Diagnosing and treating skin and ear conditions in pets is often challenging. Pets which itch and smell are generally not happy, and require veterinary attention.

Pets that itch and scratch and have ear and/or skin disease, are some of the most challenging cases we deal with.

Ear canals are covered with skin all the way down, so ear disease really is skin disease, and has all the same causes.

Potential causes can include one or several of:

  • Food allergies.  To one or more components of their diet.
  • Environmental allergens (eg pollens, house dust mites).  This is called Atopic Dermatitis.
  • Parasites – fleas and mites are common (especially demodex mites in our area).  Flea bite allergies are common.  Mosquito bite dermatitis is common in cats in Christchurch.
  • Contact allergies – from the skin directly contacting allergens, such as textiles, grasses and various plants (wandering jew is a common problem)
  • Autoimmune disorders – where the animal’s immune system starts attacking its own skin
  • Various different types of skin cancers (including some which may have spread to the skin from elsewhere).
  • Fungal infections (eg ringworm)
  • Internal disease can manifest as skin problems also, so your skin consultation will involve a full checkover

Regardless of the cause, most skin disease starts with an inflammatory reaction, and then secondary infection (bugs growing on the inflammed skin).   Typically the first areas affected are in the warm-moist areas – down the ear canals, in between toes, undersides of feet, in the groins and under the tail (better environments for the bugs to grow).  Infection usually involves yeasts (malasezzia) and combinations of bacteria, and getting the infection under control is a key component to treatment.

Treatment can therefore be complex and involve combinations of therapies.  Be aware that all of the above causes (except parasitism) are lifelong conditions, and the aim is to manage these, as a cure is usually not possible (the same occurs in humans – we manage our hayfever, asthma and allergies, but they are rarely cured).

We routinely carry out a range of diagnostic tests on pets with skin problems, including cytology, skin scrapings and biopsies to identify likely causes.

In New Zealand we are lucky to now have access to new treatments for dogs called Apoquel and  Cytopoint.

Apoquel is a tablet given to turn off the dog’s itch, and provides rapid relief.  Cytopoint is a once monthly injection of a monoclonal antibody, which binds the chemical released from damaged skin cells and prevents it triggering the neuron (nerve) that makes the dog itch.   Cytopoint is used for treating Atopic Dermatitis.   Both are available now At the Vets, and your veterinarian can advise on their use.

Your veterinarian and veterinary nurses are your best source of information on effective and safe parasite control programs.

Allergen testing and desensitisation programs are available through our clinic.   The aim is to identify the likely allergens (through blood testing) and custom make a program of desensitising injections.  Food allergens can also be tested.

We’ve chosen a few examples of conditions we see:

The first shows a Westie with a really bad ear infection.  His skin is swollen around the canal and ulcerated – this really hurts!  There is a lot of inflammation and a mixed infection with various bacteria.

Next is a condition we see throughout the spring/summer months in cats – it affects mostly the nose and face and is caused by a hypersensitivity to mosquito bites:


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This cat has feline leprosy – we see several cases each year:

This next cat has a fungal infection (ringworm):


Cutaneous Lymphoma (a metastatic cancer) caused these skin lesions and loss of pigmentation in this dog:  (he is sedated in the pictures while we took biopsies)


This dog has eosinophilic folliculitis and dermatitis, an inflammatory skin disease.  The second picture shows him on the way to recovery.


This next labrador has an autoimmune skin disease (pemphigus) which we diagnosed by taking skin biopsies.  He improved well on medication and is now managed effectively


This next example is a little Westie who presented to us in an awful state.  We took skin biopsies and found that he had demodex mite infection,  but as his skin had been so badly damaged for so long he also had a lot of infection and inflammation to clear up.  It took a few months and a very dedicated owner, but he made steady progress, put on weight, regrew most of his hair, and became a happy healthy dog again.  He still has some allergies to deal with and we manage those.  He even still loves coming to the clinic!


This is the demodex mite that caused most of this dog’s problem:

This next dog has large areas of hair loss on both sides of her body, associated with Cushings disease – an example of how things going on inside the body can manifest in the skin: