Itchy Pet Awareness Month – Dog Allergies Information and Support

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August is Itchy Pet Awareness month. Many pet owners are not aware of veterinary dermatologists who can help. There are about 300 board certified veterinary dermatologists in the American College of Veterinary Dermatology who have undergone extensive training and completed research after veterinary school in order to specialize in the study of skin and ear disease, as well as allergies, immunology, and internal medicine. Petra Lee, of the Dog Allergies Information and Support Group, joins us to talk about how she discovered a veterinary dermatologist for her dog, Olive, and how she is advocating partnership between owners of allergic dogs and veterinarians.

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Itchy Pet Awareness Month

[00:01:04] Dr. Brittany Lancellotti: Welcome, everyone, to today’s episode of Your Vet Wants You To Know. August is Itchy Pet Awareness Month, and as a pet owner who has extensive experience with allergies, and who has been doing a great job of advocating for evidence-based treatments and cooperation between veterinary dermatologists and pet owners, I wanted to invite Petra Lee on, to tell us her story and bring some more awareness to allergic skin disease. Thank you so much for being here. 

[00:01:35] Petra Lee: Thank you. Yeah. I’m actually an environmental scientist and I’ve been doing that for over 20 years and that’s where I get a lot of my client savvy. I work on environmental water quality and I live in Northern California. Obviously, I love dogs, which is why I’m on this podcast. I’ve only had dogs for about 10 years, but every single one that I’ve had has had a massive health issue, including epilepsy, genetic blindness, and then of course I had a dog, Olive, with allergies, and I currently have another dog with allergies, as well. 

Petra Lee and Olive
Petra Lee and Olive heading to the dermatology veterinarian.

Olive, the Itchy, Allergic Dog

[00:02:08] Dr. Lancellotti: Petra, you and I actually know each other because of a Facebook group that you are an administrator for, and that’s The Dog Allergies Information and Support Group. I am really excited for you to come on and share your experience with your allergic pet, Olive, and how Olive brought you to this Facebook group and the support system that you have there. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about Olive and what you went through with her? 

[00:02:36] Petra Lee: Okay. Olive passed away 5.5 months ago. She was a 6 year old Pocket Beagle (poorly bred) who I got as a foster. I was fostering for a medical rescue called For Our Friends in Northern California, run by a vet, Dr. Ribinowitz. I was the second foster because she was so aggressive, and she also just had massive skin and teeth issues. Her owner had passed away and she ended up getting dropped off at the shelter where she just became super shut down. The vet pulled her and she went to that first foster family, was too aggressive, and then came to me. It’s hard to describe Olive. When I first got her, she was so aggressive and scared- she was just a mess. She couldn’t go two seconds without itching. It was just awful. She ended up just being a lover by the time I got her through that, but I couldn’t even touch her. I couldn’t pet her. I couldn’t do a lot of things with her, initially. She had crusty skin and almost no hair. Her skin was just like super saggy- like there were two beagles in there. It was kind of wild. She was basically turned over to the shelter and they said her bad habits were “itching too much” and “eating too much.” She had tapeworm, fleas, a flea allergy, and she also had a massive yeast infection– so she was allergic to all of those things. 

[00:04:08] Dr. Lancellotti: Oh my gosh. She sounds like she was a total mess, at that time. 

[00:04:12] Petra Lee: Oh, it was horrible. She was my ninth official foster dog and I ended up just getting her through it. She got tons of baths and we ruled out mange. The vet that does For Our Friends is really familiar with the skin issues. Eventually, she landed on Apoquel, which still wasn’t working enough because she still had yeast allergies and all sorts of horrible things. So eventually, I realized that there were dermatology vets during a desperate Google search, and I took her to Animal Dermatology and Allergy in Rocklin, California, with Dr. Becky Sakai. And they gave her more Apoquel, but we were also able to wean it back to the amount she should have and we got her on immunotherapy. I think the first time I went, I was almost in tears the whole time with relief, because it had been such a journey with Olive. And the first time that she ended up going and rolling around in the grass without a cone at the dog park, I just bursted into tears. I was so happy. It had been such a journey and she became way less aggressive when she felt better. She had very few aggression issues by the time she passed away, and she also had very clear skin! 

