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February 2012

The Effects Of Fleas on the Canine Coat

The following is a chapter from my new book, "Caring For the Canine Coat, A Salon Guide for Canine Estheticians and Pet Stylists".


This dog has had a severe reaction to flea bites and as a result- the skin has erupted into many lesions, as well as having severe coat loss, and the pet has taken to self-mutilation.

Aside from that which is visibly obvious to us; itchy or reddened bite sites, black specks of flea dirt (flea feces), oily coat and/or dry, brittle coat- what is happening on a microscopic level is similar to that of a war zone. As this pet’s skin attempts to heal and normalize itself- it does so by producing an overabundance of oils and also revs up cellular production to replace damaged skin cells on the skin’s surface. When a flea bites, the site by site irritation from each bite is due to an allergic reaction or hypersensitivity to the anti-coagulant or anti-clotting enzyme, histamines and a number of other substances within a flea’s saliva. One flea bite can cause hours and days of intense itching.  This itching causes the pet to physically scratch and lick or chew. This chewing and licking are what then causes a domino effect of reactions deep within the skin aside from what we can see on the outside as sores, lesions and loss of coat.

Due to the overabundance of oils and hyperkeratosis- (or thickening of the skin’s horny layer) which is due to hastened cellular replacement, the next step is that the skin follicles become occluded or clogged with built up sebum and waxeous oils produced by the skin intended to help it heal.  In essence, the skin’s healing mechanisms have now become part of the problem instead of a step in the direction towards naturally normalizing the skin.

This oil production is due to the mechanical effect that itching has upon the hair and skin: the abrasive action against the follicle and hair shaft, the tugging at the hair shaft and subsequent action of the arrector pili muscle each time the skin is scratched at, the oil production from the follicle in attempt to flush itself and heal the aggravated skin, and so on.  


 This is followed by the next step; where the skin follicles which are still becoming occluded also have a continually growing population of bacteria and microorganisms building up that cannot be flushed from the skin properly and are ever populating- creating a more and more unbalanced environment. This unhealthy flora thereby causes another reaction upon the skin to those additional irritants.

In finality, these overproduced microbes cause the follicles to become inflamed or narrowed, thereby allowing for less oil dispersion, disallowing dead hair to easily be shed; clogging up the follicle for new hair emergence, and in fact causes the new emerging hair to have increased cellular production due to this irritation and overall poor growth environment.  When new coat does emerge, it is thicker and more harsh and brittle than the previous healthy coat.   

Unhealthy skin cannot house a healthy follicle, and an unhealthy follicle is unable to produce healthy hair.

Fleas can also have a psychological effect and subsequent medical impression upon a pet. When a pet lives with an illness or an affliction, this inevitably changes the pet’s mental ability to exist day to day without at any given time, fixating on the pain, agitation, or discomfort they are feeling. This then has a secondary effect on a pet’s daily activities which would otherwise be considered as normal. This is important to us because these pets may enter the salon in a heightened sense of alert response, making them have the propensity to more easily act out and could cause side effects such as aggression or defensive reaction. 


Being a host to a pest can cause side effects of self-mutilation as well. In the cases where flea allergies are present, the loss of hair and generally uncomfortable skin can leave the pet in not just a physically influenced state, but a psychological one as well.  When a pet enters the salon with the degree of symptoms as that of the one pictured above, it is recommended to reevaluate the grooming visit at that time and refer to a vet for medical advice as to whether or not to proceed in order to not cause further pain. It may be necessary to address the pet’s condition with a prescription formula topical which we would not have at our disposal to help begin the healing process the most effectively and carefully.


Eradicating Fleas

Once the presence of fleas has been determined, and it is decided that the pet can be groomed without causing it additional pain, it is vital to move the host pet to the bathing area immediately for a topical flea treatment method. Always remember to not pre-wet the coat of a pet with fleas before applying the shampoo. Doing so can lessen the effect of the shampoo and allow for fleas to remain alive on the skin. When fleas feel threatened, they can excrete a chemical in their saliva which creates a sealing barrier around their bodies against things like pesticides or soaps- and this can cause them to emerge unscathed by our shampoos. On a pet with fleas, handle the skin and coat carefully and even more so if there is additional irritation present. Use tepid bathing water and long cool rinses to help soothe the skin and offer some antipruritic (lessening of itching) effect. Apply the flea shampoo liberally and pay close attention to areas such as the underarms, groin and navel areas, base of the tail, under the ears, and carefully attend to the head areas as well. Fleas usually congregate in areas of deeper yet loose coat, and areas where there is good blood circulation just beneath the skin, and ample warmth.  Per the product’s usage instructions, adhere to the dilution ratio (or lack thereof) and contact time- do not leave the shampoo on the pet for longer than recommended even if the fleas are at an infested level. Using multiple applications is still safer than leaving the shampoo on longer than prescribed.  After using a flea shampoo, follow up with a gentle formula cleansing shampoo and a quality coat conditioner to help hold some of the moisture on the skin which can be depleted by the stripping nature of most pesticidal shampoos.

