All About The Itch: Atopy

Before we start, a small side note: Hey guys! I want to apologize for missing Thursday’s blog update. Since I’ve started actively blogging, meeting a twice-weekly schedule has been one of my top priorities. I hope to deliver relevant, informative content on a timeline that my readers can expect and rely on. Thursday, I failed to do that- I was sick with the stomach bug. In the future, I hope to have each post written a few days in advance so that I can be a more reliable blogger for my audience. Thanks for sticking with me!

Today, we’re going to be talking about something called atopy.

Atopy (also known as atopic dermatitis) is a condition that results in chronic dermatitis (skin inflammation), and is associated with allergies, usually from the environment. Atopy is in full bloom here around the tristate. I’ve been seeing itchy dogs (and even itchy cats) left and right. Unfortunately, atopy can be a very difficult problem to diagnose, and can be even more difficult to manage.

Here are 5 things you should know about atopy in dogs and cats;

  1. Allergens invade your pet’s immune system through the skin- not the respiratory system. It was once thought that, much like humans, dogs inhaled their allergens, which then caused a skin reaction. We now know that the allergens that cause skin inflammation break directly through the skin barrier. Because of this, keeping your pet’s coat healthy with topical shampoos and essential fatty acids is extremely important in treating this disease.
  2. Atopy can only be ‘definitively diagnosed’ when all other causes of itching and skin inflammation are ruled out. Atopic dermatitis is what veterinarians call a “diagnosis of exclusion.” That means that we cannot say for certain that skin disease is caused by environmental allergies unless we rule out all other causes of skin inflammation. These causes include mites and other topical parasites, food allergy, bacterial infection, ringworm- the list keeps going. If your vet is suggesting diagnostic tests, don’t get frustrated! Remember that your vet is just trying to make sure that a different problem isn’t going undetected.
  3. A wide variety of allergens can play a role in atopic dermatitis. Dogs can be allergic to seemingly ridiculous things- even cat dander! Common allergens associated with atopy include animal dander, dust and dust mites, feathers, fleas, grains, cleaners, insects, mold spores, plants, pollen, and wool. Because many of these allergens are ubiquitous in the environment (meaning: everywhere, no matter what), eliminating them from the atopic pet’s environment is often not possible. However, if you can find out what the cause of the reaction is- eliminating or reducing exposure to the allergen is a good place to start.
  4. There is no cure for atopic dermatitis. But it can be managed. Usually, long term management involves allergy testing and immunotherapy (small doses of the allergen that are given to desensitize the pet to its effects). In the last few years, products such as apoquel and atopica have been developed to act as immune suppressants, which decrease a pet’s immune response to an allergen. Recently, a product called Cytopoint has launched that is a biologic aimed at preventing the itch signal from being released in dogs. These products are impressive and have very few side effects compared to traditional treatments (such as steroids), but they can be expensive, and patients usually require them at least periodically for life.
  5. Symptomatic treatment can help some pets. Some pets may benefit from using anti-histamines, topical anti-itch medications, and short courses of steroids (long-term steroid use is no longer advised due to the high risk of dangerous side effects). However, these treatments may not be enough in severe cases of atopy. Some pets may do well for most of the year on antihistamines, and only need apoquel (or the other products listed above) during flare ups. Which treatment is best for your pet depends on many factors, and your veterinarian is the best person to ask for advice!

If you think that your pet may be having signs of atopic dermatitis (such as inflamed ears, head shaking, licking the paws, gnawing the legs or forearms, scooting his back on furniture, and otherwise itching excessively), talk to your vet about the short and long-term options for treatment. Remember that atopy is a complicated disease and that there is no permanent cure. However, you can substantially improve your pet’s comfort level and quality of life by communicating well with your veterinarian and by being dedicated to life-long management.

Question for readers: Has your pet ever been diagnosed with atopy or “allergies?” What steps did you and your vet take to improve his or her quality of life?



Four BIG Reasons why you need to spay your female dog

Whoohoo! We’ve made it to the fourth and final installment of the #VeterinaryMythBusters mini-series.

If you’ve been with me since the first post, thanks for following along! But, if you’re new here, I encourage you to check out posts one, two, and three of this blog series before moving on to this conclusion.

Today, we will be debunking the myth that spaying a female dog will make her more likely to get sick. In fact, the opposite is quite true. Spaying of female dogs can prevent serious and life-threatening health conditions for her. It also helps keep down the pet population and may help her have more birthdays to celebrate.

Here are four BIG reasons why you need to spay your dog:

Spaying and neutering dogs has been associated with longer lifespans

Most animal lovers agree- the greatest issue with owning pets is that they are never able to be with us long enough. We all want more time with our pets, don’t we? A study by the University of Georgia published in 2013 found a strong correlation between sterilization (spaying and neutering) of dogs and longer lifespans. Dogs that were sterilized were less likely to die from trauma and infectious disease.

Female dogs have a reduced rate of mammary cancer if they are spayed before their second heat cycle

Mammary cancer is the most common type of cancer in female dogs, and is virtually eliminated if the dog is spayed before her first heat cycle. One in four (25%) of un-spayed female dogs will develop mammary cancer in their life, of which 50-60% will have metastatic cancer that could potentially spread to other organs and be fatal. Only one in 2,000 (0.05%) dogs that were spayed before their first heat cycle will develop mammary cancer. There is also a significantly decreased risk (1 in about 12, or 8%) if the female is spayed before her second heat cycle. But, after the third heat cycle this health benefit diminishes.

