Your dog is in misery. He's constantly scratching, and now his hair's falling out. While only a veterinarian can make a definite diagnosis, he's likely suffering from allergies or the dreaded canine M word -- mange. If it's mange, that doesn't mean you're a bad dog parent. Mites happen.
Canine atopic dermatitis really means your dog is reacting to an allergen. He scratches all the time. Depending on the type of allergy, he might lose hair or pull hair out while chewing at his itchy skin. Now the detective work begins. Your vet conducts skin tests to determine exactly what is causing the symptoms. Sometimes that isn't necessary -- you don't need a veterinary medical degree to realize fleas may be the culprit if you see them on your dog. If the problem is seasonal, environmental allergens like mold or pollen may trigger symptoms. Your dog may also react to something in his food.
Treatment depends on what causes the allergic reaction. Fleas are relatively easy -- find a good topical or oral anti-flea product and problem solved. For other allergens, your vet may prescribe antihistamines for itch relief. If those medications don't help, your vet may give your dog corticosteroids, which stop the scratching but might have long-term health consequences. If it's a food allergy, your vet can advise you of dietary changes or supplementation that may stop the itch.
Sarcoptic mange, also known as scabies, is caused by mites and drives your dog crazy with itching. Besides hair loss, your dog's skin is inflamed and sores appear. Be careful -- this type of mange can affect humans. Demodetic mange is less of a problem, but appears to be hereditary in certain breeds. Also caused by mites, demodetic mange more often affects dogs with compromised immune systems. While the symptoms are similar to the sarcoptic variety, secondary infections often accompany demodetic mange.
If the diagnosis is sarcoptic mange, you must not only treat your dog but all the animals in your household, as the disease is very contagious. Your vet will take skin scrapings to make a diagnosis. She'll prescribe topical and oral medications to kill the mites and relieve the itching, as well as medicated shampoos to help heal the skin. It may take a month or more of treatment to cure sarcoptic mange, and the dog cannot be considered out of the woods until he receives negative skin scrapings done over a 30-day period. Demodetic mange treatments include medication to kill mites, along with antibiotics for any skin infections and medicated dips. Mildly affected dogs may get better without treatment, but take an afflicted dog to the vet for an opinion.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.