Can Allergies Contribute to Aggression?

[00:05:20] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s one thing that I was going to ask. I’ve talked about my allergic dog, Russell Sprout, on the show before and how we’ve gone through his allergy journey, working up his environmental allergies, starting him on immunotherapy, etc. I thought for sure that his food allergies were very mild, but just recently, my husband and I had a really nice salmon dinner, and we had just a little bit of salmon left over, gave some to our three dogs, and within two hours, Russell was tearing his face off and itching uncontrollably. And for the next few days, until I was able to get his flare under control, he was so cranky with my kids. He’s usually very tolerant of them, despite being short-tempered with everybody else in his life. He’s always been great with my kids, but he was really uncomfortable as a result of his allergies. So did you see a big difference in Olive’s temperament when her skin was feeling better?

[00:06:18] Petra Lee: Oh, massive. She was always aggressive towards female dogs and I was just like, “Hey! Feminism, lady!” She was always aggressive, but it just got toned way down. Her resource aggression went way down. And that’s actually something we hear about in the group a lot, too. I ended up taking her off of immunotherapy, at one point, because she was doing so well, and then her medication stopped working. So I put her right back on that immunotherapy and she went back to being itch-free, which is the way she should have been in the first place, had I not taken it away. Sorry, Olive!

Veterinary Dermatologist for Allergic Dogs

[00:06:51] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. And you mentioned something that I hear quite a lot from pet owners when they come to see me in the dermatology office- they didn’t even know that veterinary dermatologists existed. So is that something that your primary care vet told you about or you found on your own? 

[00:07:06] Petra Lee: No! I found it on my own. I actually just did a Google search. And I hadn’t had a lot of experience with specialists, frankly. That wasn’t something that even occurred to me. I never took Olive to my primary care physician because she was being treated by the veterinarian in the rescue and she never mentioned anything either. The funny thing is that she actually does refer people to animal dermatology, so either I didn’t hear it or she didn’t say it or something. I’m really grateful that they exist, but I had no idea. And about half the time, in the group, that’s what we tell people. “Go to the dermatologist!”

Dog Allergies and Information Support Group

[00:07:39] Dr. Lancellotti: I want to talk about the group. This is a pretty amazing Facebook group that you’re a part of – Dog Allergies Information and Support. This has been a fantastic resource and support group for pet owners that are looking for answers. They’re experiencing this caregiver burden that often comes when you have a pet with allergies. Can you tell me a little bit about how this group came about and what it means to you? 

[00:08:07] Petra Lee: Yeah. I was on Facebook, one day (that was probably almost the same day that I started looking up dermatology stuff, frankly), and I did a search for dog allergies and this group popped up. It was a fairly small group still- less than a thousand people- run by a woman named Fiona. I saw people’s questions and eventually I went to the dermatology bit- telling them what I had learned. At that point, she asked me, “Can you help admin?” because she was the only one doing it. And I said, “Sure.” From there, it just grew. She’s actually still part of the group, but she decided she didn’t want to admin anymore. And the group is up to like 17,000 people, now. 

[00:08:47] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s crazy. 

[00:08:48] Petra Lee: Yeah. And the one thing that I think has really been beneficial is that we are evidence-based. As time went on, I got more and more uncomfortable with a lot of the “pseudoscience” that was out there. I got really uncomfortable with that. There were remedies that can harm dogs. The longer that I’ve been doing this, the more I can weed that out, and it just became more evidence-based. And people had a lot of tantrums about it, but then don’t need to be in the group. So that’s kind of what we ended up having to do, because we couldn’t be furthering bad science. I’m a scientist. This is really important to me. My field is not, in any way, related to dogs, allergies, or even mammals, but I really do find that I can lock onto what good sources of information are. That’s just part of my training. Usually, I am able to research and find things out. One of the other admins is a nurse and that’s actually been really helpful.

