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Itchy and Scratchy and the Veterinarian Who Makes Them Better

By: Stephen Sawicki

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Veterinary dermatologist Dr. Richard Anderson talks about his passion for his profession.

"When clients ask me why I became a dermatologist, I tell them I like to pick scabs," says Dr. Richard Anderson, who, in his early 60s, is now closing in on 40 years as a practicing veterinarian. With his deadpan sense of humor and a becalming personality, Anderson has helped thousands of patients find relief from ailments that virtually made their skin crawl.

Anderson's father wanted him to be a physician. He was, in fact, leaning in that direction but, one day in college, he poked his head into a human anatomy lab and blanched. He decided to take a different route and untold numbers of pets with itchy, oozing, scaly skin have been forever grateful. "I guess I like dermatology mostly because it's very visual," Anderson says. "It's not like a kidney problem or a heart problem, in which you can't see it and you have to do this test or that test."

Finding a Cure

Still, the causes of skin disease aren't always obvious. In truth, the bulk of Anderson's cases are referrals from outside veterinarians who've been unable to ascertain just what's going on with a beleaguered animal, most of which are dogs. Sometimes a patient will have seen four or five doctors before Anderson lays eyes on him.

"The history is very important, then the progression, how it starts and how it progresses," the dermatologist says. Breed incidence is important. Also, certain diseases have a certain distribution on the animal. "I'll do little tests like skin scrapings and hair plucks and cytology, where we do impression smears on lesions to see what kinds of cells are there. The skin is also an organ that's very readily biopsied. It's a very accessible organ."

Sometimes, though, it's impossible to find the root of a problem. Other times, the treatment is more onerous than the ailment. "We deal with a lot of animals who have auto-immune skin diseases," Anderson says, "and sometimes they have to be on some form of cortisone or some immuno-suppressant therapy, in which the drugs become more of an issue than the disease after awhile."

The Future

Still, these are promising days in veterinary medicine. Flea allergy has been knocked for a loop by new treatments. Meanwhile, more effective and safer anti-inflammatory drugs have become available for skin problems. All of which make Anderson's job a bit easier and life for his patients a lot more comfortable.

Over the years, people have often asked Anderson about his own dog at home. "Does your dog scratch?" they'll ask. "Oh, no," Anderson replies straight-faced. "My dog never scratches. He's a very quiet dog." Press him a bit, though, and Anderson will chuckle. "I don't have a dog right now," he admits. "But he's very quiet."

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