Sometimes, when a dog is itchy, it seems all-consuming. Instead of snuggling or playing, he is preoccupied with scratching at his ears or back, biting his paws, and rubbing against anything in sight.
Being itchy is uncomfortable for dogs and unsettling for pet parents. Determining the cause isn’t always straightforward. It could be anything from dry skin to food allergies. It’s important to determine the root cause and get your pooch the help he needs to start feeling better.
Keep reading for an overview of what causes dogs to itch and scratch, and how best to alleviate itchy skin.
Dog Itching: An Overview
Your dog may be itching because of a number of different conditions. The main reason, according to Dr. Amber Karwacki, partner doctor at Heart + Paw, is from an underlying allergy.
“Dogs can be allergic to the environment, food, or fleas,” she says. Secondary effects of these allergies — including hot spots, yeast infections, and bacterial infections — can make your dog’s itching even worse.
Uncontrolled itching and scratching can cause redness, hair loss, flaking, bumps, and skin wounds, among other symptoms. To figure out what is causing your dog discomfort, it’s best to take him to the veterinarian.
Why is My Dog Itching? 7 Common Causes
Below are some common causes of itching in dogs and the symptoms that are often associated with them.
Excessive bathing can lead to dry skin/itching. Dr. Karwacki recommends bathing your dog only once monthly to avoid dry skin. Dry winter air may also increase dryness in your dog’s skin. Using a humidifier can increase the moisture level of your home. Pet parents can also ensure the dog is drinking enough water to stay hydrated.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis
Did you know that it only takes one flea to cause Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD) in some dogs? FAD is an allergic reaction to a flea’s saliva and it is a leading cause of skin allergies in dogs. When fleas are feeding, they inject a small amount of saliva into the dog’s skin and the antigens or proteins in the saliva cause an itchy response in sensitive dogs. Red or inflamed skin, missing patches of fur/hair, and repeated scratching or biting of the skin are common symptoms of flea allergies. Strict flea control is key to keeping your pet from contracting FAD.
Mites are tiny creatures, usually around a millimeter long, that can burrow into the dog’s skin and cause mange. Some types of mange are also highly contagious, transferring to other dogs when they come into close contact. Common symptoms of mange include hair loss in patches or all over the coat, dandruff, red skin, swelling, crusty patches of skin, and excessive scratching and biting. According to Dr. Karwacki, mite infection is often diagnosed by a physical exam and skin scrape which can be performed by your veterinarian.
Similar to humans, dogs can be allergic to many everyday allergens such as pollen, dust, dander, and grass. Common symptoms of environmental allergies include scratching, licking paws, and rubbing the face. An allergy test administered at the veterinary clinic can help your veterinarian identify the source of your dog’s allergies.
Dr. Karwacki says that dogs are most commonly allergic to beef or chicken in commercial dog foods. If your dog has a food allergy, consult with the veterinarian to identify the cause and find an appropriate dog food that can help with allergies.
Hot spots are secondary to an underlying cause, such as environmental, food, or flea allergies, says Dr. Karwacki. Small areas of redness, raw skin, inflammation/swelling, accompanied with hair loss, are indicators of hot spots. With continued licking, the impacted skin becomes moist and extremely painful, and it begins to spread to other areas of a dog’s body.
Yeast or Bacterial Infections
Excessive scratching/licking, caused by any of the above, can cause yeast and bacterial infections of the skin in your dog. These infections can be identified by taking a cell culture from the infected area and examining it microscopically at the clinic/lab.
Diagnosing Causes and Treating Itchiness in Dogs
To find the right treatment for dogs suffering from itchy skin is to first identify the underlying cause. Pet parents can work with their veterinarians to diagnose the cause of itchiness.
“A thorough history is very important for diagnosing itchiness in your dog,” says Dr. Karwacki. This includes information about the dog’s daily routine, diet, and behavior.
Your veterinarian will first perform a physical examination and may also recommend skin scrapings, fungal cultures, bacterial cultures, blood tests, a food trial, or other testing to get to the bottom of the itchy skin condition. .
Products to Help Relieve Your Dog’s Itching
Itchy skin and unabated scratching need to be addressed right away to provide relief for the pet. Upon determining the root cause, the first step is to begin treatment. This may include either switching the diet, using medicated shampoos, or administering oral medications.
“If there is no secondary infection of the skin, prescription shampoos are a great first step,” recommends Dr. Karwacki. She does not typically recommend creams or sprays, as they could potentially irritate the pet further to the point of them licking it off.
In some cases, Dr. Karwacki prescribes anti-allergy medications, such as Cytopoint and/or Apoquel, that can relieve and control allergic itch in dogs. Apoquel is a daily oral treatment that can get itching under control within 24 hours. Cytopoint is an injection given at your veterinarian’s office that provides long-lasting relief for up to 8 weeks.
In severe cases, a follow up with a board-certified veterinary dermatologist is needed.