Ask your veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist!

[00:09:40] Dr. Lancellotti: You also have the experience of working closely with a dermatology veterinarian and have that information that you’ve been given directly, regarding Olive and what experience you’ve gone through. Having that relationship with a dermatology vet allows you to ask those questions. “Hey, I heard this. Is that something that’s actually true? Or is that something that maybe I should steer clear of?” So, having that relationship is really important, too- knowing what’s evidence-based and what’s an allergy myth. 

[00:10:11] Petra Lee: Oh, yes. Dr. Sakai is phenomenal. She knows that I do this group, so I’ve asked her questions, periodically, about things that people will ask me. She’s just fantastic. She’s very mellow. And I have to say, when I went into her initially, it was just so calming. She was like, “No problem. We got this handled.” So that’s what we usually suggest- talk to a dermatology vet. And if they can’t, have their regular vet talk to one, since some people can’t afford to go to the dermatology vet. Unfortunately, that’s just the truth. But a lot of times, if they can get to a regular vet, their regular vet can do a professional consultation. So we suggest that a lot. We also put a lot of time, in the group, on making sure that we really screen and watch comments for bad and dangerous misinformation. We have it in the rules. We repeat is as much as possible- we’re evidence-based, dermatology-based, and we don’t allow diagnoses and treatments. We can suggest things like medicated baths. I feel comfortable with that, but for the most part, “Talk to your vet.” And we just support each other a lot. 

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Owners of Allergic Dogs Need Support!

[00:11:19] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. I think one of the things that I’ve really loved, when watching the group, is the support that pet owners are getting from one another. It’s always really exciting and heartwarming to see people share their journey with their allergic pet. You have people that you welcome into the group when they first join, but then they’ll post a year or two later, “Hey. Here’s an update on what’s happening with my dog,” and it’s really fun to see how these people go through and their animals actually get better, as a result of the relationship with the dermatology vet which has been fostered by this Facebook group. So I think that’s incredibly invaluable and it’s a beautiful community that you’ve built. 

[00:12:00] Petra Lee: Well, thank you. That’s my favorite part- when people come back and say, “Hey, we learned about dermatology vets, so we went to one.” And the longer the group’s been around, the more and more comments come up saying, “Go to a dermatology vet!” So we almost don’t have to say it anymore. A lot of folks just say it for us. And that’s been really awesome because I get tired of repeating myself 15 times a day. But I also think it’s important information. Funnily enough, I have another dog now with allergies and we just went through a diet trial. And she’s going to have the intradermal testing at the end of this month. 

[00:12:36] Dr. Lancellotti: Oh, that’s very exciting. I will be very interested to hear how she does with her immunotherapy, moving forward. She’s in really good hands with you. 

[00:12:45] Petra Lee: I know. She landed well with that. Some other issues, not so much. But with allergies, I feel pretty comfortable, at this point. 

What if there is not a veterinary dermatologist near me?

[00:12:52] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, of course. What would you like other pet owners with allergic pets to know? What do you think you’ve learned from your experiences with both Olive and your new dog? 

[00:13:02] Petra Lee: There are a couple big things that I’ve learned. The first one is that it’s important to work with a specialist. If your dog has moderate to severe allergies, or really anything that is flummoxing your regular veterinarian, head to a specialist. I live near UC Davis, so I’m really lucky that there’s a lot of specialists around. I adore my regular vet, but they don’t have that specialized training though. In my case, I’m a biologist. I don’t know everything about biology, but I have my specialty. Dermatology vets are very similar. From time to time, I have had my general vet actually call the dermatology vet for a consultation. Then, they’d talk about how to deal with Olive having surgery. I wasn’t going to be able to bathe her for like two weeks. So that’s a really good, valuable thing to be able to do is to have your general veterinarian be able to talk to your specialist. 

