Fred, a seven year old West Highland White Terrier suffers from a serious allergic skin disease common in this breed of dog

In April, every year, Fred’s owner notices him beginning to lick his feet more than usual. He then starts to scratch his body, especially under his neck and around his ears. It is very obvious that he is starting to feel itchy all over. If treatment is not started, his skin becomes pink and sore, and his coat begins to have a rich, yeasty smell. If his condition was left to run its course, he would soon go completely bald, with red, swollen, oozing skin all over, like the dog equivalent of a severe case of acne.

Fred’s problem started when he was only two years of age. For the past five years, his owner has learned that he gets itchy every spring and summer, and then things settle down in the autumn and winter. Fred now has a routine of visiting the vet at the first sign of the itchiness in April or May. As long has he is started onto medication before the itch becomes too severe, the problem can be controlled all summer. The treatment can then be stopped in the winter. Nowadays, his skin never reaches the ‘acne’ stage. With the help of treatment, his skin problem is controlled, and he is able to have a normal, comfortable life.

Many owners of West Highland White Terriers will know all about this condition. It is known colloquially as “Westie Skin Disease”, although the same problem also affects many other breeds of dog, as well as cross-bred dogs, at this time of year. The condition is called “atopic dermatitis”, or “inhalant allergic skin disease”.  Fred has a severe allergy to dusts and pollens in the environment. When his skin is exposed to the thousands of microscopic particles that float in the air around us, there is a dramatic allergic reaction. His healthy skin becomes reddened, swollen and itchy. Of course, Fred’s natural reaction is to scratch his itchy skin, to lick it, and even to chew himself. This just makes things worse, and his skin becomes even more red and sore as a result of his attention to himself. At this stage, bacteria and yeasts move into the damaged skin, and they produce toxins and acids, which further irritate the situation. If Fred was not treated, he would soon be a mess of red, itchy skin.

Fred’s entire problem starts with a very simple issue: he is allergic to dusts and pollens. And this is why there is a seasonal effect. From late spring onwards, the air fills with pollens from the plants that are growing and blossoming all around us. Dogs like Fred get itchy skin in the same way as humans get hay fever. Pollen affects the human respiratory system, whereas in dogs, the skin is affected. If you are having a bad hay fever day, you should spare a thought for Fred, who will be having a very bad itchy skin day.

Fred gets itchy all over, but his feet and underside are most severely affected, where his skin is coming into direct contact with vegetation. The creases in his skin, at the front of his elbow, in his armpits, and between his back legs are the areas that are worst affected. His owner has learned that it is best to avoid going near grass during the summer months. Her garden has been tarmacked over, and she never walks him in grassy areas. But she cannot protect Fred from the pollens and dusts in the atmosphere, and that is why he starts to get itchy in the early summer every year.

When Fred originally started to itch, a series of tests were carried out to diagnose his problem. I had to rule out other causes of itchiness, including mites, food allergies and other rare skin diseases. Once the diagnosis was confirmed, there were a number of possible treatment plans. Some of these are complex and time consuming, but luckily, Fred responded to a simple regime.

At the first sign of an itch, his owner starts him onto anti-histamine tablets. These are not strong enough to solve the problem completely, but they definitely taken the edge of it. Fred is also prescribed cortisone tablets. These have some side effects, such as an increased thirst and a huge appetite, but they are very effective at preventing his skin from becoming red and sore. He is given the tablets every second day, to minimise any long term adverse consequences of the drug.   Fred is also given regular shampoos, as often as twice weekly when he is most severely affected. The shampoo soothes his skin, and kills the bacteria and yeasts living in the skin, which can otherwise aggravate the problem.

Fred is also on a special diet, designed for dogs with skin disease. This has high quality ingredients, including special oil supplementation, that ensure that his skin is as healthy as possible, which lessens its sensitivity to pollens.

Fred responds very well to his treatment, but there are many dogs out whose problem cannot be controlled so easily. Other potent anti-inflammatory drugs are sometimes used, but these can also have significant side effects. A new treatment for itchy skin has become popular in recent years:  a technique known as ‘hyposensitisation’. This involves giving repeated injections of tiny amounts of a solution containing the pollens that cause the itchy skin. The skin becomes accustomed to the presence of the pollens, and gradually stops becoming itchy when the pollens are present. The system does not work in every case, and it is a time consuming, expensive treatment regime, but it is worth trying in some dogs.


  • Fred suffers from a problem that is common in his breed, known as “Westie Skin Disease”
  • His itchy skin only happens in the spring and summer, and it is caused by pollens in the atmosphere
  • A continuous cocktail of daily tablets is needed to keep him comfortable.

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