Itchy & Scratchy

April 14, 2011  

Dr. Wheaton shares his advice for tackling common allergies seen in pit bulls

Photo (above and below) courtesy of Melissa Lipani

By Micaela Myers

When we adopted our pit bull mix Omega, she came with a skin infection, soon followed by ear and eye infections. Once those were cleared up, we were left to deal with the more long-term problem: allergies, which led to constant foot licking and the above mentioned infections if we didn’t address those underlying allergies. Eventually we found Dr. Matthew Wheaton, who put us on track for keeping her allergies in check.

Different types of dogs are prone to different health issues, and Dr. Wheaton says allergies in pit bulls are fairly common. “A lot of the pit bulls come in for excessive itchiness. Licking the feet is common and sometimes rubbing the muzzle,” he said. “Oftentimes they come in with skin infections.”

Dr. Wheaton, who has a pit bull mix himself, said he sees allergies in pit bulls more than in most other breeds. The good news is that most allergies are easily manageable given the right approach.

“The goal during the first visit is to kind of get an idea of what area on the body the dogs are itching and try to educate people on controlling the controllable,” he explained. “Anytime we have allergies we want to minimize their ‘allergy cup’, the number of allergies that they have in their body.

Dr. Wheaton says true food allergies, such as an allergy to a protein source, are rare. However, dogs do not tolerate grains well, so he recommends switching dogs to a grain free diet.

“There are really only two things we can control: the food and the fleas. The third thing, which unfortunately is the vast majority of these dogs, is the world and allergies to the environment. We can try to take those two controllable things out of the dog’s issue by doing flea control that works and by doing diet changes to something that has no grain. Beyond that, we have to then manage the dog’s individual reaction to the world with some kind of medication or potentially a supplement. And, obviously, if they come in with a skin infection or an ear infection or a foot infection, we have to resolve that particular issue.”

Fleas and Food

To address fleas, Dr. Wheaton recommends a monthly flea treatment. The “old standbys” are Frontline or Advantage, but they aren’t the only choices.

“Over the last two years we’ve been using a lot more of the tablet medication called Comfortis, which is an organic compound,” he said. “It’s a lot safer and nicer because you don’t have the grease slick along the back, but it also works a lot faster and works for an entire month. Now there’s a new medication that’s come on the market called Trifexis. Trifexis is a combination product of the ingredient in Comfortis … and additionally has the internal parasite control that’s in Interceptor. So it’s a once a month product that does internal parasites (including heartworm) and external parasites really well. That would be what I recommend flea control wise.”

When it comes to food allergies, Dr. Wheaton says true food allergies, such as an allergy to a protein source, are rare. However, dogs do not tolerate grains well, so he recommends switching dogs to a grain free diet.

“Dogs are preferential carnivores, so because of that they should be eating mostly animals (i.e. meat), small amounts of fruits and vegetables, and no grain,” he explained. “There’s no dog on earth that would normally eat the wheat, barley, corn and millet that are put in the pet food as fillers because it makes the food more profitable for the company. I think that we see a lot of dogs that have allergies and issues secondary to grain. Their intestines will mount an inflammatory response to the grain. That heightens their overall inflammatory load and makes them more likely to have a skin allergy.”

Dr. Wheaton also believes grains are a culprit in the high incidence of inflammatory bowel disease seen in dogs.

In addition to switching to a grain free diet, he recommends supplementing dogs with omega 3 fatty acids. “Omega 3 fatty acids are natural anti-inflammatories, and they stabilize cell walls and decrease inflammation at the cellular level,” he said. “It’s not a panacea, but it definitely plays a role in management for all of these dogs.”

Not all omega 3s are created equal though. Dr. Wheaton says plant based omega 3s, such as flaxseed, are least effective. Fish oil is a good middle of the road option and is reasonably priced and easily accessible. However, he says, “A lot of the research shows that green-lipped mussel oil is the most powerful source out there when it comes to inflammation.”