[00:13:59] Dr. Lancellotti: And that’s, something that we’re happy to do as well. There are definitely clients (or pet owners) that I see that come down from central California because there’s not a dermatologist there, and I’m all the way in Los Angeles. So they’ll drive four or five hours to come to see me and doing regular rechecks with them isn’t really practical. So I can reach out to their primary care veterinarian or they can reach out to me and give me an update as far as what’s going on. I can reach out to them and say, “Hey, here’s where we’re at right now. Would you mind checking on this for me in a few weeks? And it really helps that relationship that we have, so that we have a continuity of care with these animals, getting them the help that they need. So for people that are in parts of the country where there may not be a dermatologist in your region, it’s really helpful to ask your family veterinarian if they can reach out to a specialist, ask them questions, and see if there’s any other thoughts that they have. We’re here to help. That’s what we want to do. We love veterinary dermatology. We love helping itchy pets. And if the pet owner isn’t always able to get in to see us, there’s ways that we can help them, even if they’re not in the office. So don’t be afraid to talk to your family veterinarian about what different options there are, if you can’t get in to see a dermatologist. 

[00:15:21] Petra Lee: Absolutely. And my sister just went to Dr. Sakai, as well, because her dog has allergies. Of course, right? She ended up just having to go to the regular vet because she couldn’t get in. I told her, “Go have your regular vet call them and ask, or (you) just call them and ask. Before the pandemic, the office would often call after two weeks. “How is your dog doing?” And they would check in with me pretty regularly. I don’t think they have the staff to do that anymore, but every time I’d call, they’d ask, “How is your dog doing?” They do 90-95% of the care over the phone, a lot of times. They mail me stuff. And a lot of times, they’re far enough away that I just get a cytopoint shot, for example, at my regular vet. They’ve been very supportive in blood work. They’re just super supportive about all of it. 

[00:16:09] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. So I think people should just understand that there are lots of different options with working with veterinary dermatologists and your family veterinarian. There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ for an individual animal. It’s based on what the different circumstances are. Just having that conversation, is super helpful. 

Dogs with allergies benefit from lots of bathing!

Dr. Brittany Lancellotti: Is there anything else that you would say is a key thing about having a pet with allergies find success with their allergy treatments?

[00:16:35] Petra Lee: This is something we talk about almost constantly in the group. You covered it recently in a podcast. The other important thing that I’ve learned is that medicated baths and topical treatments are pretty much key. You can control so many things with those medicated baths. I think I gave Olive at least 300 baths- probably more -over the years. And that sounds like a lot, but we just used it as bonding time. I’d put a little licky mat in and she’d lick up peanut butter. She thought it was great. But the medicated baths are really what have kept my new dog with allergies clear. The cytology came back super clean. I probably shouldn’t have bathed her right before the appointment, but it was still clean about two weeks after, so I had bathed her two weeks beforehand. 

[00:17:21] Dr. Lancellotti: And washed away all of our evidence! 

[00:17:24] Petra Lee: I know! Well, I didn’t the second time. The second time I did not, so she’s clear. They forgot to warn me and I forgot too. I know better. Then, with Olive, I was able to pretty much contain her allergies, a lot of the time, just on medicated baths, as long as I had her other treatments. But if I lapsed on those medicated baths (even for just a few days), she was itchy again.

[00:17:47] Dr. Lancellotti: And I always try and ask pet owners about medicated bathing. “How does your pet do in the bath?” If the bath is a struggle, then it’s going to be a struggle to control those allergies. So if any pet owners out there are listening, and they’re having a hard time with medicated baths, it’s important to have that conversation with their veterinarian about what your bath routine is and ways that you can troubleshoot. Making it a bonding experience and a positive experience, not only gets the animal more excited and looking forward to those baths, but it makes your job easier too. Nobody wants to do a medicated bath if it’s going to be a struggle or a hassle. That’s just going to contribute to that caregiver burden that you already have when you have an animal with significant allergies. Make your life easier and make those baths as fun as possible. It’s going to set you up for success. 

