Health Articles

Combating Skin Problems & Allergies

by Vickie Halstead, RN, CVNS, CCRN, CEN, LNC

Writing scientific articles with all references cited is my preference. Instead, this article contains my opinions and medical facts derived from scientific materials I have read over the years. Utilizing nutrition to prevent or treat illness has been an interest of mine since I graduated from nursing school in 1973, which led me to taking vitamin supplements. Therefore I could not list all the references I have read, but I did include a few of my recent sources. My hope is that this information will improve the health of our Bichons.

First, I want to share with you the successes obtained from the nutrition program that I provide for my Bichons. I purchased my first Bichon pet 20 years ago. She later died from an intestinal tumor at the age of 14 years. Until I applied my nutrition knowledge to my dogs, she suffered from frequent hot spots. At that time I fed her only a poor quality dry dog food, on recommendation from the breeder. Once I changed her diet to a premium quality food and added supplements, her skin problems resolved and never returned. Over the years I have advised several Bichon owners whose dogs had skin problems. Most of them have been able to eliminate the problem or at least minimize it utilizing my nutrition program. Considering that skin problems/allergies is the #1 health problem in Bichons, I find it interesting that none of the Bichons that have lived with me over the 17 years Iíve been breeding have developed skin problems after I started my nutrition program. In addition, my Bichon bitches tend to have large litters and very rare neonatal deaths. Furthermore, only one C-section has occurred in 28 litters, which resulted from failure of the second shipment of fresh chilled semen to arrive, and the outcome being one large puppy. I believe that my nutrition program promotes optimal health and skin condition for my Bichons.

Next, I want to help you understand the physiology of skin problems. The incidence of at least one episode of skin problems in Bichons has been cited as high as 50%. Bichons that have less pigment, i.e. mostly pink skin, are more prone to skin problems. The skin is the largest organ of the body, which is our primary defense against the environment. The skin is the first organ to exhibit signs of shock, poor nutrition, and the accumulation of toxins or contaminants in the body. Other organs that help to detoxify the body by cleansing the blood are the lungs, kidneys, and liver. With so many chemicals and toxins in the environment (allergens, lawn chemicals, chemicals on streets and sidewalks used to treat snow/ice, pollution, the flea and tick prevention medications, chemicals or preservatives in foods, and chemicals in cleaning agents), these organs may be not be able to prevent contaminated blood from flowing to the life-sustaining organs and to the skin, which acquires more than the other organs being the largest organ. In addition to skin problems, chronic autoimmune diseases can develop from an excess of toxins in the blood that include diabetes, pancreatitis, liver dysfunction, Cushingís disease, kidney disease, lupus, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, inflamed arteries, thrombocytopenia (blood disease), and anemia. It should be noted that most skin diseases and allergies are also autoimmune diseases. Read this article for a more detailed explanation of autoimmune diseases: www.bichonhealth.org/HealthInfo/DefAutoimmune.htm.

The signs of skin problems include scratching, hair loss, frequent licking or chewing, rubbing itself on carpet or furniture, rashes on the skin, blisters, and hot spots or skin lesions. Chewing can become a behavior issue, which may require veterinary treatment. I recommend a holistic veterinarian who has augmented knowledge of nutrition. Anti-anxiety medications may be needed to change the behavior.

The dilemma we face is trying to determine the cause of the skin problem so it can properly be treated, instead of masking it with drugs. Potential causes of skin problems are: allergies, autoimmune diseases, mange (mite infestation), fleas, bacterial or yeast infections, thyroid disorders, exposure to chemicals, and dry skin. For more information on these causes read the many pertinent articles on www.bichonhealth.org. The possibility exists that many of these causes can be inherited, or at least the dog may have a genetic predisposition to develop the disease. Therefore, as responsible breeders we should not be breeding Bichons with skin problems or allergies. Many veterinarians will blame the skin problem on allergies, which can be very expensive to treat. True allergies often are inherited from one or both parents. This allergic dog forms antibodies to certain elements in the environment (allergens) such as mold, dust, smoke, pollen, chemicals, or food ingredients. A dog with a strong immune system can tolerate these allergens, despite being genetically programmed to have allergies.

Treatment of skin problems is very challenging. Often veterinarians prescribe steroids, which is successful but the problem returns once the drug is discontinued. These are the three primary reasons that I would not allow my dogs to be treated with steroids for skin problems: (1) Steroids can produce many serious, life-threatening adverse reactions such as hypertension, atherosclerosis, cardiac arrhythmias, seizures, ulcers and/or stomach upset, electrolyte imbalances, kidney failure, high glucose levels, increased susceptibility to infection, blood clotting abnormalities, personality changes, glaucoma, and many more; (2) Steroids can cause autoimmune diseases which Bichons have a tendency to develop; and (3) Bichons seem to be predisposed to develop Cushingís disease, pancreatitis, or diabetes due to steroid therapy.