Case Study: Chaya’s Environmental Allergies

If diet changes and flea medication and supplementation don’t solve the problem, then the dog will likely require medication to manage his or her allergies.

In addition to heading up the Alicia Pet Care Center in Mission Viejo, Calif., Dr. Wheaton runs the nonprofit Pet Rescue Center along with his wife Blythe. They see many pit bulls come in with allergies, and the dogs often require oral prescription medication to manage their allergies long term.

“We have a case right now that is finally coming around,” he said. “Chaya, who was a skeleton dog, came into us weighing about 40 pounds. She now weighs 70 pounds. We rescued her at the shelter basically on her last day before they were going to put her down. She’s a sweet pit bull. She’s probably about 6 or 7.” (Photo below)

Starving dogs like Chaya have a depressed immune system, so their allergies may not be a problem until they get healthier. “A lot of people don’t really understand allergies, but it’s an over-active immune system, it’s not a depressed immune system,” Dr. Wheaton said. “Once we got her immune system back on track, then her allergies kicked in. Within a short amount of time she had developed really significant itching.”

Chaya was already on grain-free food at the Pet Rescue Center and had been treated for fleas. Now she needed a safe, long-term fix for the allergies.

They used a low-dose cortisone product and an antihistamine short term to address the severe itchiness. However, cortisone products are not long-term options due to their side effects.

“Her allergies are being controlled with a medication called Atopica, which is cyclosporine,” Dr. Wheaton said. “That’s an immune modulating drug that works really well for dogs with environmental allergies. It can be tolerated long term by dogs as long as they have normal organ function. The side effects are very minimal.

“A lot of our pit bulls tend to go on Atopica. It tends to work for most dogs that have environmental allergies. Probably 95 percent of dogs that lick their feet are environmental allergies. And 95 percent of dogs that go on Atopica for environmental allergies have complete resolution of their problem at two months on therapy. Once you get them under control you have to keep them under control by using a medication.”

Chaya is now six weeks (photo right)into her treatment and responding well.

By properly addressing allergies, itchy and scratchy dogs can become happy and healthy companions once again.

To learn more about allergies in pets, view Dr. Wheaton’s videos here.

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5 Responses to “Itchy & Scratchy”
  1. Ms Wilma says:

    When I first brought ‘Dan” home from the shelter, his skin looked good. After a month or so he began to show signs of allergies. I am a veterinary technician and aware of the symptoms and treatments. We have tried foods without grains, foods with novel protiens and vegetarian foods. I have added Omegas in the form of fish oils. These have helped but not cured. I will not use corticosteroids.

    Since he lived in a concrete environment that was washed down daily at the shelter, and now lives in a carpeted environment, I suspect dust mites to be the culprit. I have seen advertisements for Atopica in industry publcations and wondered about its efficacy. I will be asking my veterinarian for a prescription to give it a try. Thank you Dr. Wheaton for the great information.

  2. StubbyDog says:

    @Ms Wilma We are so happy this article may have helped you out. Please let us know the outcome. Thanks for you support!

  3. mac_naughton says:

    Very helpful! My pittie was licking her feet obsessively and now that I have switched to grain free food that seems to help immensely. My food choice was driven by the first ingredient being meat, which so many are not, and the availability, so I didn’t have to go to the pet store across town. Now my foster bulldog is on the same brand of food as she heals from her mange to prevent any additional allergies. The dogs eat better then I do! I learn so much each and every day!

  4. StubbyDog says:

    @mac_naughton We are thrilled your dog’s allergies are better now and that you are fostering a bulldog. 🙂

  5. Matthew Gilley says:

    My pit bull is a “blue” . Hes around 6 months old and is a scratcher and foot licker. We have had him on prescribed food, blue bull, and now a totally grain free product. I cant remember the name of it right now :(. I just started adding liquid omega 3 about 4 or 5 days ago. He is still itching! Its driving me and him nuts! Do you think the atopica would be a good fix for him?