This is the story of how Bisou, Wolfie and I got mange.
It began in the golden month of September, when the skies were blue for days on end and the leaves were turning and the goldenrod and the ragweed were wafting pollen into the atmosphere in unprecedented amounts. I noticed that Bisou was scratching quite a bit, and shedding red-gold hairs in unprecedented amounts. Wolfie was scratching too, and shedding copiously--but then Wolfie's always shedding.
At about this time my doctor put me on Gabapentin for a back problem, and after a couple of days I noticed some red itchy spots on my skin. "Hives!" I said to myself. "I must be allergic to Gabapentin." And I stopped taking it.
Bisou's scratching was starting to drive us all crazy, so I took her to Vet #1. "I've never seen so many itchy dogs as I have this fall," he said. "Bisou is suffering from environmental allergies. Here, give her some of this prednisone."
Although the prednisone made the itch go away, I worried about its effects of Bisou's innards. But the minute I stopped the prednisone, the itch came back. My dog savvy friends recommended over-the-counter benadryl, so I tried that. It worked well, except that it caused Bisou to retain urine, a common side effect. So I stopped the benadryl and the itch resumed. Fortunately Wolfie, who by now was also itching a lot, was able to tolerate the benadryl.
Meanwhile, despite stopping the Gabapentin, my red spots continued to multiply, but I was so focused on the dogs' problem that I didn't pay too much attention to my own relentless itching. I was especially worried about Bisou, who was looking thin and raggedy, her once lovely coat reduced to tatters.
Then, one night, I saw that the edges of her left ear were completely hairless and, worst of all, the skin seemed to be flaking off. At eight the next morning, Bisou and I were at the office of Vet #2. "It's been an itchy season, all right," he said, "but I'll take a skin scraping just to make sure." He came back from the lab with a triumphant grin. "Good news!" he said, waving the slide in the air. "Bisou's got mange!"
"It really is good news," he said, as I recoiled in horror. "Mange is a lot easier to treat than allergies." He recommended a complicated course of Ivermectin for both Bisou and Wolfie. ("If she has mange, he has mange," he said.) When I asked how this disaster could have befallen my dogs, he explained that all it took was for Bisou to rub against a plant that a fox with mange had previously touched. There is a big red fox that travels frequently through our neighborhood. Could he, I wondered, be the culprit?
After giving the dogs their first dose of medication, I looked up sarcoptic mange online. This is what I found. Mange is caused by a mite, sarcoptes scabiei. There are several varieties of sarcoptes mites, each with a preference for a different primary host, on which it reproduces. Sarcoptes scabiei var. canis causes mange in dogs. We humans have our own mite, sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis, which is contracted through human-to-human contact.
I scrolled through the websites and scratched my head. Could it be that what I had was not hives, but mange? The dog-mange mites, I learned, can crawl onto humans and bite. However, they will not reproduce on human skin. Thus, the sites stated, in humans the infestation is self-limiting--that is, the mites bite but eventually die.
Soon, thanks to the Ivermectin, the dogs stopped itching. I spent my life vacuuming frantically and washing dog towels and bedding in hot water to prevent re-infestation. And scratching. It was odd that, as the dogs were getting better, I was getting so much worse.
"You should go to the doctor," my spouse--who, miraculously, was not itching--advised. "There really is no need," I replied between scratches. "In humans the condition is self-limiting. I just have to wait for my mites to die a natural death."
Days passed. I was covered in bites and scratching all night. "If I go to the doctor, he'll just give me steroids," I told my husband as I raked my fingernails over the backs of my knees. "Remember, the condition is self-limiting in humans!"
Finally, after a month of itching, I acknowledged that, for some reason, my mange was not self-limiting. I went to the health center, displayed my bite-speckled abdomen, and walked out five seconds later with two prescriptions for permethrin cream, one for myself and, just to make sure, one for my symptom-free husband.
The instructions were to rub the greasy cream into every inch of our bodies, from the earlobes to the toes, at bedtime, then twelve hours later take a shower and wash bedsheets, mattress cover, bed skirt and every stitch of clothing we had worn over the preceding two days in hot water. And vacuum everything.
It was exhausting, but it worked. My mites died and I stopped itching almost immediately. Vet #2, who is versed in Chinese medicine, gave me a bottle of Four Marvels powder to help Bisou's coat, and it has grown back marvelously, a deeper, richer red than ever. But neither the vet nor the doctor was able to explain how I managed to get dog mange, and why the mites prospered on my skin.
A couple of mornings ago Bisou burst into high-pitched barks. I looked out and there was the neighborhood fox, ambling through our yard on his elegant narrow legs. He was wearing his full winter fur, thick and red and healthy-looking. I have always loved foxes. But as I watched him disappear into the bushes, I found myself scratching my neck.