Scratch, Scratch , Bite, Bite Boy do I Itch!

As the summer heat and humidity wind down our cats and dogs begin one of their favorite activities……..they scratch.  Or they bite at themselves or rub their back on the rug, furniture and whatever else they can find to scratch that itch.  Is it fleas…or allergies?  Actually it could be both.

As summer segues into fall natural vegetation transitions from the plants of summer into the weeds of fall.  Ragweed, pigweed, molds and fungus are but a few of the plant materials that encroach on our existence.  But if it is “hay fever” why does my dog bite himself?  Or why does my cat scratch?  Shouldn’t they sneeze or have runny eyes like we do?  The answer lies in a basic physiologic difference between dog, cats and humans.  When we are exposed to an inhaled allergen our body responds with its respiratory tissues.  We sneeze, our eyes water and our throat tickles.  However for cats and dogs the primary “shock organ” is their skin.  First they get a bit itchy and then as they scratch histamines and other chemicals are released that intensifiy the response. Yes, occasionally the eyes run or the pets sneeze but that is a less common response to allergens.  So where does that leave the fleas?

Fleas and other ectoparasites, such as ticks may induce scratching as well.  When ticks attach they release an anti coagulant chemical to prevent the blood from clotting while they feed.  When fleas bite dogs and cats the pet’s body releases a chemical which induces an itching sensation.  Barring an allergy or hypersensitivity to these chemicals your pet may give a couple of scratches or bites at the area impacted as they resume their normal activity.  However,  in the allergic cat or dog this minor infraction can result in a more major reaction inducing prolonged biting, scratching or self trauma.  Whereas most pets will have only minor irritation from the flea or tick bite, the allergic dog or cat will suffer a much more intense reaction.  Treatment then must address the issue of the parasite as well as the allergic response.  Pets with flea allergies may also exhibit other symptoms that your local vet should recognize as being suggestive of a flea bite allergy or flea allergy dermatitis.

What should you do if your pet becomes itchy and is biting at himself or scratching herself?  Use of a monthly topical flea product is very effective in reducing the likelihood that the problem is the result of fleas.  Make sure that the product your are using is approved for the appropriate pet.  Treat all pets in the household even if only one pet is having signs.  Finally,  if the symptoms persist, visit your local vet to differentiate if the problem is more than just a casual encounter with ectoparasites.  Pets can be surprisingly self traumatic opening large wounds on their body.  Do not delay once you have determined that your dog or cat’s scratching is more than the casual itch.