Contact dermatitis is a relatively rare skin disease that can occur when a dog or
cat makes physical contact with a chemical or other irritating
substance and has a negative reaction. There are two types of
contact dermatitis -- allergic and irritant -- and while they
are technically two different diseases, the symptoms and
treatments are so similar that they are often grouped together.
Read on to learn what you need to know about both types of
contact dermatitis in dogs and cats.
Causes of Contact Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats
There are two types of contact dermatitis: allergic and
irritant. In both cases, the pet must make direct physical
contact with an irritating substance in order to suffer a
Allergic dermatitis occurs when a pet becomes hypersensitive to
substances in their environment. Most allergic reactions require a period of
repeated physical contact and skin sensitization, so even if
your pet has come into contact with certain chemicals or
substances in the past without issue, an allergy could develop,
and it may seem like it came out of nowhere. However on
average, skin sensitization can take anywhere from six months
to two years to develop.
Common chemicals and substances that cause allergic contact
dermatitis include: topical antibiotics, flea collars/flea powders, certain metals
(such as nickel), grasses and pollens, soaps/shampoos, carpet
deodorizers, insecticides, dyes, and materials such as rubber,
wool, leather, and plastic.
Irritant contact dermatitis, on the other hand, does not
require a period of sensitization. A reaction will occur the
first time that your pet makes contact with an extremely
irritating substance, and any other animal that comes into
contact with the substance may have a skin reaction as
Common chemicals and substances that cause irritant contact
dermatitis include: poison ivy sap, road salt (for melting
ice), detergents, soaps, solvents, acids and alkalis, and
petroleum byproducts (such as fertilizers, perfumes, and
Symptoms of Contact Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats
Contact dermatitis generally appears on areas of the body that
are not well protected by hair, such as the feet, nose, lips,
chin, stifles (“knees”), hocks (backs of “knees”), and
underside of the body.
The primary symptom of both types of contact dermatitis is a
skin rash characterized by itchy red bumps and inflammation.
There may be weepy, blister-like lesions, hives, crusting,
thickening, scaling, and hair
loss. The pet will most likely scratch, bite, and lick the
skin excessively, which may lead to a secondary bacterial
In irritant contact dermatitis, you may also see ulcers.
Diagnosing Contact Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats
If you suspect that your pet is suffering from contact
dermatitis, contact your veterinarian. Your pet’s medical
history as well as current symptoms will usually be enough to
diagnose the skin disease.
The tricky part is isolating the irritating substance. This is
usually accomplished through either exclusion trials or a patch
test. In an exclusion trial, the pet is placed in a neutral
environment and potentially irritating substances are
introduced one by one. In a patch test, the suspected allergen
is rubbed or bandaged onto the pet’s skin. Then, the area of
skin is monitored for several days.
Treatment for Contact Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats
There is no cure for contact dermatitis. The best way to treat
and prevent the disease is to prevent exposure to the
irritating substance. This may mean removing a plant from your garden, changing
detergents, or keeping certain chemicals locked away.
In the short term, your veterinarian may prescribe topical or
oral corticosteroids or antihistamines to control itching and
reduce inflammation. Certain shampoos and sprays
can also relieve itching and other symptoms such as Veterinary Clinical Care antifungal
shampoo. And if the skin is infected, your veterinarian may
prescribe an oral or topical solutions such as Animax ointment specially formulated for
In the long term, you may want to consider switching to a
pet shampoo, a hypoallergenic detergent to wash pet
bedding, glass or stainless steel food and water bowls, and
toys that do not contain rubber.
Diets to Help Cat and Dog Dermatitis
Is your dog or cat’s skin itchy and irritated and you don’t
know the cause? It could be that food allergies are the cause
of these changes.
For cats and dogs, diet and nutrition can play a role in the
cause andthe treatment of food-allergy-related dermatitis--a chronic disease, also
known as cutaneous adverse food reaction, that results in skin
inflammation. Additionally, if your pet has not yet developed
dermatitis, serving your loved one a nutritious, balanced diet
can be an important part of prevention.
Signs of Food Allergy Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats
Dermatitis may affect dogs anywhere on their bodies,
particularly on their faces, ears, and feet. Cats typically
scratch their heads and necks. In addition to dermatitis, cats
and dogs may experience diarrhea and vomiting as a
result of their food allergies; dogs may also
experience difficulty breathing in rare cases. If you spot any
of these issues, set up a veterinarian appointment right away.
Causes of Food Allergy Dermatitis
Food allergy dermatitis is often caused by a protein
source--more commonly chicken and other poultry, beef, soy,
dairy, or eggs, but also lamb and fish. Other culprits may
include preservatives, fillers, colorings, and carbs, such as
potato, wheat, corn, and rice. The exposure to the food
substance is typically through consumption, but may also be
indirectly, via inhalation or skin contact. Malnutrition can
also be a cause of dermatitis in pets.
The disease may strike at any age, though typically symptoms
are not found in pets under one year old, and symptoms will
persist until the cause of the allergy is eliminated from the
Note that because it can take a very long time, sometimes over
a year or more, for a food item to cause problems, the issues
your pet is experiencing may not be the result of a recent
Steps to Treatment
Step 1: Elimination Diet
Because the symptoms of each type of dermatitis are similar, it
can be difficult to identify and treat the underlying cause. To
diagnose food allergy dermatitis, your vet will help you
implement an 8- to 12-week elimination diet: substituting what
your pet has been eating with a homemade or commercial diet
that consists of one source of protein and one source of
carbs--both of which your pet should not have ever consumed.
You will also need to cut out treats.
Step 2: Choosing Uncommon Food Sources
Finding a food your pet has never tried is a good way to halt
symptoms. Some less-frequently used protein sources, like bison
or deer, may be recommended by your veterinarian. If your
feline forages and hunts (i.e., rabbits or rodents), finding
food sources that your cat has never been exposed to may pose a
bit more of a challenge as your pet’s previous food encounters
will have been more varied.
Step 3: Finding the Cause and Moving Forward
If your pet’s symptoms improve, then your veterinarian may
recommend that the old diet be reinstated. This is so you can
definitively diagnose the cause of the dermatitis. For example,
if your pet’s food was changed in May and your dog improved by
July, it may be hard to tell if it was food or blooming apple
blossoms that led to the problem. For this reason, reinstating
the old food will let you pinpoint the cause of the dermatitis.
On the other hand, if things are going well on the new diet,
many pet parents decide not to try this. They would rather
simply find out next spring whether it was the apple blossoms
or the food that causes the allergies, and continue to use the
food that’s working in the meantime. If the allergies don’t
return, your pet will be on a usable diet, and you won’t have
had to switch diets again.
If you opt to reinstate the old food, and your pet does have
food allergy dermatitis, signs of irritation will likely return
within hours or days. From there, your vet will help you
determine what to feed your cat or dog to avoid further skin
Other Treatments for Dermatitis
Weekly baths, allergy medications, or a prescription
diet may also be recommended as a part of your pet’s
Other Causes of Dermatitis
Be aware that dermatitis can also be the result of
non-food-related allergens, including:
Fleas, flies, ticks, mites, lice,
- Puppy acne
- Tumors or masses
- Exposure to extreme weather conditions
- Other diseases
- Hypersensitivity to environmental irritants
Talk to your vet to be sure you both understand what’s causing
the dermatitis, so you can move forward with the best treatment
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