Pyometra is a deadly infection

One of the most common emergencies that I see in practice is a condition called pyometra. The term “pyometra” means “puss-filled-uterus,” and is about as pleasant as it sounds. Dog with pyometra are often very sick and may have vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, listlessness, increased urination and thirst, and vaginal discharge. However, some dogs with pyometra may have very mild symptoms and still have a raging infection inside their body. The statistical risk of pyometra has not been significantly studied in the USA, but is believed to be 15% at 4 years of age, and 24% at ten years of age for un-spayed females. If your dog gets a pyometra, they will require costly and emergent life-saving surgery to remove the infected organ before it can burst or before your pet goes septic.

Spaying your dog helps reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancies 

This one is a no-brainer, and it has been the big reason why spaying and neutering is (thankfully) so widely accepted in the USA compared to other countries. 5 to 8 million animals are euthanized each year in shelters in the US. I realize that most pet parents won’t let their female dogs run loose or have access to an adult male, but accidents happen! I’ve seen my fair share of “oops” pregnancies in dogs and cats alike, and it has proven to me that “life always finds a way.” If you’re not thinking about breeding your dog (and I would strongly urge you to consider the ethical points of breeding animals in an overpopulated society before doing so), please spay her so that one day we won’t live in a world where shelter euthanasia is the leading cause of death in companion animals.

Before we close, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that there are some negatives to spaying your dog. However, the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. The chart belowSpay risks and benefits, taken from this article, shows the benefits and negatives of a spay (ovariohysterectomy) in female dogs. From that, we can see that we prevent more clinically and statistically significant problems if we spay female dogs.

Still have questions? I encourage you to discuss this article with your pet’s veterinarian to determine which course of action is best for her. Resources and additional references can be found below. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this last installment of the Veterinary Myth Busters mini-series!

Question for readers: Has your pet had a health crisis that could have been prevented by a spay?

Resources and References
Photo by Dhyamis Kleber from Pexels


Veterinary Myth Busters: Part One (an overview)

Greetings, earthlings! Welcome to the first post in a mini series I am doing called:

Veterinary Myth Busters

I tweeted over the weekend, asking my veterinarian friends what common veterinary medicine myths (#VetMedMyths) annoy them the most. Today, we’ll go over the top 3 from the list and briefly go over why they are not true. Later on, we will unpack each topic in a little more detail to break the cycle of misinformation that permeates the internet. Stay tuned so that you can be the most informed pet owner at the dog park!


“Grain free food is better for dogs, because most are allergic to corn.”

Submitted by: Me, @KatieHoganDVM

I hear this one daily in practice, and it drives me nuts. Most dogs with food allergy are not allergic to the grain in the diet, but to the protein (the beef, chicken, turkey, etc) in the diet. Grain free diets often come coupled with novel protein sources (proteins that your dog’s immune system hasn’t seen before), and so when they make the switch to grain free they see an improvement because they changed the protein, not the grain.

The “corn is bad for dogs” myth has been perpetuated by the excellent marketing strategies of certain pet food companies. These guys claim to sell “premium” products fit for the wolf living in your living room. Sorry, people, but your pug mix is not a wolf! Even if he was, corn would still not be bad for him. Corn is quite nutritious for dogs and other species. I encourage you to talk to your veterinarian, do your research and feed a high-quality food with meat as the first ingredient on the list. Some dogs do well on grain free food- but for most dogs (80-90%), you’re wasting your money.


“I don’t need heartworm and flea prevention because…”

Submitted by: @BalyBoo

You would not believe some of the ways people finish this sentence! The people who say this think that their pet is immune to the need for parasite prevention because they live in a gated community, their dog never interacts with other pets, they spray for mosquitos, they have hardwood floors, they’ve never had a problem before…. The list goes on and on! Later in this series, we’ll break down the many excuses and bust each one of them individually. But, for now, we’ll keep it short and sweet: Heartworms are spread by mosquitos, who can quite literally survive anywhere. Unless you keep your dog or cat in a plastic bubble…. he needs heartworm prevention!

As for fleas, they are extremely resilient, and can be spread by wildlife and feral/outdoor cats. In my practice, I see as many animals suffering because of fleas in the winter as I do in the summer. If your pet has fleas, you need at least four months of flea prevention to get rid of the current infestation. And if your pet goes outside or you have other pets that go outside? All pets in the household need flea prevention. Remember the old saying- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!


“Spaying my dog will make her sick”

Submitted by: @TiffanyHeaton

I hear this one a lot. In fact, it is 100% the other way around! Spaying your female dog before her first heat cycle reduces her risk of mammary cancer to a 0.5% chance compared to the 25% chance (1 in 4 dogs) for females who are not spayed or spayed after their second heat cycle. Breast cancer accounts for over half of all cancers in female dogs, and by spaying early you nearly eliminate this possibility!

Another common condition in older, unspayed female pets is pyometra- a serious infection that can be life-threatening and requires immediate (and very expensive) emergency surgery. We see this condition (as well as mammary cancer) in feline patients as well. Simply put, you will greatly increase your pet’s life expectancy and quality of life if you spay her before she is 6 months old!

Thanks for joining us for part one of the #VeterinaryMythBusters series. Check back on Sunday, where we will be investigating the grain free food myth!

Do you have a myth you’d like to submit? Want to get in on the conversation? Comment below or tweet @KatieHoganDVM



Resources and References:
Photo of dogs book Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels
Photo of dog eating fruit by Rarnie McCudden from Pexels
Photo of little girl and dog by Kai-Chieh Chan from Pexels
Photo of dog with bow by Caio Resende from Pexels
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”