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Bob is a little 6-year-old Jack Russell Terrier who has had problems with itchy skin on and off since he was a year old. His skin had been quite settled over the winter but he had started to become itchier again in the last few weeks. His owner had also noticed that he had smelly ears and was shaking his head.

On examination, he had flaky, scabby red skin along his back and had saliva staining on his paws. His ears were red and both ear canals contained a smelly grey/brown discharge. Skin testing of his back and feet revealed a secondary bacterial infection and testing of his ears revealed a mixed bacterial and yeast infection. He was started on medicated shampoo, antibiotics and ear drops and his skin irritation improved over the next two weeks and his ear infection resolved. However, the underlying cause of his skin disease is important to consider and recurrent skin problems are always very frustrating for pet owners.

The most common cause of itchy skin in dogs and cats is allergy. This can be an allergy to parasites such as fleas (common), allergens in the environment such as grasses, pollens and house dust mites (also common) and food (less common). Dogs and cats with allergic skin disease have a marked hypersensitivity response to these allergens and signs can start from as young as 6 months of age. Some animals will initially show a seasonal pattern of itchy skin (or ears) but over time it may progress to an all year round problem. Certain environmental conditions may also make flare ups more likely, such as a change in temperature or humidity. Often allergic pets are worse in the summer season and often after a period of wet weather.

Diagnosing allergic skin disease is not a simple process. There is not one simple test and it may involve doing food trials, flea/mite treatment trials and also blood or skin testing. It may also not be possible to cure allergies but it should be possible to reduce the clinical signs to a more comfortable level and manage flare-ups as necessary. Life long treatment is often needed.

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