by Chris Jones
The number one reason for scratching (and biting at coat, tail or feet) is flea infestation. Even one flea can trigger intense itching and scratching. One flea biting and jumping on and off repeatedly biting drives your Shih Tzu crazy.
A flea secreting it's saliva into the skin can start a chain reaction and an allergic response in a Shih Tzu in very short order. It is believed that even one flea in the immediate environment is a signal that prompt measures must be taken. There may be as many as 100 fleas lurking for every one seen. Fleas spend little time actually biting your dog they are busy laying eggs and those eggs may be hatching momentarily.
Prevention of course is the best defense. Proper diet, including fresh foods, a healthy immune system and fastidious care are a must. Natural remedies and treatments are always preferred. Please do not resort to toxic sprays, collars or dips. Investigate alternative methods of flea control.
Other parasites also rank high as itch promoters. It is also possible for a dog to contract lice. Look for tiny white eggs or lice on the dogs skin and hair. An Optivisor or strong magnifier is good for this purpose. If you happen to have a black light, this may also help you in visually finding lice.
Itching ears due to mites can cause scratching, also. Mites usually cause a dark brown discharge and foul smell in the ears. When the dog attempts to scratch his ears, he may scratch his neck or head area as well. Dogs exposed to roaming animals, inside/outside cats or even in some grooming or boarding situations are more prone to contract these problems. Controlled environment and exposure is your best weapon.
Mange (or scabies, in humans) also causes intense itching. Look for a brown bran like flake on the skin. This can also cause hair loss and breakage. Mange can be an autoimmune disorder or a seriously contagious skin disease. Isolate any dog you feel may have come in contact with mange. Of course see your vet for any of these conditions for instructions.
Intestinal parasites can also cause poor skin and hair conditions. For example tapeworm can cause breakage and coarsening of the hair along the shoulders and tail area. Other intestinal parasites such as Giardia and coccidiosis weaken a dog's immune system and for this reason leave the skin more prone to hot spots, infection, hair loss and scratching. A compromised immune system can sometimes be recognized by observing chronic skin problems. Autoimmune mediated thyroid conditions may be manifest in this manner. A thyroid blood test, with a T4 and TFH level might be in order. Chronically red inflamed ears and inter-digital cysts on the feet may also be indicative of autoimmune problems. These symptoms are also a sign of possible allergies as well. Many dogs are allergic to grass. Sometimes the chemicals on the grass may be the culprits. Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens. Many are toxic and damaging to the immune system as well.
Allergies are a very big reason so many dogs scratch. Allergies are a very frustrating problem. I know I have them myself. Again, a good immune system is the best defense. A dog, like a human may have a food allergy, a plant allergy (grass is often the culprit) or inhalant allergy or any combination of the three. You can systematically remove items from the pets diet and environment or choose a two-ingredient diet for 6 weeks and see if this makes a difference.
It is essential to feed a balanced healthy diet and provide needed fatty acids. Vitamin E can be fed in the form of cold processed wheat germ oil to help boost the essential fatty acids and aid in healing of skin. For an adult Shih Tzu start with about ¼ tsp oil on the food or on a spoon daily. If tolerated well, (no loose stools) increase until ½ tsp daily for a 10-15 pound dog. The addition of a Biotin capsule daily won't hurt. Also, feeding digestive enzymes to help your dog process his food more efficiently might not be a bad idea either. You may also be able to find a supplement containing essential fatty acids (EFA's) combined with Biotin, enzymes and anti-oxidants. Drs. Foster and Smith now make and market one such product in their catalog. Homeopathic sulphur 6x given 3 times daily for 2-3 weeks or chelated zinc (10 mg) given orally daily might be of some help for scratching or skin problems.
