Jock and his stinky feet. Photo by Dr. Amelia White
It has been a long day at the clinic. Between shuffling my 8-month pregnant self around exam rooms and trying to make it longer than 30 minutes before needing a pee break, I’m beat. All I want to do is get home, get these cankles elevated approximately 30 degrees over my head, and enjoy a pint of chocolate chocolate chip.
As I snuggle up on the couch, my sweet miniature schnauzer Jock joins me. If you’re eating something, you can expect he’ll be inches behind you to pick up any tasty crumbs that escape to the floor. He makes 20 hairpin turns fluffing and re-fluffing his spot, then finally settles down with an abnormally loud groan.
“What’s up, buddy?”
“Grrrrr-hummmpfff,” he responds as his head finds a resting place between his legs.
As I get near the bottom of the pint, I hear the unmistakable sound of foot sucking. Slurping and chewing and sucking away. It is about as recognizable as a cat vomiting from behind three closed doors. That crap will wake you from a dead sleep.
“Oh, geez. Not again, buddy. Did you eat something you weren’t supposed to?” I’d hoped I was done playing veterinarian for the day, but this calls for an exam, especially for my dog who cannot eat a morsel of bread without having his food allergies flare up. As I pick up his feet to look between his toes, an odor reaches my Bloodhound-primed pregnant-lady nose. A picture of Fritos enters my mind. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get a fresh bag of Fritos to discover the scent of stinky dog toes.
A two-second glance confirms what the Frito smell has already told me. Another pododermatitis (infection of the feet).
We head to the clinic. A quick tape cytology of his feet and peek under the microscope confirms the Fritos odor: bacteria and yeast. Yuck! We order some medicated shampoo and wipes, anti-itch meds, and head back to the house to re-elevate these cankles.
On the ride home, I chuckle as my husband says, “Man, dude. Your feet smell like a bag of stinky potato chips.” “Fritos?” I ask. “Yes, that’s it!” my husband exclaims.
All dog feet smell, some more than others, and this is largely due to the amount and type of microbes growing there. All dogs have microbes such as yeast and bacteria on their feet; it really is the perfect place to take up residence. The feet are the one place on the dog that have sweat glands. Have you heard the saying that dogs do not sweat, they pant? This is the exception. It's dark, warm, moist, and hairy.
These microbes all emit unique odors. Yeast and bacteria like Proteus emit a sweet odor while the bacteria Pseudomonas is a little fruitier. Some owners claim they like the way their dog's feet smell. I'm impartial, which is probably a good thing since I hang out with stinky, infected dogs all day long.
When dogs have a medical condition that warms the feet and moistens them even more (like allergies)...BOOM! It's a microbe orgy up in there. Baby microbes are made and pollution emits in the form of Frito feet! Once the overgrowth or infections are treated, then the intensity of the odor decreases, but it's always there.
Even though I’m super pregnant, it still falls in my owner duties to give the medications. I grab a bag of hypoallergenic dog treats and the medicated wipes. “Okay, listen, dude. I’m too whale-like to wrestle. Be a good boy and let’s get those toe-sies feeling better.”
I spread the treats on the floor and grab for Jock’s paw. I’m about half an inch from it and he starts whining and yanking his foot away. “Really, man? I’m a veterinary dermatologist. Don’t make a bad owner example out of me.” I gently reach for his paw again and BAZINGA! He’s hiding under the middle of the king-sized bed. I literally cannot fit under there to reach him. I’ll have to order some pills.
What did he get into this time?
We are diligent owners of a food-allergic dog. He only gets his hypoallergenic diet and treats. Even his monthly flea and heartworm preventives are not flavored. The pantry door is kept closed (we learned that the hard way), and all trashcans have lids (also learned the hard way). Surely the hubby left something lying around. A few minutes later my husband discovers the peanut butter cracker wrappers in the corner of the closet. I guess Jock found my snack stash in my work bag. I thought I took those things out of there.
Having a dog who is allergic to literally every protein source is quite frustrating. And because he’s a schnauzer, sometimes when he strays from his prescription diet we are blessed with blow-out diarrhea and vomiting in addition to the skin infections. Schnauzers tend to have episodes of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). Most schnauzers have higher than normal levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in circulation. This likely contributes to their sensitivity to dietary indiscretions and propensity towards pancreatitis. A high fat content meal quickly sends the schnauzer pancreas over the edge. No double bacon cheese burgers or chili cheese dogs for them!