Fleas in hair

Whether a groomer chooses to provide a flea dip, bathe with a flea shampoo- either natural or not, or follows up with a topical flea treatment- this is up to the individual groomer and the pet’s needs.  A growing number of groomers are acting upon the results of studies and educating themselves to the dangers of prolonged pesticide exposure, as well as the effects of certain pest control ingredients. It is recommended that the groomer inform themselves thoroughly on the active ingredients in any given flea treatment method, be knowledgeable in the allowances of flea treatment with regard to state statutes, and understand the residual effects, if any, of the topicals they provide.  Most importantly, only second to actually ridding the pet of its current flea population in the salon, is taking the time to talk with your client about the condition of the pet, how you will address coat and skin health, and how to treat their home and begin a care plan for the pet to end the cycle.   Take the time to organize an informational brochure, have website referrals, or at the very least- a dialogue for how to inform the client effectively and to move them in the direction towards helping the pet.


Oatmeal For Pets in Your Salon

One of the most common questions that I see and hear in our canine skin & coat care classes are surrounding the topic of grooming dogs which enter the salon with itchy, dry or pink colored skin due to allergies.  It can be seasonal or contact allergies, but these dogs repeatedly come in with uncomfortable skin, and lackluster and unhealthy coat. 

We have to remember that we can do all the best we can on the outside of these dogs, but what is causing these symptoms is continuing to well deep inside the pet.  In these cases, it is ever so important to try to take the time to educate your pet client owners about allergies, symptoms that you see and possible causes.  Most of all, try to recommend them to a vet who specializes in systemic and supportive care practices that really get to the root of the problem. Without a good vet in place and pet owners who will work with, your only method of providing relief for the pet is to use your tools and supplies in your salon that you know will provide the pet the most benefit, some relief, and the least amount of stress during their visits.  Sometimes we can only know that we are doing the best we can for the pet and giving some relief even if it visits again with the same symptoms. 

There are natural and simple ingredients and products that you as a groomer or stylist can easily have on hand to help provide relief and create a beautiful groom for your clients at each visit and to lessen a pet’s symptoms and provide some relief- even if only for a short time.  Having these on hand will enable you to give some genuine physical comfort to the pet and to well clean the “canvas” on which you will lay your finished groom. 

One of the most simple, whole, and safe products you can have in your bathing rooms is colloidal oatmeal.


Colloidal Oatmeal




Colloidal oatmeal, is also known by its Genus Species name, Avena sativa L..  What colloidal oatmeal does is to help smooth and comfort itchy, scratchy, and dry skin. These same effects can be given to your pet clients as well as it does for us humans.


Following is an in depth excerpt of work from Alessandra Panoni of the clinical properties, uses & benefits or colloidal oatmeal.  Beyond this, continues my article on using colloidal oatmeal in our salons.

 Oatmeal has been used for centuries as a soothing agent to relieve itch and irritation associated with various xerotic dermatoses. In 1945, a ready to use colloidal oatmeal, produced by finely grinding the oat and boiling it to extract the colloidal material, became available. Today, colloidal oatmeal is available in various dosage forms from powders for the bath to shampoos, shaving gels, and moisturizing creams. Currently, the use of colloidal oatmeal as a skin protectant is regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) according to the Over-The-Counter Final Monograph for Skin Protectant Drug Products issued in June 2003. Its preparation is also standardized by the United States Pharmacopeia.

The many clinical properties of colloidal oatmeal derive from its chemical polymorphism. The high concentration in starches and [beta]-glucan is responsible for the protective and water-holding functions of oat. The presence of different types of phenols confers antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Some of the oat phenols are also strong ultraviolet absorbers. The cleansing activity of oat is mostly due to saponins. Its many functional properties make colloidal oatmeal a cleanser, moisturizer, buffer, as well as a soothing and protective anti-inflammatory agent.

