Demodecosis or demodectic mange is a serious, quite common, skin condition of dogs, caused by a skin organism called Demodex canis. The common names include ‘Mange’ and ‘Brandsiekte’ in Afrikaans.
The organism stays in the hair follicles of its host, causing damage and inflammation. Symptoms of disease include moderate to severe itchiness (seen by scratching, rubbing and biting), hair loss in single to multiple areas, bad odour and skin thickening and bleeding. Lesions initially appear around the paws and on the face. If left untreated, it can lead to death.
This is an organism that is present in all dogs, young and old, big and small and is usually transmitted from the mother at birth and/or from other in-contact canines during the dog’s life. The problem comes in when a dog’s immune system cannot cope with the organism, allowing it to proliferate uncontrollably and in the skin, causing symptoms. It must be said that the inability to control this so-called parasite or disease is believed to be of genetic origin and these cases present at a younger age (generally younger than a year). These cases also have a bigger chance of relapsing later in life (even if initial treatment was successful). Older dogs with a weak immune system (i.e. stressful situations and/or during certain diseases) may also show mild to moderate signs. The disease is not transmittable to humans.
Under the microscope, the Demodex parasite almost looks like a crocodile and is fairly easy to diagnose by looking at a carefully prepared skin scraping. This should be done by an experienced veterinarian. Because of the stubbornness of the disease and the potential harm some of the treatment medications can cause to certain dog breeds, the treatment should always be under the guidance of a veterinarian as well.
Treatment should consist of a combination of an effective antiparasitic drug and dip, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, skin shampoos, good nutrition and immune boosters. It must be understood that the treatment will take months and that the skin will initially get worse before it will get better. The attending veterinarian will require regular check-ups.
Although concurrent skin parasites and infections are possible and should be ruled out, this condition should be distinguished from Sarcoptic mange, the very frequently encountered Flea Bite Allergies and other skin allergies. The attending veterinarian will help you with that. It must be realized that the treatments differ for all these diseases.
Only after all the symptoms have disappeared, the attending veterinarian will do a final skin scrape to make sure there are no more parasitic organisms, after which the treatment can cease. If the treatment is stopped prematurely, the signs will most likely recur. This means that the whole process needs to start over again.
Because the treatment is not always successful (even in the best-managed cases) and the disease can recur again later in life, the owner should make a conscious decision on whether they want to initiate treatment. In the author’s opinion, it is definitely worth treating for and a large percentage of cases will become manageable. Things to consider whilst making this decision also includes the fact that treatment can be expensive, intensive and the condition can take a very long time to cure.
A note on prevention
Because the incidence of seeing litters affected with Demodectic mange from certain parents, the ability to get the disease is thought to be genetic. All affected animals and parents of affected puppies should be prevented from breeding and should be sterilised.