When we impulsively rescued an eightweek- old ball of yellow fur from the back of a pickup truck headed for the pound, we had no idea how much our lives would change. This Lab/German Shepherd mix, whom we named Max, grew quickly. Before we knew it, we had a 108-pound ballistic missile with a wet tongue and four paws — and, in his second year, a severe allergy to an unknown substance.
We tried steroids, antibiotics, topical applications, herbs and acupuncture, yet the rashes, oozing and itching persisted. The steroids worked in the short term, but made him hungry, thirsty and susceptible to ringworm, and were bad for his bones, joints and kidneys over the long haul.
The rashes typically began with papules — red dots — and pustules, and then spread into a solid flaming mass of irritation in his inguinal (groin) and axillary (armpit) areas — sometimes on his belly as well. I kept telling vets that it looked like poison ivy, and they assured me that dogs do not react to poison ivy.
No one had any idea what Max was allergic to. Because the rashes appeared initially in summer, they were first attributed to our typical Florida weather — hot and humid — exacerbated by insects of all kinds. That theory was disproved when Max’s condition continued into the cooler, drier months.
We investigated food as a source, and put Max on a special diet of an allergyfree amino acid–based food for three months. Then we reintroduced his regular diet. No change. We gave him raw milk at the suggestion of a farmer friend, who had tried it successfully for her dog’s itchiness. No change. We thought he might be allergic to turkey and chicken and eliminated them from his diet. Nothing seemed to make a difference. The typical culprits — fleas, ticks and mites, both demodex and scabies — were ruled out or did not fit the symptoms to begin with.
He wasn’t better in any particular season, so inhalant allergies were out. Our allopathic vet suggested he was just allergic to “a lot of stuff,” got itchy and then got various infections from romping around. That’s when drugs were prescribed: antibiotics for the secondary infections and steroids to suppress his reaction to the allergenic agents. Our holistic vet offered various herbs and did some acupuncture, but she seemed as perplexed as everyone else about what could be causing this awful skin condition. Although we were frustrated, we could not fault the professionals we consulted. Presented with the facts we had, they did the best they could.
We’re fortunate to have a veterinary college near us, part of the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville. Although we hesitated at first because of the cost, we finally decided it was time to have him checked out there — Max was still miserable despite the fortune we’d already spent on medications, herbs and topical applications.
The great thing about visiting a university clinic is that a team of students and residents reviews a case before the attending veterinarian weighs in. We liked the idea of having several bright, inquiring minds looking for solutions to this mystery. We were there for half the day, and the intake exam was thorough — the students carefully inspected every inch of Max’s body, then took him away for testing that included skin scrapings for cultures and microscopic examination. Finally, they all re-entered the tiny treatment room where my husband and I were waiting. The attending veterinarian, Rosanna Marsella — a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology — came in with them. “Max definitely has a contact allergy,” she told us, as opposed to an atopic allergy. (Atopic means the reaction can be distant from the cause — for example, a rash that is a result of pathogens entering through the respiratory or digestive system.)
So what was he coming in contact with? Dr. Marsella said the rash was consistent in character with that caused by plants in the Commelinaceae family. Her Italian accent, coupled with the challenging pronunciation of the full botanical name (genus and species), made it difficult for me to understand what she was saying. “Does it have a common name?” I asked.