History of Oatmeal

Enzymes, such as lipase, lipoxygenase, and superoxide dismutase, have also been found in oats. (23,24) Because oat grains are rich in lipids with a high content in unsaturated fatty acids, they contain various compounds with antioxidant activity to protect the lipids from oxidation. (25) This activity is mostly derived by the presence of phenolic esters. (25,26) The oat plant at various growth stages has been found to contain a large number of phenolic compounds including all major classes: benzoic and cinnamic acids, quinones, flavones, flavonols, chalcones, flavanones, anthocyanidines, and aminophenolics. (25) The most important antioxidant phenols in oat flour are the glyceryl esters of hydroxycinnamic, ferulic, p-coumaric, and caffeic acids. (27)

Oats also contain flavonoids (phenolic structure) with strong absorption of ultraviolet A (UVA) in the 320 to 370 nm range. (25) Other phenolic esters, called avenacins (structurally belonging to saponins), have also been isolated. (25) These have a large lipophilic region and a short chain of sugar residues, which interact with nonlipid components. Because of this structure saponins have a soap-like action. (28) Lastly, oats contain a variety of minerals and vitamins. (29) Among these, vitamin E, present mostly as [alpha]-tocopherol, is the most clinically relevant. (23,27)

Clinical Properties

Because of its chemical polymorphism, colloidal oatmeal presents many functional and dermatological clinical properties such as cleansing, buffering, moisturizing, protecting, soothing, anti-irritant, and antioxidant. As a skin protectant, colloidal oatmeal is regulated by the FDA as an over the counter drug, and can be included in tub baths at a minimum concentration of 0.007% if alone, or at a minimum concentration of 0.003% when combined with mineral oil (30%-35%). (15) The monograph defines a skin protectant as a "drug product that temporarily protects injured or exposed skin or mucous membrane surfaces from harmful or annoying stimuli, and may help provide relief to such surfaces." (15)

Other types of phenols in oat are responsible for different functional properties. In fact, the oat flavonoids are strong UVA-screens, (25) and the avenacins have potent antifungal activity as well as a soap-like function. (25,28)

Tocopherols (vitamin E) have anti-inflammatory and antiphotodamage activities. They have been found to prevent or reduce UV-mediated damage in the skin and to inhibit the biosynthesis of prostaglandin [E.sub.2]. (38)

The anti-inflammatory properties of oat have been substantiated in several investigations. A study using extracts of Avena sativa showed strong inhibition of prostaglandin biosynthesis in vitro. (39) Another in vitro investigation found that the oat extract decreased mobilization of arachidonic acid from phospholipids, suggesting value for ameliorating inflammatory skin disorders. (40)

A recent investigation in burn patients demonstrated the soothing benefit of a shower/bath oil containing 5% colloidal oatmeal in liquid paraffin. The results showed that the group using colloidal oatmeal had a significant reduction in itch compared to the

New technology in the formulation of oatmeal products has allowed more cosmetically appealing topicals for improved moisturization, cleansing, and shaving, and new products are constantly being developed to address different skin types, skin conditions, and age groups. (8)


I thank Dr. Alessandra Pagnoni for providing her expert opinion and critical help in the organization and preparation of the manuscript above.


Chih bath


How Does Colloidal Oatmeal Work?

Colloidal oatmeal is simply oats ground into an extremely fine powder. When added to bathwater, it creates a milky dispersion that prevents the oatmeal from settling rapidly. So the oatmeal stays in the water and doesn't just sink to the bottom of the bath. When you get into the tub, the colloidal oatmeal feels silky, as it coats, moisturizes, softens, and protects your skin.


What Conditions Are Helped By Colloidal Oatmeal?

Colloidal oatmeal works great to help relieve dry, psoriasis, skin patches (Eczema), acne, bug bites, sunburns, and other minor skin irritations. It also helps relieve chicken pox, poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and other itching and scratching rashes. These rashes also work twofold with the central nervous system as they continue to create- to keep it simple- an itch signal to the nerves and then on to the brain- from within the skin tissue.  Regardless of how aggressively it is scratched on the surface, it is still telling the brain that there is something there that continues to not feel right. This subsequent scratching can be the source of much more than simple itching. Self-mutilation response to relieve allergy itching often causes both secondary skin infections, a cycle of hair and skin loss, sores, and general anxiety and even depression in a pet. Imagine being trapped in your body for weeks, months or even years and always feeling itchy and uncomfortable. To me, it would be maddening!  Remember that these pets likely are not “themselves”- they could be skittish, reactive, aggressive and just plainly unhappy at their visits.  Here is your chance to start a positive change for them, even if it is only a few hours of normality and relief following their groom.  What good things we can do if we choose to try.  Since colloidal oatmeal has an anti-itch property that helps reduce the “need to itch,” soaking in the bath brings soothing comfort to those infected. When your skin is itchy and irritated, its pH level may be higher. Colloidal oatmeal helps bring the pH back to normal levels, taming the "need to itch."  One condition that oatmeal is not suitable for are yeast infections. Since oatmeal is a grain, it is a ready food source for the yeast population on infected skin to feed upon, and could, in theory, cause more prolific yeast production.

Checking in a pet who may have allergies

It is important to address your concerns straight away with the pet owner. Both to possibly help create a change back home while they are in your care at the salon, and to avoid possibly having any issue blamed to your hands.  Help the owner to leave your salon with an idea of what services you plan for their pet, and WHY.  Care for the pet as best you can during their visit, and repeat that care every time you see them. 

