Maintaining pet’s healthy skin and coat is a year-round job for veterinarians
Winter generally means more indoor time for dogs and cats. But, contrary to what some animal owners may think, that’s no reason to take a break from their pet’s skin and coat health. Maintaining a healthy coat requires a year-round effort, both on the part of veterinarians and their clients. By keeping their customers well informed about the issues and solutions – and by reminding them to keep skin and coat health on their clients’ radar – distributor sales reps can provide continuous value to veterinary clinics and hospitals.
Working with customers
Whereas warmer weather often signals exposure to infections and infestations by flea and ticks, colder seasons present a whole new set of skin problems for pets and their owners. Some of the more common issues that persist in wintertime include dry skin and allergies to dust and storage mites, which are ingested by the animal or get absorbed into their skin. Dry skin usually is just a visual issue, although it can make the animal itchy and become infected with scratching, biting, licking and chewing – particularly with allergies. Add to that the fact that skin problems don’t look good or smell good.
Then there are skin issues that may occur any time of the year. For instance, allergies are inherited and typically start in the first one to three years of the animal’s life. While they don’t necessarily worsen with age, they must be managed throughout the animal’s lifetime. Genetically based conditions, such as allergies, are especially common in certain breeds of dogs, such as retrievers, bulldogs and terriers. Sometimes, the pet’s diet may trigger an adverse reaction that manifests in allergic skin disease. “When animals have adverse reactions to food, it is necessary to put them on a novel or new diet – something they’ve never eaten before or is a specially-formulated diet – to see if that helps reduce or eliminate the allergic reaction,” says Dena Ware, marketing manager, Dechra.
Diagnosing allergies is all about rule-outs, Ware continues. Veterinarians must begin by taking a thorough history of the patient. For instance, they must determine whether the pet is an indoor or an indoor/outdoor animal, and whether the skin reaction occurs all year round. Where does the animal sleep? Are there other pets in the home? And, so on. A thorough physical exam should follow.
As part of the physical exam, veterinarians should run a diagnostic panel, including a fecal test for internal parasites and an examination for fleas and ticks. If parasites and environmental causes can be ruled out, the next step is to consider food allergies and place the animal on a special diet for several weeks.
Sometimes, a general practitioner may refer the patient to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist, who performs an intra-dermal skin test. The animal is injected just under its skin with minimal amounts of potential allergens to see how the skin reacts to them (much like the human form of the test). In many cases, the specialist may also use a blood sample from the animal to test for allergies.
Throughout the process of diagnosing allergies and skin problems, the veterinarian will prescribe topical ointments, sprays, shampoos and wound flushes to keep the animal’s skin clean, clear of allergens and as healthy as possible.
Addressing the issues
Just as skin and coat issues may occur due to a number of reasons, so too are there a number of ways to address them. Whether skin and coat issues develop due to allergies, nutrition, genetics or behavioral problems, often the best treatment includes a combination therapy, according to experts.
Skin allergies can be triggered by several sources, including environmental, parasitic and nutritional. Animals typically absorb allergens through their skin, which is porous and doesn’t always provide an effective barrier against pathogens. The skin often reacts by becoming itchy and potentially infected when the animal scratches. Licking and biting of open wounds leads to further infection. Similarly, when the animal is bitten by a parasite, it may develop a systemic – or allergic – reaction. If the animal becomes uncomfortable and scratches or licks the affected area, it may become infected.
Contact allergens, such as chemicals in the environment, cleaning solutions and formaldehyde in carpets, can cause hair loss and redness on the skin of dogs and cats, particularly at points of contact, according to Laura Petree, DVM, director of technical services, Veterinary Products Laboratories. “When dogs are allergic to pollen, dust [and other inhalants], their ears and skin may itch, especially between their toes,” she says. As a result, they scratch at their ears and lick and chew between their toes, leading to further skin issues.
Sometimes skin issues are indicative of systemic diseases, such as Cushing’s disease, hyperthyroidism or renal disease, Petree continues. “Problems with the animal’s immune system or endocrine system can also present through skin issues,” she says. And, just as with humans, animals may develop obsessive-compulsive reactions to stress. In the case of dogs and cats, stress can lead to excessive licking and chewing of a particular area. “Dogs tend to focus on their front legs, while cats tend to focus on their flanks,” she explains. “Often, once they start, the area begins to bother them, so they continue and it becomes a habit.”
Shedding is an issue among pet owners as well, says Petree. Shedding can be seasonal or due to allergies, a hormonal imbalance, or a deficiency in vitamins or fatty acids. According to market research performed in 2008 by Central Life Sciences, of the 44.8 million dog owners that year, 35 percent expressed concerns about excessive shedding. “Only 40 percent of these individuals were aware that there are products available to address non-seasonal shedding,” she says. “Of this 40 percent, only 46 percent actually purchased such products.” But, the numbers add up, she points out. “Those people who purchased products spent an average of $57 each on nutritional supplements, ointments, shampoos and sprays, from their veterinarian and/or over the counter,” she says. “This added up to $165 million. Wouldn’t veterinarians be interested in getting more of this business?”
While some veterinarians rely more heavily on anti-inflammatory steroids, which work well for short-term use, these products are sometimes associated with negative side effects when used for prolonged periods, including excessive urination or defecation; the development of thin skin; and overstimulation of the endocrine system, which can lead to Cushing’s disease.