An emollient oil such as Maurry Lab's Derma Oil, in the final rinse after bath may help. Bathing with citrus based shampoo is often a help. You may also make a spray of lemon juice and water (avoid eye area) or purchase a pet safe product to deter fleas, etc. Dusting your yard with either diatomaceous earth or 20 Mule team Borax will help with premise control. (read labels and follow instructions) Wash pet bedding and vacuum often. Difficult cases may require stronger measures. Please do not resort to systemic insecticides. These pass through the skin into the bloodstream and must be eliminated through the liver. Some of these may also rub off on your furniture on our hands or your children's. They are not safe for you, your family or your pets. Carrots, garlic and brewer's yeast may have some effect on parasites. My friend Dr. Kelly asked me to quit telling people that brewer's yeast acted as a flea deterrent. He said if there are a 1000 hungry fleas in the environment, they will bite your dog regardless. He may be right. Maybe we are just lucky but I have to believe it's more than that. We once had our show dogs all set up next to some terriers at a very big show in the Northwest, when a vet's wife who is a friend of ours came by and gasped. She advised us to move immediately, stating that all the terriers were covered with fleas. We were short of room and time so we used that same set up for 3-4 days. No fleas. Lucky? I don't know. Maybe. People who take brewers yeast regularly report fewer if any mosquito bites. Some holistic practitioners feel that parasites seek weaker or immune compromised animals. Whatever the reason, it is advisable to always be prudent and use a sensible approach to prevention and control. Inspect your pet daily; investigate healthy alternatives and health supporting preventatives.
Adding essential fatty acids or Oil of Evening Primrose and a biotin capsule daily may help in some cases. MSM reportedly helps with allergies also, it comes in capsules and powered form. Oatmeal baths, emollient oil rinses are also helpful for some dogs.
Hard water residue can also make animals itch, just like sensitive skinned people. Using soft water or a vinegar rinse may be the answer in these cases. Also be sure to rinse, rinse, rinse. Be sure to remove product residue, particularly under the chest, elbows and forelegs. Most Shih Tzu have thick hair with a dense undercoat. They are literally like dust mops with feet. Any heavy conditioners or oil based products attract dirt like a magnet. Heavy conditioners and oils are often used to keep a dog "in oil" for easier show coat maintenance. When this technique is used the dog must be kept scrupulously clean and bathed often. Otherwise the best approach may be to use a tangle free rinse or a light dematting spray as needed. Please note that high humidity or even a change in humidity can effect the coat and often results in scratching. Wet hair, improperly dried can also cause dampness close to the skin resulting in itching and scratching.
Certain times of the year inhalant allergies are a problem for people and this is often the case with dogs. Cedar and grasses seem to have a particularly bad effect on all of us, Shih Tzu being no exception. I have seen Shih Tzu go way out of their way to avoid grass. Interestingly, one dog I had was allergic to 3 types of grass. We have no grass but I remember when showing her that she often refused to walk in grass! Pollens and blowing dust are often troublesome to Shih Tzu with their large eyes and very short noses. Making their lives easier by keeping them off grass or away from offending allergens, is always helpful. A special designated outdoor area free from grass can be helpful. River rock or smooth pea gravel is ideal. This can be simply enclosed with a portable exercise pen. A contained patio, deck, or porch can also work. A friend of mine uses a "potty screen". Her dogs use "carpenter cloth" carefully tacked over a wooden frame. The frame is then placed over "wee wee pads" for the dogs to go potty. Their feet stay dry and clean and the dogs are not on grass. Like the exercise pen the potty screen is ideal for traveling.
I have noticed that sand or dirt getting into the coat causes itching and scratching. Oil build up, multi-product interaction or product residues that build up or attract dirt on skin contribute to itching and scratching. Regular bathing is necessary to maintain a clean "itch free" dog. Bathing with too harsh a detergent based product can be drying and cause itching. You may wish to use ph strips to test the acid - alkaline balance of the skin care products. The skin is usually on the acidic side. You have probably heard the phrase, "protect the acid mantle" of the skin. This means the ph should be around 6-7. A moisturizing shampoo may be the answer. Episoothe Shampoo and rinse is good for dog with sensitive skin.
Several people have reported good luck with tea tree oil products or mellaluca shampoos. We would be remiss if we didn't mention cortisone injections. We don't recommend them except as a last resort. Sometimes such a drastic measure must be used to stop the itch scratching cycle but continuous use of steroids is not advised. A prednisolone tablet would be the safer alternative. Even the tablets should be used only as recommended by your veterinarian. (Usually tapering off is necessary upon completion of treatment.)
To sum it up, external factors like fleas, parasites, allergens, grooming products, seasonal and humidity changes all effect the condition of the dog's skin. Prevention of controllable factors and diligent maintenance of a clean, healthy, well-nourished dog will go a long way in combating these irritants. Frequent external examination is a necessity. Routinely encouraging a healthy immune system by avoiding chemicals, chemical additives, toxic products or sprays around your dog and home will help. Supporting good internal health care with the best fresh food and supplements available is necessary in preventing scratching. Good luck to you and your Shih Tzu.