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.
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.
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.