Other allergy treatments for dogs and cats include:
• Cyclosporine, which can suppress the immune response to allergens in dogs and cats, but is reportedly associated with gastrointestinal side effects.
• Allergy shots, which generally are given every six to 12 months.
• Diet/nutrition. Amino fatty acids are known to help maintain and restore moisture to the skin. Also, hypoallergenic diets are available to address food allergies.
• Topical products, such as shampoos, conditioners and ointments. Some products are medicated, while others are non-medicated cleansing products.
A plethora of products
There are hundreds of veterinary products available – and many schools of thought – for treating skin issues. Because the maze of products can be overwhelming, it’s important for skin care solutions to be labeled with clear instructions. Veterinary sales reps should do their part to educate their customers, who in turn can keep their clients informed about the various solutions available to them. “It is important that products used to treat allergic skin disease contain ingredients that can help restore health to the epidermal barrier (the top layer of the skin),” says Ware. “It has been shown that animals that suffer from allergic skin disease have compromised or dysfunctional skin, which reduces its ability to act as a barrier to keep bad things out (e.g., allergens or other pathogens) and good things in (e.g., lipids, moisture, etc.). These ingredients include ceramides, phytophingosine, essential fatty acids, etc.
“Skin products should be labeled with clear instructions, and sales reps should help their customers understand which products to reach for and when,” she continues. “It should be clear to the clinic which products they need on their shelves. For instance, if they are in a humid area, which products help with cleaning and drying? If they have [canine] patients with large, floppy ears, they need information on ear flushing.” Charts explaining the many different products are especially helpful, she adds.
Supplements containing antioxidants and fatty acids help address dry, itchy skin. Many pet food manufacturers have recognized the benefits of these supplements and have included them in their foods.
Oral products include antibiotics, antifungals, and corticosteroids, while topical products come in creams, ointments, shampoos, and spot-application products to treat and prevent external parasites. The ingredients vary, but such products typically fight infection, stop inflammation, remove flaky skin and kill parasites. The product selected depends on the skin condition and the patient.
Shampoo selection for pets is equally important, especially since overuse of the wrong shampoo can cause more harm than good. Whereas degreasing shampoos are appropriate for greasy dogs, they will dry out the coat of a dog with normal or dry skin. If the dog needs a bath once or twice a year, almost any shampoo will do. If more frequent bathing is needed, a veterinary product specifically formulated for the pet’s condition should be used.
Shampoos treat a number of symptoms, says Petree, citing the following:
• General grooming shampoos.
• Shampoos designed to draw out the pet’s skin oils and permit them to surface on the coat.
• Shampoos designed to remove scales and crust associated with seborrhea.
• Anti-pruritic shampoos designed to lessen the pet’s itchiness.
• Sprays designed to add moisture to the pet’s skin and coat.
Some products marketed for humans are used for animals as well. However, pet owners don’t always understand that animal skin is very different from human skin. For that reason, it’s very important to have an animal examined by a veterinarian who can prescribe products, such as medicated shampoos, that are designed for the animal’s condition. Sometimes, human products can strip animals’ natural oils that keep their skin healthy. Using the wrong product or an old medication can exacerbate the problem.
Working with the veterinarian
A proactive approach to skin and coat health depends on a continuous dialogue between veterinarians and their clients. So, sales reps should not hesitate to revisit this topic frequently – both to remind their customers to reach out to pet owners and to ensure they are aware of the best solutions to meet their patients’ needs.
In order to direct their customers to the best solutions, sales reps must be well informed themselves, says Ware. They should begin by asking their customers what products they already have on hand. Any time of year is a good time to explore this issue, she adds and recommends asking several follow-up questions:
• “Doctor, what are the most common skin issues you see among your patients?”
• “What are you currently doing to manage your patients with skin disease/allergies?”
• “Are you finding that your clients are able to use a topical therapy as often as possible?”
• “Are your clients aware that there are convenient sprays and wipes available, as well as traditional shampoo products?”
• “Is there anything specific you would like to discuss about skin issues/allergies?”
Not only is it better for clients to purchase products based on the advice of their veterinarians, it’s also better for veterinarians’ business. “When clients purchase products from their veterinarians, they know they are getting the right one,” says Petree. “Who will advise [pet owners] at pet stores? Veterinarians know the pets.”
Distributor sales reps can help their veterinarian customers retain this business, she continues. “Veterinarians are looking for solutions to problems. Distributor reps must determine what those problems are.” They can begin by asking the receptionist or technician at the practice several questions, such as the following:
• “What are some of the common skin and coat issues your practice sees?”
• “What are some of the most challenging cases you see?”
• “What types of cases have you seen this season? For instance, are you seeing more flea and tick bites? More allergies?”
• “What are you treating these issues with? What has – and has not – been working?”
• “If you could change something about the products you are using, what would that be?”
• “What new solutions are you looking for?”
“When sales reps are in the reception area, they should look around,” Petree advises. “What do they see? Are animals scratching themselves or shaking their heads?” Veterinarians love to talk about their cases, she adds, and it’s an opportunity reps don’t want to miss out on.
Veterinarians and their staff may be busy, but rarely are they too busy to appreciate great customer service, says Ware. Regular deliveries by reps help free up shelf space at the clinic. And, when a dermatology product is on back order, a simple phone call goes a long way to prepare the vet and provide him or her with a substitute. By showing veterinarians and their staff they are available and accessible, reps are likely to create a trusting relationship for years to come.