HealthNutritionVet's Corner

Ditch the Itch

Veterinarian Dr Lise Hansen discusses the ins and outs of allergic skin disease in Westies.

I once held a presentation titled “How to cure a Westie in three easy steps” at a veterinary conference. The talk was about the treatment of allergic skin disease in dogs. This is by no means a problem confined to Westies and while I gladly apologize for my possible poor sense of humour in trying to come up with a catchy title for a lecture, I couldn’t be more sincere when I say that the deepest frustration of my professional life is the fact that so many dogs suffer from allergies and most of them do not get the help that they deserve. It is my experience after nearly 30 years as a practicing veterinarian that many of these dogs can be completely cured – but sadly very few are.

Whether the main issue is recurrent ear infections, incessant paw chewing or red itchy eczema, allergic skin disease is a common (quite possibly the most common) health issue in Westies as it is in all dogs.

So why is this such a big problem? And how can we solve it without risking the overall health of a dog in order to stop him or her itching?

First, a few words about allergies. Why do some individuals suffer from allergies?

Allergy is a condition in which the immune system is out of balance and therefore reacts to substances that are not in themselves harmful and therefore don’t cause a reaction in others. The substances that provoke an immune system in this way are called allergens. An individual can develop an allergy to any substance, a fact that creates a lot of confusion and makes it difficult to compare experiences, as different allergic individuals may react to different allergens. The only thing that all allergic individuals have in common is that their immune system is confused and out of balance and therefore overreacts to otherwise harmless substances. Examples of common allergens are grass or tree pollen, house dust or storage mites and (perhaps less commonly in animals than in people) certain foods. Dogs with unbalanced immune systems tend to overreact to several substances rather than only one or two.

You might say that the immune system is like a soldier standing guard at the entrance to a castle, ensuring that nothing harmful is allowed to enter. The well-functioning immune system valiantly holds this post and is able to discriminate between who is allowed to enter and who poses a risk and must be stopped. In an allergic individual, the soldier is confused or mad, unable to differentiate between friend and foe and therefore overreacting, lashing out wildly in all directions, in the process hurting himself and the castle he was supposed to protect.

Why do some individuals suffer from allergies?

We don’t know exactly why someone develops an allergy. Many different factors can damage the immune system; some of them (such as vaccination) are known, while others we don’t understand at all. This is true for people as well as animals. We do know that individuals whose parents suffer from allergies have a higher risk of developing an allergy themselves, meaning that it is certainly possible to inherit a weak immune system. This is why allergy is particularly common in some dog breeds. This is not clear cut, however. You cannot predict that an individual puppy (or kitten or human baby) will develop an allergy simply because one or both parents have allergies, only that he does run a higher risk of it happening. It is also entirely possible for an individual to be allergic when no one else in the family has a problem.

Allergy is one of the most common health problems in humans as well as in dogs. In animals, unfortunately, allergy tends to take a much more devastating course than it does in the person suffering from, for instance, hay fever or allergic eczema. One reason for this is that the over-the-counter drugs (antihistamines) that bring relief to many human allergy sufferers rarely have any effect in animals. Allergies in dogs are therefore readily treated with very potent drugs that can have serious health implications when used long term. This is why the allergic dog, who is perhaps prone to ear infections or hotspots, ends up suffering much more than you might expect, considering that their allergy in itself isn’t life threatening at all.

How does the vet treat allergic symptoms?

Allergy cannot be cured with conventional medicine. Your vet will tell you, therefore, that allergy is incurable and that the symptoms can only be eased through immune-suppressive medication. This symptomatic relief works very well in the short-term, but these are very potent drugs, and their long-term use is associated with a risk of serious side effects, making it crucial to limit their use.

An allergic dog receiving ongoing medication to stay comfortable and keep the symptoms at bay has been cured. The symptoms have merely been suppressed, and it is likely that the long-term cost to his or her health will be high. A client recently told me that giving her dog daily anti-itch medication to deal with the itchy paws felt like trying to solve your financial problems by borrowing large amounts of money – at some point there would still be a bill to pay. A very apt comparison indeed. You can buy time and feel better for a while, but it is not a sound long-term solution to the problem.

Unfortunately, allergic dogs rarely respond to treatment with relatively mild drugs like antihistamines. Consequently, potent medicines such as steroids, cyclosporine and several other newer immune-modulating drugs are used to relieve the symptoms of allergic disease. Some animals respond to immunotherapy (hypo-sensitization), which in these cases can help reduce the anti-itch medications needed. Immunotherapy involves giving the animal increasing doses of the antigens they are reacting to, in an attempt to get their immune system to tolerate them better. In the many cases in which it makes no difference, the treatment is discontinued in the first year, but for those who show an improvement it is continued for life. It is rarely sufficient to stop the symptoms, but it can, in some individuals, reduce the dosage of the immune-suppressive medications needed and thereby help the dog live longer before side-effects manifest. Immunotherapy is currently the only conventional approach that aims to treat the underlying allergy. All other treatments are aimed solely at easing symptoms. The good news here is that there is a whole other way to approach this problem – and one that comes with much better odds.

What else can be done?

If I were to choose one area above all others where holistic treatments excel, it would be in the treatment of diseases of the immune system. As mentioned, the toolbox available to the conventional vet will not be able to cure an allergic patient. It holds only drugs to keep the symptoms at bay through ongoing suppression of the immune system. This is often tolerated well in the short term but is rarely a safe long-term approach. The fact that many – vets and dog owners alike – are unaware that allergy is in fact curable is a great shame and was one of my main motivations for writing my book The Complete Book of Cat and Dog Health. I am repeatedly frustrated and saddened by hearing of animals being put to sleep because they suffered from allergies or by seeing them, when they are first brought to me for homeopathic treatment, because they are now dying from drug side effects. Seeing their animals cured after years of symptomatic drug treatment, owners often incredulously ask me why no one had told them there were other treatment options. Let me tell you now: Holistic treatments, unlike conventional medicine, can in many cases cure allergy completely. By all means, let your dog have the symptomatic treatment needed to stay comfortable in the short term. The acute hot spot or the red and raw paws need to be soothed just as an inflamed ear needs the ear drops to avoid scarring of the ear canal or damage to the ear drum. In the short term, do what needs doing to keep your dog comfortable. It is never a matter of choosing one approach (conventional or holistic) over the other. Use conventional medicine to keep your dog comfortable in the short term while working with a vet specialised in homeopathy towards a long-term solution. My message is this: If conventional symptomatic treatment is all you do, you will never be able to stop. Ongoing immune-suppressive (‘anti-itch’) treatments come at a cost, and you should know that there is an alternative. Call a vet who has specialized in homeopathy. It may save your dog’s life. And help spread the word so no dog needs die or suffer needlessly from allergic skin disease.

British Association of Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeons

Lise Hansen is a veterinary surgeon, a classical homeopath and the author of The Complete Book of Cat and Dog Health published by Hubble&Hattie.

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