Dear Lisa: My 6-year-old female yellow Labrador Retriever has been itching herself for about a year now. She is licking her paws, scratching her ears, and has a rash and redness on her belly. I've taken her to the vet for antibiotic treatment but the problems keeps coming back. Is this something Labs are prone to? Is there anything else I can do for her? --Lab Work in Los Angeles
It seems your pet has an overall itchiness in various places. This could indicate three separate problems with the same symptoms or one overall problem with symptoms in different parts of the body.
According to a Labrador Retriever breeder I spoke with, she said there is about a five to 10 percent incidence of itchiness in Labs, which in some cases is a true allergy, and in others it's not known what's causing the problem.
Skin irritations could be a food allergy, sensitivity to a chemical in the environment, some overall disease like diabetes or hypothyroidism where skin problems are a symptom, a bacterial infection, a stubborn fungus or even mange. There are many choices. Unfortunately, you will have to go down the list and rule each one out to find the culprit before you can start to treat the cause and not just the symptoms.
After having your vet check for autoimmune diseases, the best approach is to start with a complete history of the problem. Make a journal and write down when things started to happen. Look for clues, such as old vet bills for dates of problems cropping up. Look to your personal calendar to see if any activities or changes might have correlated with the problem. Note any changes in dog food, illness, or any factors that were out of the ordinary.
- Allergies. Ruling out allergies would be first on the list since if that's the cause, removal of the allergen is a simple task with some follow-up to clear up symptoms. Food-related sensitivities, intolerance or improper nutrition can cause skin flare-ups. Owners have reported great results with a fish and sweet potato diet. One Labrador owner said changing to that food, "cleared a chronic case of yeasty ears up in six weeks."
- Environment. Since the paws and belly are involved with the itchiness and redness, some outside substance like a new carpet cleaner or floor wax might have triggered a reaction and continued exposure keeps the rash from healing completely. Changing cleaning products to a more natural brand with less harsh chemicals might help.
- Yeast. Look into a fungal infection -- widespread yeast will cause itching -- and it can be a symptom of an allergy. If it's a yeast overgrowth try adding some acidophilus to her food to build up good bacteria; since she's been on antibiotics lately, this might be helpful to create a more balanced intestinal flora (good bacteria to combat yeast) for her.
- Mange. Always check to see if the dog has fleas or possibly mange as the cause of the itchiness. A good medicated shampoo could take care of the problem if she has an allergy to these parasites. Follow up with a good preventive program to stop re-infestation.
Working with your vet or breeder throughout the process with help you find the culprit in that itchy situation.
If you have a question, send it to Lisa at AskLisa@AKC.org and she may select it for a future column. Due to the high volume of questions she cannot offer individual responses.