[00:18:40] Petra Lee: Absolutely. Oh, goodness. We spent a lot of time- 10 minutes of pop -doing it. So, if it’s going to be a struggle, it’s not going to be good. And that’s one thing the group has been really helpful with. I didn’t know about licky mats. I didn’t know about these various tools. However, we do actually have some positive trainers in the group, and they often speak up when we’re talking about like, “How do you give your dog a bath?” And we are really careful about screening for positive. We don’t allow negative reinforcement on that sort of thing. But the positive really works in leading people up to it. We’ve had so many people ask us about how to give your dog a bath. Maybe we should start telling them to talk to their derm vet.

Dog Allergies Information and Support

[00:19:21] Dr. Lancellotti: Well, I am very thankful that you came on the show, today. For anyone who’s looking to find a place where you can talk about their allergic dog and feel like you’re surrounded by people who know what you’re going through, the Dog Allergies Information and Support Facebook group is a wonderful resource. They are evidence-based, they support veterinary dermatologists, and they’re just a great group of people who know what you’re going through. So I would encourage anyone who’s listening to go and check them out. 

Scratching the Itch

[00:19:51] Dr. Lancellotti: We end each episode of the podcast with a little segment that I call Scratching The itch. It’s a segment that is designed to highlight something- either a human interest story, a product, or a website that just provides relief or makes you feel good. Hence, scratching the itch. Petra, do you have a ‘scratching the itch’ for our listeners? 

[00:20:12] Petra Lee: Obviously, I like podcasts and I like animals. With all the chaos in the world, I’ve been enjoying a podcast called This Is Love. It talks about all kinds of love stories and loves, and these are loves for animals, friendship loves, and other various types. There are a couple of episodes that were just so good. One of them was about a man who was in a Japanese internment camp and he ended up befriending and raising a baby mag pie. He just loved that thing. And it became a wonderful mimic. I had no idea mag pies were mimics. There was another one about a man who is an ultrarunner who was running through the Gobi Desert and this dog started following him. He ended up befriending the dog, and I don’t want to ruin it, but it was just a lovely story. And it’s just what we need right now. 

[00:21:04] Dr. Lancellotti: Aw, that sounds really sweet. I’ll have a link to “This Is Love,” so people can check that out and listen to those stories. I’m going to have to listen to them on my drive to and from work. Thank you for suggesting that.

[00:21:14] Petra Lee: You’re welcome. 

[00:21:16] Dr. Lancellotti: And I love this picture that you have of you and Olive, in the car, driving to go see the vet. She is so beautiful.

[00:21:23] Petra Lee: Yeah. We did that a lot as part of stuff which you had actually suggested. I took her to the vet, even just to go pick up a prescription. We’d take her in, they’d give her cookies, and love on her. So she never really had a big fear of the vet. 

[00:21:36] Dr. Lancellotti: You did “happy visits.”

[00:21:37] Petra Lee: Yeah. And it was helpful at the end, because we just gave her tons of cookies and she wasn’t scared. 

[00:21:42] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. Well, I am so thankful for you coming on, today, and sharing Olive’s story and your journey with your allergic pets. I hope this helps some people who are going through and struggling with their own allergic pets. It makes them feel a little bit better and more supported. So, thank you very much, Petra. 

[00:21:59] Petra Lee: You’re welcome. And thanks for your podcast. It’s been so helpful. 

[00:22:03] Dr. Lancellotti: Well, I appreciate it. And I’m very happy that you share the podcast on the group. Thank you for supporting veterinary dermatologists out there. And for everyone listening, I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know.

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