Summer is the itchy season for pets in Ireland

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Published 19/05/2015 | 00:00

A flea under the microscope Credit: Prof. Dr. H. Mehlhorn

Summer isthe itchiest time of year for pets. Dogs and cats that have healthy skin for the rest of the year break out in rashes, scabs and hot spots.

Animals that normally never raise a foot to scratch themselves start to itch continuously. What is it about the summer months that makes pets' skin so sensitive?

There are three main factors, all of them relating to the warmer summer weather.

First, there are more pollens and dusts floating around in the atmosphere. Many pets suffer from so-called "atopy", which is an allergic reaction to air-borne allergens. When this condition is suspected, a blood sample or skin test can be done, and this specifies the precise particles which are causing the problem. Sometimes the culprits are dust mites, which are an all-year issue, but more commonly, grass, weed and tree pollens play a significant role. These are seasonal particles, emerging in the spring and summer. Allergies to plant pollens are aggravated by the fact that pets spend more time outside in the summer, with warmer weather and longer hours of daylight. Allergies of this type can be successfully treated in a range of ways, including immunotherapy (when tiny doses of the allergenic particles are injected into the animal, so that their immune system become familiarised to them, and the allergic reaction stops happening). Regular shampoos (to wash off pollens and dusts, and to soothe the skin), anti-inflammatory tablets (such as steroids) and high levels of essential fatty acids (to make the skin healthier) can all play a part in keeping allergic pets comfortable.

"External parasites" are the second reason why pets get more itchy in the summer, and the main culprits are fleas, ticks and harvest mites. Fleas can breed all year round, but they need heat to do this. Central heating means that they can infest a home at any time of year, but when it comes to breeding outside, the weather needs to be warm. When the ambient temperature hits 21'C (70'F) fleas start to breed rapidly, and the warmer it gets, the faster they breed. In Ireland, the temperature normally reaches this in April, staying there till September. As a result, fleas can only breed outdoors in the summer months in Ireland. In the winter, if a flea hops off a dog outside, it's too cold for breeding: the flea will die. In the summer, when a flea hops off, it will lay hundreds of eggs wherever it lands. These eggs hatch out in 2 - 5 days in warm weather, developing into tiny caterpillar-like larvae which then transform into pupae, similar to a butterfly cocoon. The young adult flea develops inside the cocoon (like a mutant butterfly), emerging days, weeks or months later. Most often, the new fleas emerge in less than a month, but they can wait in the cocoon for up to a year if needed, which is why fleas can be so difficult to eradicate. Flea populations consist of differing ratios of the various life stages, as follows: 50% eggs, 35% larvae, 10% pupae, and 5% adults. This explains why it is often pointless to just treat the fleas on the animal: 95% of them remain in the environment, on the conveyor belt to becoming adult fleas.

It's relatively easy when a flea problem is indoors: a can of household spray kills all adults in the carpets, as well as leaving a residue that prevents eggs, larvae and pupae from developing. But in the summer, fleas become endemic in outdoor areas frequented by pets. You can't spray gardens, yards and parks to get rid of all the flea life stages, so if your pet visits places shared by other animals, there is a very high chance that they'll pick up fleas and start to itch. Fleas are good at remaining invisible: in one study, around 70% of itchy animals were cured by being treated for fleas, even when not a single flea had been spotted. The message? If you have an itchy pet in the summer months, it's almost always worth giving a thorough flea treatment.

These days, vets have a choice of ways to treat fleas, from shampoos to sprays to spot-ons to collars to tablets. One of the latest innovations is a tasty tablet that kills all fleas and ticks on the dog, continuing to do so for a full three months. This makes comprehensive pet parasite control simple: the flea/tick tablet can be given every three months along with the usual broad spectrum worm tablet. Some individual pets may need other specialised parasite control but for most dogs, this covers all the options.

Ticks don't make animals itch like fleas: they just act as a local irritant. Anti-tick products can be used to prevent them, or ticks can just be plucked off when they are seen. As for Harvest Mites: these come out in August, and can drive pets demented by attaching between their toes, causing seriously itchy feet. It's best to ask your vet about dealing with Harvest Mites: there is no single cure-all product.

The third reason for the itchiness peak in summer is simple: warm skin is itchier than cool skin. Bacteria and yeasts multiply more rapidly, and red, sore skin gets even redder and more sore.

If your pet gets itchy this summer, it's best to ask your vet for help sooner rather than later. The science of curing the itch means that vets are better equipped than ever to keep your pet's skin cool, comfortable and itch-free.

Wexford People

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