For our little man, these episodes usually lands him in the ER for a few days on IV fluids and anti-nausea meds. Several hundreds of dollars later, Jock’s back at home scouting out crumbs again. Usually for the weeks after one of these lovely events, we are especially careful not to let any tiny crumbs find their way to the floor. But over time we become lax until we have another skin infection or upset tummy fiasco.
For us, the hypoallergenic diet is a life-saver. It’s like a medication for him. As long as he eats just that, he doesn’t get sick. But if he strays too far off course, then we are literally paying for it. I may be a veterinarian, but services provided by my colleagues are not free.
I suspected Jock was food allergic from the time he was a puppy. He always was so much itchier than a normal puppy should be. I checked for fleas and ticks. Zilch! I changed to a dye-free, fragrance-free, paraben-free laundry detergent. Nada!
I’m a vet. I knew what this was right away, but I was in denial. I tried hypoallergenic oatmeal shampoos and antihistamines. I quit wearing perfume, switched his flea control, and changed to metal food and water bowls. I went the whole nine yards.
Then he had his first skin infection, an attack of Fritos Feet. My colleagues all smiled and shook their heads. “Of course YOU would get a dog with a food allergy,” they said. And I thought "Yes, of course."
I had one of two options for hypoallergenic food. Really, there are three options, but there was no way I had the time, patience, or diligence for home-cooked diets. Some people do, but I definitely do not.
My two remaining options were: 1) novel (new) protein diet, or 2) hydrolyzed protein diet. During his puppy training, I think I pretty much used whatever dog treats were on sale (trigger owner guilt). This meant that I had inadvertently exposed him to tons of different proteins already: fish, beef, chicken, turkey, deer, kangaroo. I dampened the owner guilt away by feeling better that he turned out to be a well-socialized and confident dog because of it. So hydrolyzed protein diet it would be. In reality, this was a better choice for him anyway because I knew he struggled with high triglyceride and cholesterol levels, as well as pancreatitis, so these diets could address that as well. These diets are formulated by taking a normal protein like chicken or soy, and shrinking it to such a small size that the immune system cannot recognize it. He would still get all of the nutrients for sustenance, but his immune system would not set off fireworks like the Fourth of July. Even though Jock may have been exposed to one of these proteins already, it wouldn’t matter immunologically speaking.
When I told my husband the plan for a food elimination trial, it was like I stole his G.I. Joe and broke his leg off in front of him: You mean no more dog treats? No more rawhides, table scraps, Dairy Queen drive-thru runs? What kind of life is that? What kind of vet are you to suggest that?
You got me. Exactly the reason I did not want this for him either. Trigger owner guilt again.
But the truth of the matter is what kind of life was it to be miserably itchy all the time? And who wants to be hospitalized two or three times a year for terrible nausea, gut pains, and diarrhea?
So we forged ahead. We dove in deep. And I mean, deep.
Every bowl and food storage container: donated.
Every stuffed baby and blanket: washed.
Every rawhide and flavored plastic bone: donated.
Every bag of dog treats: donated.
We considered putting baby locks on the fridge, but decided he wasn’t big enough to get the door handle opened. The trash cans all were traded out for lidded varieties. The pantry door was kept closed. Our life as we knew it was OVER.
And then the miracle happened. We fed the new food.
I never realized how much my dog farted before, or maybe I was blaming it on my husband. But my dog went from a Whoopee Cushion to a little gentleman in a matter of one week.
We followed all of the rules and within a month he was way less itchy! By the end of the 12-week food trial I barely noticed him licking or chewing like before. He became a “normal” dog. His guts no longer made growling noises, his poops were formed, and the gassy Gus was gone. He was a new dog. My husband was thrilled (and me too).
But what kind of veterinary dermatologist would I be if I didn’t continue the food trial? So we reluctantly entered the “challenge” period to confirm that he was indeed food allergic. This meant that we had to feed him the diet he was eating when he was itchy. On day five the diarrhea started. That was enough for me and so our dog was diagnosed with food allergies.
Again, what kind of dermatologist would I be if I didn’t complete the food trial? We grudgingly entered the “single ingredient challenge” period. This was terrible. Essentially we had to feed a single cooked protein source to see if he reacted. I had my list taped to the fridge: chicken, beef, soy, turkey, dairy, fish, venison, wheat, corn, etc. I made it to turkey and then we gave up. He flared up each time we fed a single protein source. I would like to say I was a good owner and completed the protein chart challenge: cue owner guilt again because I did not.
In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter how perfectly I conducted the single ingredient challenge. It has been several years now and he is rocking that body on his hypoallergenic diet. He’s happy. We are happy. Life is good without Frito feet!
July 30, 2018
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.