Treating skin allergies naturally on your furry friends
I’ve used an integrative approach to treating allergic skin disease in pets for over 15 years. Improvements can take several months, but we can usually reduce the reliance on conventional medications, reduce symptoms and improve the quality of life.
Many of these integrative strategies rely on traditional knowledge, but now a growing body of research supports using herbal medicines or nutraceuticals when treating skin allergies. Here are three additional strategies we can add to our toolbox.
Vitamin D is an essential fat-soluble vitamin, and is known for its role in calcium homeostasis. People can synthesise vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, but dogs and cats may not be able to produce enough this way.
Vitamin D is linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, immune function and cancer. Veterinary research in this area is relatively new, but supports vitamin D playing an important role controlling inflammation and immune modulation, and may have a protective role against cancers such as mast cell tumours, osteosarcoma and lymphoma.
A healthy microbiome is essential not only for gut health and immune health but also for the health of your pet’s skin.
Studies show that supplementing the diet of dogs with atopic skin disease with vitamin D results in reduced itching and severity of the disease.
Natural food sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, wild-caught mackerel, salmon or sardines, organic grass-fed beef liver and salmon oil. Vitamin D is also present in fat on meat and in eggs.
Why would pets on an appropriately balanced diet have low vitamin D? Apart from the effect of poor-quality ingredients and processing of pet food on the availability of nutrients, digestion may play a role. Vitamin D levels are shown to be lower in cats with inflammatory bowel disease, serum vitamin D levels may also decline as pets age and desexing of pets may reduce absorption.
It’s easy to supplement with a good-quality vitamin D3 product, but equally important to recheck levels a few months later to ensure they’re adequate and not too high. While dogs and cats rarely get vitamin D toxicity from eating natural food, in theory it may happen with over-supplementation.
Zinc is a micromineral found naturally in beef, beef liver, pumpkin seeds, mussels and oysters. Absorption may be interfered with by excess calcium, copper or phytates in the diet. Zinc deficiency has been recognised in Alaskan malamutes, Samoyeds and Siberian huskies, breeds with increased requirements, but may occur other large-breed rapidly growing dogs. Symptoms can include dry scaly skin, crusts and scaling around the eyes, mouth, scrotum and the mucocutaneous junctions. Hair coat can be dry and dull and itchy. Zinc also has other important functions in the body, including antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and wound repair.
Zinc supplementation may improve the coat condition and skin barrier function of dogs. A combination of zinc sulphate and linoleic acid from flax oil can improve the skin barrier, reducing water loss from the skin. However, zinc supplementation is best done with the help of your vet.
Supplements for the skin–gut–brain axis
So many dogs with allergic skin disease are also chronically stressed, and have recurring diarrhoea. The brain–gut–skin axis describes the complex link between the brain, the microbiome and the immune system. Researchers continue to investigate the effect and importance of this in health and wellness. One aspect is the effect of stress and increased cortisol on the microbiome, leading to dysbiosis.
A healthy microbiome is essential not only for gut health and immune health but also for the health of your pet’s skin. Dysbiosis is an imbalance of the microbiome, often due to stress, as well as poor diet, chemicals, toxins and medications like antibiotics. This leads to damage to the intestinal wall and leaky gut syndrome (LGS). One consequence of LGS is possible sensitisation to food-borne allergens, which can lead to type IV hypersensitivity in the skin. So attention to gut and microbiome health, as well as reducing stress, can help reduce tendency to allergies and resulting dermatitis in dog and cats.
Where possible I recommend feeding species-appropriate diet, using a clean low-chemical approach and quality ingredients. The reduced glycaemic load of a typical example of this diet can support weight loss and reduced insulin resistance, thereby reducing tendency to inflammation. Fibre is supplied by vegetable matter, and roughage such as bones and cartilage. Soluble fibre (from pumpkin, sweet potato and beans) directly supports the microbiome by providing nutrients and strengthens the gastrointestinal barrier.
Further support is provided by using good-quality probiotics and herbs that have a protective and anti-inflammatory effect on the gut, such as slippery elm, astragalus which can restore local immunity in the gut, and chamomile which also has an antipruritic effect. Stress support is provided by supplements such as L-tryptophan, or adaptogens such as liquorice, ashwagandha or panax ginseng.
Vitamin B12 levels can be low in dogs and cats with gut symptoms and dysbiosis. I routinely check vitamin B12 levels in pets with a combination of gut and skin symptoms, and supplement if required.
These are just three of the emerging strategies for treating skin allergies in pets.
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