Itchy Dog? Could It Be Mites?

by Anne Jones RN, BSNE

You have a Bichon. He/she is scratching. Clearly this is a dog with allergy problems, right?Well, probably so but this could be mild allergy that starts the dog scratching or it could be a flea or it could be – mites??? So let’s analyze this situation to see what needs to be done.

First a good all over brushing, combing and careful examination should locate any resident flea or fleas. Some Bichons are very allergic to flea bites and will scratch and claw from the moment one takes residence. You will soon know if your Bichon has flea allergy and will be careful to avoid giving them a place to roost. No one wants a flea problem. On the other hand, it is unfair to your dog to use flea preventives unnecessarily and see the article THE WISE USE OF PREVENTIVE MEDICATIONS for more information.

Allergy? Yes, in a Bichon you can expect that scratching may be a sign of allergy because many Bichons do have allergy issues, a frequent problem in white breeds. In fact, mild allergy happens to a lot of dogs, as it does to a lot of people, and you learn to live with seasonal problems with minimal treatment required. But the mildly allergic dog – or even the severely allergic dog that has begun to dig at his skin, to bite at his body, to be wretchedly miserable could also have mites of some type.

What sorts of mites should be considered and what are mites anyway?

Mites are arachnids, meaning they are in the same family as spiders. They are tiny and they live in or on the skin. They vary in size, some are contagious to other dogs and to humans, some are self limiting infestations that can become generalized. Read on.  Three primary mites are the ones causing demodicosis, scabies and the ones we do hear about from time to time, ear mites. Another mite is the one causing Cheylletiellosis, which seems not to be common in Bichons but cannot be disregarded.

Let’s start the discussion with demodicosis, the name of one disease that is not contagious. It comes in two “types” or levels of infestation. The mild and localized disease usually appears in young dogs between 3 and 6 months of age, is localized in nature and is self-limiting. You will notice itchiness along with patchy hair loss which shows reddened and scaly skin when you examine the patches. The mite burrows in hair follicles and usually this condition will clear up with minimal or even no treatment. HOWEVER – sometimes the localized condition gets out of control and becomes generalized demodicosis, which can progress to a bacterial infection if left untreated. You can imagine that an opportunistic bacteria would love to find broken, irritated skin that allows entry into the body so early treatment is important to avoid secondary infection. Treatment will be with a miticide from your veterinarian. Again the redness, scaly skin and loss of hair will spread from small patches to large scale evidence of disease.The condition has a genetic basis for susceptibility and is considered an immune mediated disease so consider it an early warning sign of susceptibility to other autoimmune conditions. Treatment must be done by the veterinarian and side effects are possible.

Scabies is NOT the mite of choice! Scabies causes extreme itching, is contagious to other dogs and is contagious to people! Scabies is caused by the mite sarcoptes cabei, is transmitted by direct contact and the mite will burrow into the skin, resulting in papules that are reddish in color, very itchy and will cause hair loss that spreads as the mite spreads. It appears to favor the belly area, ears and the front legs, particularly around the joints, according to some reports. There is clawing and biting as the dog attempts to soothe the itch so you will quickly determine that your pet has great misery from this mite – which he can pass along to your other dogs (and to you) if untreated. Miticide treatment therefore must be done for exposed dogs in the household and the faster the affected dog is isolated, the better. Follow up treatment by thorough cleaning of his area will also be critical to avoid infecting other dogs.

Ear mites may be fairly common in Bichons with their dropped ears with hair coat. The ear mite is otodectus cynotis and it loves the dark moist environment of the ear canal. Typically there will be dry reddish brown wax that is visible when the owner looks into the ear canal. In bad infestations, there will be enough of this wax to close the canal completely, not a good thing to happen. Again itching is a sign, along with the buildup of this reddish brown debris and the mite infestation can lead to secondary problems with bacterial or yeast infections. Treatment with miticide ear drops or ointments should control mild infection and occasionally additional relief may be achieved with anti-inflammatory medications. It is imperative to avoid water in your dog’s ears (cotton balls in the ear during the bath) and to insure they are dry after bathing – but do NOT use any deep implements or tools either to dry the ears or to pull excess hair. Damaged ear canals will just invite further problems and the ear drum can be punctured.

A fourth mite is not often reported in Bichons but does seem to have a preference for certain breeds of dogs and an inherited susceptibility factor. Signs of it can be spotted by an appearance of heavy dandruff. This is the condition called Cheylettiellosis. The mite can be seen by the naked eye as a tiny white fleck and the owner will note that this “dandruff” moves around on the back of the dog. Again the mite can be easily transmitted so all dogs in the household need to be treated with a miticide prescribed by your veterinarian. This one, sometimes called “walking dandruff”, causes entire litters to be affected when the dam has the condition.

Not all itchy dogs have mites but you should discuss the possibility with your vet when your dog is scratching, especially those that dig at their ears a lot or are chewing on their front legs, as described above. You may expect your itchy Bichons to be diagnosed with allergy and forget that there are other reasons why dogs scratch, including fleas that can be seen but also those invisible mites that could be burrowing into the skin and making our pets miserable in the extreme. Allergies have to be dealt with but mites can be eliminated!
As with any disease or stress, a healthy immune system will help to fight off the resulting problems associated with mites, especially those with inherited susceptibility, and should be a consideration at all times.

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