Prevention, in my opinion, is the key for allergies and skin problems. It is important to arm those dogs that are genetically programmed to have allergies with the ability to fight the allergic response by fortifying their immune system. Prevention involves feeding your dogs healthy foods and adding appropriate supplements to boost the immune system and promote healthy skin. My recommendations for both are below. Dry kibble cannot meet all the nutritional requirements of a dog, especially one that is used for breeding or showing. In addition, the nutrients in dry kibble may be damaged during the processing. All of my Bichons have been fed the same food and supplements, regardless of whether they are show/breeding dogs or pets. The only change Iíve made in the last few years is to add variety to their diet instead of just feeding dry kibble. Feeding a wider variety of ingredients, especially proteins, can help prevent the development of allergies from the repeated exposure to offending ingredients over time. I feed my Bichons a combination of dry kibble and the raw diet: raw beef or chicken nuggets (also containing fruits, bone and vegetables), raw chicken wings and beef bones. Also, once per week I feed them each a mackerel filet (bought at grocery stores in a can) and at least weekly add canned organ meats to their dry kibble.

Prevention of skin problems also involves avoiding excessive vaccinations (Do not give more often than every 3 years.) and preventive medications for fleas and ticks, both of which can precipitate autoimmune diseases. Remember, allergies and most skin problems are autoimmune diseases. Ask yourself; does the benefit outweigh the risk for treating a housedog for fleas and ticks with these chemicals? See this article for advice on vaccinations www.bichonhealth.org/HealthInfo/Vaccines.htm, and this article about preventive medications www.bichonhealth.org/HealthInfo/PreventiveMedications.htm. I feel so strongly about this topic that I include guidelines for administration of vaccinations in my puppy sales contracts, and forbid buyers to give preventives for fleas and ticks. Also, the contract identifies that rabies vaccinations must be given one month apart from other vaccinations to avoid reactions.

Probiotic supplements, containing beneficial bacteria for the gut, must be considered in the treatment and prevention of skin problems and autoimmune diseases. The intestinal tract plays a major role in nutrient absorption, plus it is usually the first line of defense for the body to develop an immune response against disease. The natural flora of bacteria in the intestinal tract must be balanced for the dog to maintain a healthy immune response to allergens, toxins, and infections. An imbalance can cause susceptibility to infections, allergies, skin problems, inflammatory conditions, autoimmune diseases, reproductive problems, and a shorter life span. Puppies are born with a sterile gut and obtain their healthy intestinal flora balance from the mother, which stays with them for the rest of their life, until stresses later in life upset this balance. Giving probiotics that include lactobacilli, bifidobacteria and enterococcus can improve digestion, synthesize vitamins, inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause disease, and produce immune stimulating factors and anti-inflammatory properties. Probiotics can be purchased in health food stores and from some pet supply companies, and are contained in yogurt, some dry dog foods, and some dog supplements. I give my Bichons daily doses of either Probiotics or yogurt, especially during treatment with antibiotics that kill invading bacteria as well as beneficial bacteria.

My recommendation is that you feed your Bichons only top quality foods that contain probiotics and are bought in pet stores or from pet food companies, not grocery or discount stores. Keep in mind that animals used in some poor quality foods may have been relegated unfit for human consumption, or may have been road kill or dead pets left with the veterinarian, but used for dog foods. Avoid the following ingredients in foods--READ THE LABEL!

  1. Beet pulp or tomato pomace may cause tear and saliva staining
  2. Artificial preservatives or additives that are poisons which may cause cancer, skin problems, and other illnesses: ethoxyquin (a pesticide), BHA or BHT, food colorings, propylene glycol (similar to antifreeze)
  3. Complex carbohydrates which the dog cannot fully break down (comes out in the stool): soy flour, soybean meal, corn gluten meal, wheat gluten, and wheat muddlings
  4. Poor quality animal protein: poultry meal, animal meal.
    • The ingredients should begin with 2 single-source whole meats such as chicken and chicken meal
      (instead of poultry meal)
  5. Meat or poultry by-products which may include skin, feet, hooves, heads, udders, intestines, feathers
  6. Corn which is a cheap filler and not well digested by dogs
  7. Wheat which can cause allergies or digestive problems
  8. Sweeteners which can lead to diabetes

Supplements that promote healthy skin and coat while boosting immune function to help fight allergies and infections include Vitamins E and C, several B vitamins, and the omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Garlic has healing properties, blocks certain enzymes associated with infections, and promotes a healthy cardiovascular system. The combination of garlic and one of the B vitamins produces an odor that helps repel mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks. I have never given my Bichons any flea or tick preventives, and they have no problems with these pests. BFCA receives many reports of Bichons that develop serious autoimmune diseases or die after receiving some of the preventives.

