Zelda shifted in her dog bed. As she stretched, her back foot started to scratch her side, first behind the ribs then with more energy on the rib cage. Thump, thump, grunt, thump, scratch, scratch. It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and she was restless enough to wake up her human, Nancy. Nancy groggily sat up, told Zelda to stop it, then feeling guilty, checked Zelda for bleeding or something else.
Itching and scratching are ubiquitous in the Bay Area and around the world. What causes it? Western medicine discusses nerve-ending responses on high alert with toxins or allergic reactions behind the scene. Chinese medicine talks about the state of the liver and its relationship to “wind,” or spasm, at the skin surface. You can’t see or touch the wind but you can experience it, as it jumps around and taunts you.
Although fleas and bug bites may be factors, holistic medicine looks at a deeper cause that sets the individual up to be most sensitive to them. The job of the liver in Chinese medicine is to house the blood and freely circulate it. It cools, calms, and nourishes. Exercise helps regulate the liver. Irritability is a sign of imbalance in the liver blood, and when it gets too low or doesn’t circulate properly, anxiety, insomnia, and sensitivity at the skin surface starts the itching. To help relieve itching, soothe, smooth, and nurture the liver.
The skin is the largest organ, our interface with the environment. It acts as a third lung to bring in oxygen and release toxins. Some believe the skin can be seen as the intestines turned inside out. Thus, food allergies, which are liver related, can create an atmosphere ripe for itching.
When the skin is sensitive, it can dry out, heat up, or erupt. If your animal friend shows signs of dandruff, or dry coat, the first thing to address is moistening. We can do this through diet. Feeding a dry kibble creates more dryness and heat in the body. Due to processing, moistening the kibble with water or broth does not restore the necessary moisture. So look for alternatives. I am a proponent of raw food diets, which nourish by mimicking the moisture, bone, and muscle composition of our bodies. If raw food doesn’t appeal, try slow-cooked in a Crockpot with starchy root and leafy vegetables that nourish the liver.
For healthy dogs, the percentage I recommend is 60 to 65 percent animal source (including liver and heart), plus 20 percent starch, including sweet potato, peas, or lentils, plus 15 to 20 percent above- ground vegetables like kale, broccoli, and squash. Add fish oils, rich in omega acids, which help to nourish and moisten, and for a 44-pound dog, ¼ teaspoon of kelp or other seaweed for trace minerals, and 500 milligrams Quercitin with Bromelain, a bioflavonoid complex helpful with allergies. Ask your veterinarian for recommendations for a pro- and prebiotic, multivitamin, and calcium source to insure the proper calcium-to-phosphorus ratio. A whole food diet usually maintains good balance.
If the itching is worse when it is hot out and the ears and skin get red, there is more heat or inflammation involved. This is usually when your vet gives an injection of anti-inflammatory cortisone to stop the itch for a while. In Chinese medicine food therapy there is a system that categorizes the food into “temperature zones” – naming some foods more cooling than others. Fish, duck, rabbit, and pork are more cooling than lamb, venison and beef. So you might try changing the animal protein source to one of the cooler choices.
When the itching is so intense and the heat inside the body erupts, your dog can get a hot spot. It is usually an area ready to explode under the right circumstances. Many hot spots come up around the hip or haunch area, just in front of the sacrum or pelvic girdle area. Once a hot spot erupts, it is excruciatingly sensitive. If you can, carefully clip some hair away from the area, and use a soothing, antimicrobial combination of herbal teas with chamomile, burdock, nettles, calendula flowers, or alfalfa by applying with a sponge or spray bottle. Follow with cooling aloe gel or egg white, or if the spot is moist and sticky, use a salt shaker to sprinkle powdered dried herbs (chamomile, chrysanthemum, comfrey, echinacea and plantain).
To sum up, a good program to relieve itching is (1) minimize dry food, (2) explore different protein sources, (3) add leafy greens to help soothe the liver, (4) exercise your animal friend before bedtime to relieve anxiety, and (5) provide supplements with trace minerals and omega 3 oils.
Cheryl Schwartz is a San Francisco Bay Area veterinarian and author who works with Park Centre Animal Hospital in Alameda. An international educator, holistic veterinarian, and a founding member of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, she has been in practice since 1978, working with cats, dogs, and horses.
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Main article photo by: adogslifephoto-istock