Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Affecting Pets?

The mainland Gulf Coast of Mississippi is almost completely free of Gulf of Mexico oil spill material, tarballs and all the rest.

While there has been some minimal contamination on Mississippi’s barrier islands (Horn, Petit Bois, Cat, Deer and Ship Islands, only Petit Bois and Horn have seen oil), only tiny amounts of oil have hit the 26 miles of white sand beaches on the mainland.

Geographically, our town of Long Beach is north-northwest of the Deepwater Horizon site. Indeed, the site is almost due south of Pascagoula, Mississippi. That we have been spared from the inundation of oil that nearby south Louisiana has experienced is mainly a function of winds and water currents.

Annie has been itchy since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.
Annie has been itchy since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

We are incredibly grateful, but we also know that those winds and currents change moment-by-moment and at any time we might wake up to find oil on our beaches. In today’s regional newspaper, The Sun Herald,  the headline says, “Projections show no oil headed to Mississippi.”

What we do have, though, is a little bit of a smell on some days. That, too, depends on the wind and we’re not sure whether the smell is raw oil or smoke from the controlled burns. An old grease monkey myself I recognize the smell of oil as being similar to smelling the floor of an auto repair shop. Most days we have no smell in the air at all, and the days we do smell it, it’s pretty minimal. Having no respiratory tract “issues” myself the odor only takes me back to years gone by while simultaneously reminding me of the devastation going on in the Gulf, in south Louisiana marshes and beaches in other states.

United States’ Environmental Protection Agency and Mississippi’s Department Of Environmental Quality both assure us they monitor air quality daily and have yet to record levels of air pollutants in Mississippi that are outside of defined safe limits.

I had not considered, until Annie, pictured above, came to see us this week, that airborne pollutants might be causing problems for pets or people.

Annie’s mom, a longtime client who owns three dogs, called me to say that all three of them were scratching, as was she and one of her grandsons. She remarked that it all started about six weeks ago, about the time of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

In an effort to save both steps and money she decided to bring only Annie, who was scratching the most. We discussed the limitation that presented, since there are so many causes of scratching, all five affected bodies could be suffering from different conditions.

I examined Annie thoroughly. In an attempt to determine whether a pet’s scratching is significant we evaluate a number of standardized factors:

  1. Is there net hair loss? In other words, is there anywhere on the body that scratching, licking or rubbing (for purposes of this article we will use “scratching” to refer to all three) has removed hair faster than it can grow back in?
  2. Are there lesions in the skin from scratching? Excoriations, bumps, bruises, any kind of sore?
  3. Does the pet’s scratching wake the owner at night? This can result from shaking the bed, the sound of slurping or the thump-thump-thump of a scratching leg bumping the floor.
  4. Is the pet’s normal activity interrupted by scratching? Does he stop eating to scratch? When walking across the room does he stop and scratch? Is the scratching nearly constant?

Annie’s mom’s answers to these questions (and our examination) was 1, no; 2, no; 3, yes; and 4, no. In fact, Annie’s skin and hair were so perfect that we couldn’t even find any flakiness or dandruff.

When evaluating a scratching pet we must differentiate between “normal” scratching and “pathologic” scratching. “Normal” is the scratching you and I do all through the day: a little scratch on the head, a little on the ear, a little on the back, etc. I often ask clients to dedicate a single day to making a mark on a piece of paper every time they scratch themselves, and it’s amazing how the incidents add up.

With three of the four most-significant questions answered in the negative, we were having difficulty building a case for truly pathologic scratching. However, if I’ve learned anything in thirty years of practice I’ve learned that if a pet is waking her owner up for any reason, I’d better be finding out how to fix it.

Still, I couldn’t justify starting Annie on even mild medication with a physical examination that looked this good, so, together, we decided on a course of Sebolux medicated shampoo, with each medicated bath followed by Humilac Spray Humectant.  Humilac is an oil-free humectant. A humectant acts as an oil trap, holding moisture in the skin that the medicated shampoo has instilled.

After just two days Annie and the other dogs are all improving.

Whether oil spill fumes are a factor or not, we still don’t know. If readers around the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida are experiencing similar effects we would love to hear from you.  Simply enter a Comment at the end of this article.

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