Vitamin C has an added benefit. At the doses listed below, it acidifies the urine, which helps fight infections and struvite urinary stones. Bacteria are less likely to grow in an acid environment. Struvite bladder stones, which are fairly common among Bichons (especially bitches), often develop secondary to bladder infections and are not inherited. Plus, acidifying the urine is the major method to dissolve struvite stones. However, be advised that Vitamin C must not be given to dogs with calcium oxalate urinary stones, which are exacerbated by acidic urine, cannot be dissolved, are inherited, and occur primarily in the males. Therefore, use caution in giving Vitamin C to Bichons, especially the males. All Bichons need to be monitored for signs of bladder infections, stones, and urinary crystals.

While weaning puppies, I begin adding supplements to their gruel, and continue this throughout the Bichonís life. The supplements, which should be added to the diet gradually, and doses (based on the average sized Bichon of 15 pounds) I recommend are:

  1. A multiple vitamin supplement that contains probiotics
  2. Vitamin C
    • 100 mg/day during weaning
    • 250 mg/day for 3-6 months of age
    • 500 mg/day for 6-12 months of age
    • 1000 mg/day for > 1 year of age
    • Make any increases gradual to prevent diarrhea
    • Available in chewable tablets, crystals, or liquid at health food stores
  3. Brewers yeast with garlic tablets (purchase from pet stores or pet catalogues)
    • 1 per day up to 4 months of age, 2 per day to 8 months, then 3 per day
  4. Vitamin E oil (purchase at health food stores)
    • 10 IU/day during weaning
    • 50 IU/day for puppies
    • 500 mg/day for 6-12 months of age
    • 100 IU/day for adults
  5. Oils containing omega 3 & 6 fatty acids (purchase from pet stores, pet catalogues, or pet food companies)
    • Give according to directions on the label daily if skin problems exist, or 2-3 times per week for maintenance

 
Some general dietary recommendations:

  • Always have fresh, hard water available (not softened water which contains salt and can lead to bladder stones). Distilled bottled water is optimal and helps reduce staining of the beard, tears, and saliva.
  • Avoid chocolate since it is poisonous to dogs in large quantities.
  • Avoid grapes or related products (raisins, grape seed extract) since these can cause acute kidney failure.

Skin problems need to be tackled from the inside, as Iíve discussed, but also from the outside. Avoid any whitening or brightening shampoos which can be irritating to the skin. Do not bathe your Bichon more often than every 2 weeks to avoid drying the skin, and rinse thoroughly to prevent skin irritation from residual shampoo. Use a medicated shampoo if skin problems exist, allow your dog to soak in the shampoo at least as long as directed on the bottle, and use a conditioner to moisturize the skin. Use a mild laundry detergent for washing bedding for your dog. Prevent exposing your dog to chemicals in the grass in yards and parks, on streets or sidewalks treated for snow/ice, and in cleaning agents. Either protect the feet with booties for walks or wash the feet after a walk. Once the pads are exposed to the chemicals, the dog may lick the feet due to the irritation causing the chemicals to be ingested, thereby becoming a systemic toxicity (in the blood) that affects the skin and other organs. To treat hot spots try over-the-../counter/ hydrocortisone cream, topical sprays such as Dermacool (a canine product), Teatree oil, or Solarcaine. In my opinion, the most beneficial treatment is to dry the moist hot spots with powders. Neo-Predef with Tetracaine powder prescribed by veterinarians is very effective, as well as BFI powder made by Beecham, which you may be able to purchase at drug stores. Bathe with a gentle flea shampoo if infested with fleas. Avoid flea dips because they are very irritating to the skin.

The Bichon Frise Club of America (BFCA) has donated funds to a current research project on allergies, which is being conducted by Bruce Hammerberg, DVM, PhD, at the North Carolina State University. Since allergies/skin problems are the number one health problem in Bichons, this study is paramount. Dr. Hammerberg is requesting our assistance in sending blood samples via your veterinarian from Bichons with a diagnosis of allergies and the parents, if possible. If you can help, contact him via email at Bruce_Hammerberg@ncsu.eduBruce_Hammerberg@ncsu.edu for more details.

In summary, serious skin problems not only can be expensive to treat, but the owner and the Bichon suffer needlessly. Often this condition can be prevented or resolved with a healthy nutritional program, good skin care, and selective breeding practices. Prevention involves providing a diet that is nutritious and contains a variety of ingredients, providing vitamin supplements, and avoiding chemical irritants to the skin, excessive vaccinations and preventives for fleas and ticks.
 

Selected References:

  1. An Apple a Day: The ABCís of Diet and Disease, by Barb Bancroft, RN. WellWorth Publishing, 2001.
  2. The Truth About Pet Products, by R. L. Wysong, DVM. Inquiry Press, 2002
  3. Food Pets Die For, by Ann N. Martin. NewSage Press, 2003.
  4. Protect Your Pet, by Ann N. Martin. NewSage Press, 2001.
  5. Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn. Rodale Press, 1982.
  6. How to Have a Healthier Dog, by Wendell O. Belfield, DVM. Library of Congress, 1981.
  7. Websites of interest: