Skin is the largest organ of the body, and in many ways the most complex. It may seem odd to consider it an organ, since that designation includes the heart, kidneys, and liver, which require complicated tests to assess when something goes wrong. But the skin is right there on the surface, where it performs numerous essential functions.
For example, skin protects all the rest of the body from physical damage, heat and cold, as well as irritants and injury. It helps maintain normal body temperature by increasing or decreasing its circulation, producing sweat, or in the case of animals via complex adjustments in hair follicles to increase or reduce the insulating function of hair or fur. No other tissue is better at healing itself (except the modified “skin” that lines the mouth and other cavities, which is called “mucosa”).
But with all this responsibility comes risk. Skin is amazingly complex, with pores, follicles, glands, nerves, blood vessels, and other components, all vulnerable to damage from sun, wind, heat, cold, trauma, infection, chemicals, allergens, and parasites. We now realize that most allergens enter the body through the skin, and a number of serious diseases can do so as well.
Skin conditions fall into several broad categories—infectious, parasitic, auto-immune, or they can be a reflection of internal maladies such as metabolic or genetic conditions. However, this article is confined to the most common issues.
As summer approaches, the specific threats faced by skin alter because of shifts in weather, allergen types, activities (swimming, increased or type of activity), and travel.
The most obvious skin scourge for our pets (especially dogs, and cats that go outside or have contact with animals that do) is external parasites. For example, here in the desert we rarely encounter fleas on our pets due to the dry air. But in most of the U.S., fleas are a constant and ubiquitous challenge, and the most common cause of itching in dogs. And it’s possible to establish a localized flea population in a single home, once the fleas ride in on a dog. It literally only takes one flea and a potted plan to offer enough humidity and a base population for an infestation.
In addition, ticks are a frequent threat both here and almost anywhere you might visit. These literal blood-suckers are disgusting on their own, but their real threat to a pet’s health is through the diseases they can carry.
Mosquitoes also fall into this category. The news tells us about West Nile and other viruses carried by these pests, but for dogs the major threat is heartworm disease. Again, this is very uncommon here in the desert, but in parts of North America and other continents, it is a daily threat. Unfortunately, this condition has no outward signs until damage to the heart is irreversible.
What you can do: use excellent flea and tick protection when you travel, even for a weekend trip to the city. And the need for heartworm testing and prevention is clear. Your vet can help you find the products that are right for you.
Did you know that pets can get sunburned, and are prone to chapping of the nose and lips? They can even get skin cancer as a result of sun exposure. What you can do: apply sunscreen. Chapstick-type products with sun screen can be applied to the nose, lips, and ears, and spray-on products intended for children are considered safe for pets. But consider one of the newer products made just for pets, such as My Dog Nose It™, for daily use.
But clearly, parasites are only one of many things that bring dogs to the vet with skin complaints. The symptoms we hear most is that the pet is scratching “constantly.” Some have obvious flaking, redness, or rashes, but others don’t. Testing and treatment recommendations will depend on how badly the condition is affecting the pet’s—and by extension, the owner’s—life. If you’re not sure, there is now a device that attaches to a dog’s collar that will literally keep track of how much time the pet spends scratching! (It also tracks activity and head shaking, which can be a sign of ear problems. It’s called Vetrax, it comes with an app—see your vet for details.) In any case, constant itching, head shaking, scooting, or foot chewing are most often signs of allergies in dogs and, to a lesser extent, cats.
The best thing about skin is that it’s out there for everyone to see. Inspection of skin is quite direct. That doesn’t mean we never need testing, but in most cases, the testing is noninvasive and fairly easy. Faced with a nonspecific skin problem, most vets will start by just physically looking at the skin—something we obviously can’t do with most organs! Then we’ll take direct samples to check under the microscope for a better sense of what’s going on. Certainly blood tests may be needed to make sure that what we’re seeing on the outside isn’t a manifestation of something that’s happening on the inside, and in many cases we ultimately require a biopsy of the skin, but even these are very simple tests that don’t typically bother the pet much.
The second best thing about skin is that we can often treat it directly. Since skin covers the body, we can frequently treat only the skin, especially long term. This reduces side effects and decreases our reliance on antibiotics that can lead to resistant infections. Shampoos, wipes, rinses, sprays, mousses, creams, ointments, and spot-on products are part of our everyday regimen when battling skin problems.
That said, some recent advances in systemic treatments (tablets and injections) have revolutionized the treatment of itchy skin.
What you can do: be proactive. Bathe regularly, but not too often—the appropriate interval varies from pet to pet. If you know your pet is prone to itchy skin, see your vet at the earliest signs of a flare-up. The sooner it’s treated, the easier it is to provide relief!
The third best thing about skin: it’s the part of your pet you have contact with every day. Be on the alert for changes. Lumps, bumps, rashes, hair loss, or spots that suddenly cause a reaction when touched can all be early signs of serious problems. Don’t wait for your pet’s regular check-up or expect the vet to find every abnormal spot. You, as the pet’s daily companion, know best what’s normal, so you’re best placed to spot any changes early. Just as with humans, early detection is key!