The fourth major category of itchy skin disease in dogs, Contact Dermatitis , involves skin irritation secondary to direct contact of the skin with something in the environment. In fact, there are two distinct syndromes falling into this category.
Irritant Contact Dermatitis, which is not a true allergy, involves direct damage to skin cells by exposure to a damaging compound. The damaged skin cells induce an inflammatory response directed at the skin. Irritant contact dermatitis occurs at any age as a direct result of the damaging nature of the compound that has been contacted.
Allergic Contact Dermatitis, on the other hand is an event where the immune system
- must first be sensitized to an allergen,
- and then later be exposed to it.
Allergic contact dermatitis is rare in young animals, as chronic exposure to the allergen is usually required. Contact allergy is most common in German Shepherd Dogs; however, Poodles, terriers, and Golden Retrievers are also considered at increased risk.
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The pattern of the skin disease with contact dermatitis, unlike that of flea, food, or inhalant allergy, depends on the way in which the allergen is contacted. The thick coat of hair is usually an effective physical barrier to most contact. As a result, the regions most often affected are those with the sparsest hair and those with the most contact with the ground. Thus, the chin, underside of the neck, chest, belly, inside of the flanks, underside of the tail, and the bottoms of the feet are most commonly involved. More generalized reactions are probably less common than often believed.
Initial skin lesions consist of redness, heat, and swelling, leading to papules and plaques. Blistering of the skin is uncommon. Itchiness varies from moderate to severe, but is usually severe.
If the reaction is seasonal, a plant or outdoor allergen is suspected, but a wide variety of allergens can be involved. Most common offenders include plants, carpet, plastics or rubber (such as food dishes or toys), leather (such as collars), soaps, detergents, floor waxes, rugs, herbicides, fertilizer, mulch, insecticides (including topical flea sprays), flea collars, concrete, fabrics.
In the diagnosis of contact allergy, it should be borne in mind that symptoms can mimic those seen with food allergy, atopy, flea allergy, bacterial or yeast infection, demodex mites, immune mediated skin disease, and seborrhea.
Skin biopsies can be helpful in diagnosis. Patch testing, placing the suspected allergen directly on the skin under a bandage for 48 hours, can assist in the diagnosis. Final confirmation requires the removal of the allergen from the environment, followed by provocative exposure testing to confirm what is causing the reaction.
Treatment of acute cases may require administering corticosteroids such as prednisone for short periods. However the long-term goal is to remove the offending substances. Bathing with low-allergy shampoos, and covering affected areas with mechanical barriers such as socks and T-shirts may also be helpful.
The prognosis for contact allergy is good if the allergen can be identified and removed. Unfortunately, these animals respond poorly to desensitizing allergy shots. If the allergen cannot be removed, treatment with cortisone-type drugs may be needed throughout the life of the dog to maintain quality of life.