Tuffers the six year old Cairn Terrier

Tuffers is a well named dog: he’s a tough little terrier. He has the coarse, wirey coat that’s typical of his breed. Cairn Terriers are known as one of Scotland’s earliest working dog breeds, named because they are from the Scottish Highlands, and they used to run from cairn to cairn, over the tops of mountains, hunting and chasing small prey, especially rats. These days Cairn Terriers are just kept as pets, and if you want a small, robust breed with a big personality, they’re a good choice.

Tuffers has always been a healthy dog, with just one weakness: his feet. He is prone to two related foot problems: first, the undersides of his feet are sensitive, and prone to itchiness, and second, from time to time, he develops so-called interdigital cysts.


The first problem is common in many dogs: the technical name for itchy feet is “pododermatitis”. The soft skin in between the pads of dogs’s feet is sensitive, and when it comes into contact with anything irritant or allergy-provoking, it can become red and sore. When this happens, the feet get itchy, and dogs start to lick and chew the irritated areas. This makes the feet even more itchy, with bacterial infection moving in and making things worse: the is red, sore, infected areas of skin on the underside of the dog’s feet. 
Treatment involves antibiotics to clear up the infection and soothing sprays to take away the itchiness, along with regular washing to keep the feet as clean as possible.

interdigital cysts

Tuffers’ second problem – interdigital cysts- is also common, and it’s related to the first issue of pododermatitis. When the soft skin of the foot becomes red, sore and infected, sometimes a cyst-like blister develops. This gradually gets bigger, starting off like a small frozen pea then swelling up to the size of a grape. The cyst then bursts, with fluid oozing out. Treatment is similar to the general itchy feet, with antibiotics and regular cleaning. Sometimes anti-inflammatory tablets are also given. 
Interdigital cysts tend to recur and they can be very uncomfortable: for many dogs, they are a life-long issue.

For both conditions, it’s important to stop affected dogs from chewing their own feet: they tend to do this repeatedly, licking and biting themselves. This only serves to make things worse, so it’s usually necessary to use some method to stop them. The classic way of doing this is to use a plastic Elizabethan collar, sometimes referred to as “the cone of shame”.

Tuffers is prone to both types of foot problems – pododermatitis and interdigital cysts. It’s usually just one of his front feet that’s affected, but it upsets him a lot when it happens.

When this was first diagnosed, when he was a young dog, it was important to rule out a number of causes, including parasites, food allergies and specific bacterial infections. As in nearly all cases, it was impossible to find a specific cause, and we just put down to a non-specific allergy. Most often, it’s a plant or a pollen that the dog’s feet come into contact with, but it’s rare to be able to specifically identify one particular causative agent  The best treatment approach is to take a general approach, keeping a dog’s feet as clean as possible, with regular footbaths. If either problem flares up, whether it’s just itchy feet, or an intergidital cyst as well, a standard treatment, as described above, is usually enough to sort it out.

Tuffers used to have flare ups of his sore feet every August, and we suspected that the cause was some type of vegetation that grows in the late summer.
However last year, the pattern changed, and he developed sore feet in February. Then this year, it was February again: just last week, his right foot became red and sore, with a cyst growing on it. We are not sure what it is that’s stimulating the irritation at this time of year, but we suspect it may be linked to the cold winter weather. The ground is hard and brittle underfoot, and there’s spikey, irritating vegetation on the ground when a dog goes walking in fields and through woods, as Tuffers likes to do.

Dara does her best to help him, washing his feet after walks, and using a soothing spray at the first hint of any redness or soreness. But despite this, a flare up happened last week. I had to treat him with the usual antibiotics, foot-cleaning and anti-inflammatories.

I also had to devise a way of stopping him from aggravating his sore foot with licking and chewing. In the past, we have used the standard plastic cone collar, like a lamp-shade. Tuffers never enjoys this. He bashes off objects and people around him, and it’s awkward for him to eat. So this time, we tried a different method: an inflatable collar, like a lifebuoy ring. Tuffers has adapted to this well, and he seems much happier wearing it than the usual awkward collar.

The combination of treatment plus lick-prevention was successful: within twenty four hours, Tuffers’ feet were much more comfortable. 
Dara was able to remove the collar, and he didn’t go near his feet. Dara is learning more and more about treating this  problem with every repeated episode. By the time Tuffers is an old dog, she’ll be an expert: as his vet, I’ll hardly even be needed.

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