If the pet is extremely matted where you cannot get the skin and coat clean, you may need to first remove some or all of  the coat as a rough in clip. However, if avoidable, I will always try to get them into a cool bath straight away and wait for grooming work until the coat is clean and the skin has a little of its moisture and elasticity back.  If your grooming clients have skin that is mildly inflamed, reddened by irritation, is coated in dander and oily or tacky residue, colloidal oatmeal can help soothe their skin as well. Here is the method that I prefer to use in the salon for clients, it takes an extra 10 minutes for prep time and allowing the pet to soak, but it still gives genuine help in a short time so it is well worth having as a tool for relief. 

Providing a Colloidal Oatmeal Soak

Rinse the pet for 2 to 5 minutes with cool to luke-warm water. Light water pressure and heavy water flow is beneficial.  You do not want to water spray or to mechanically rub the skin too hard when it is aggravated for obvious reasons. 

Follow the long cool rinse with a gentle cleansing shampoo. Some may find that a gentle shampoo does not adequately break up excess skin dander or oils to be effective in their removal, so it may be necessary to step up to a clarifying shampoo if there is excess debris on the coat.  Always remember that gentler is better, but we also want to be effective in our results to make a difference for the pet owner and the pet.  If the skin is not built up too badly, step back down to a gentle formula shampoo, and bathe at least twice.  Be careful about manually scrubbing too hard, let the water and products work for you, and follow this bath with another cool rinse for 2 to 3 minutes to help seal in moisture.

After the bath, you can now get your oatmeal soak ready for the pet.  You can keep the pet in the tub, or remove them, towel dry lightly, kennel, and keep them warm while you mix the soak. 

Add 2 Tablespoons of colloidal oatmeal powder to a luke-warm bath of up to 5 gallons of water (a very warm bath will irritate the skin), the heavier the mix, the only change will be that you must be more thorough in rinsing.  You can either cup up & pour the tepid water over the pet’s back and neck, or allow them to soak supervised in a bath deep enough to cover them up to their neck. The dilution ratio for the oatmeal should be listed in the product’s label, but in the effect that it is not, a good rule of thumb is to mix 2 Tablespoons into 5 gallons of warmer water.  You want this soak to be warm, but not hot and not so cold that they may chill. Be sure they are supplied with an anti-slip matt in the bottom of the tub, and never leave them unattended. Add your pet client, and let them soak for 5 to 7 minutes. You can pour the tepid or cool water over the pets back and neck, or allow them to soak supervised in a bath deep enough to cover them up to their neck. Again, be sure they are supplied with an anti-slip matt in the bottom of the tub, and never leave them unattended.  Be sure not to get the colloidal rinse into the pet’s eyes.  Allowing the ear leathers to soak in this solution is a great help for inflamed ears as well. After a soak rinse them again for a minute or two with cooler water, towel dry by softly squeezing the water from the coat, and either kennel or hand dry as needed.  If the pet has needed a clarifying or deeper shampoo, you will want to apply a diluted cream rinse or conditioner to their coat to be sure the skin is given added moisture.  We never want to over condition the coat, but we do not want to leave it at all stripped as well. *Remember with conditioners, less is more, and slathering on a heavy cream or oils will only cause coat build up and keep the skin from regenerating and cleansing itself as it was designed to do. In the case of all pets with abnormal skin, we are seeking to normalize the skin, help the skin to create its own healthy flora, and then to stop subsequent treatment in the salon once that is achieved.  Meaning that you may not need to treat the skin in this manner at the next visit, or that you may need to alter your care as the skin’s healing and normalization continues.  We want to bridge the gap in the pet’s normal skin condition and then let the body step up to continue that normality on its own if possible.

After the rinse, it is normal for both your hands and the pet to feel very silky and smooth. This is the oatmeal doing what it was designed to do; lightly coat the skin, seal in moisture, and providing elasticity back to the skin & hair.  Since colloidal oatmeal also pulls out the annoying irritants that are on the skin’s surface, and even superficially in the skin’s upper cellular layers, your pet will be feeling better in no time.

This treatment will help as soon as it is applied for most every pet, but must be repeated every two to seven days either with you or at home if this is what the pet owner wants to rely on for relief. Using colloidal oatmeal is a very gentle and non-invasive remedy to topical irritation and itching, but simply will not end allergic responses unless it is used as part of a care regimen that helps end the allergen(s) inclusion in the pet’s daily life. Remember that an oatmeal bath is a remedy, NOT a solution to an underlying issue which may be at the root of the itchiness or odors.  Again, always work with your pet owners and their vet to be sure your pet’s health need are addressed and fulfilled.