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Veterinary Q&A: Dogs with dry, itchy skin

Dr. Stephen White, a professor of dermatology at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine answers the question.

Question: My 5 1/2-year-old Yorkie/Poo mix is losing her hair. She has dry skin and scratches a lot. I put her on an all-natural-made pet food, and she loves it. Her skin was doing great until the weather started getting colder and drier. I have put Bag Balm and Cortaid on her, use a vet-approved shampoo, brush/comb her daily, add fish oil to her food.

But, she still scratches and is losing her hair. I can't afford the $300 blood test the vet recommended; I can't afford the vet office call for that matter. What can I do at home to ease her itching and scratching?

Answer: If your dog is scratching more in the cold weather, there are three possibilities, and they are not mutually exclusive.

The first is the dryness in some of our forced-air heated homes. This can be combated by using an emollient shampoo and a leave-on conditioner. Purchase one specific for dogs, preferably on your veterinarian's recommendation.

The second is that your dog may have an allergy to indoor allergens - these may be house dust mite, molds, etc. As serum testing and subsequent hyposensitization is not an option, you might try antihistamines, which seem to work in approximately 20 percent to 30 percent of environmentally allergic (the medical term is 'atopic') dogs.

Not all antihistamines are the same, and failure of one to control your pet's discomfort should not dissuade you from trying other.

Each one should be given for one week to see any response -- the fish oil capsules you now are giving your dog may increase the anti-itch effect of the antihistamines.

Antihistamines are NOT benign drugs. While most are safe, they can cause drowsiness or nervousness, and more serious effects are possible if your dog has any liver or heart disease, or is taking other medications.

This is especially important in smaller dogs, to get the correct dosage. For these reasons, these drugs (even the ones that are available over the counter) should be given following the directions of a veterinarian.

The third is fleas. In cold weather, the fleas seek our warmer homes.

They can not always live for long periods, because of the dryness, but they can sometimes live long enough to bite our pets. The more flea allergic a dog is, the less fleas need to bite the dog, and the less likely you will see fleas. So make sure your dog is on a good flea-control program, even in the winter months.

Dr. Stephen White

White has worked as a veterinary dermatologist for more than 3 decades, becoming a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology in 1983. A 1979 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, he did his internship and residency at Davis as well. He held faculty positions at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, before joining the School of Veterinary Medicine at University of California at Davis as a full Professor in 1998. White has lectured throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. He has published over 80 journal articles. His areas of major interests include cutaneous manifestations of systemic disease, rabbit/rodent dermatology, non-steroidal therapy of auto-immune disease, congenital skin disease, and equine dermatology.

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