.

    There are also false positives and negatives on these tests so they are not 100% accurate. Skin testing is usually a lot more accurate than blood tests.

    Most dermatologists do allergy testing in order to do allergy shots that help the body have a decreased response to the allergens it is allergic to by introducing small amounts of those allergens to their system on a continuous basis. I have seen animals where this works well but there are many animals that even after a year of allergy shots every week show no improvement.

    Food allergies are almost impossible to tell from allergy testing and those require an elimination diet or multiple elimination diets and often times many months of trial and error in many cases to find out that there is not really a food allergy. The new figure I have seen for true food allergy is 1 in 10 itchy animals.

    Because allergies are so hard to work with working to eliminate inflammation in the body is a good strategy because it doesn’t require finding and eliminating the allergens.

    Working with an anti-inflammatory diet is often key to doing this. In my own practice these itchy animals also go on a protocol of Chinese herbs. If you have a good veterinary Chinese Herbal Practitioner in your areas it might be worth an consultation with them.

    The way that I work with Chinese herbs for itchy animals is taught by a veterinarian named Steve Marsden and many holistic veterinarians have taken classes or continuing ed from him. If you can find someone who has worked with him that would be the best person to go to. The approaches I used before were not as successful as the ones I now use after studying his methods.

    I hope this helps!

    best wishes,