Why is my dog itchy? What can I do?

Your dog’s skin is his largest organ, so when your dog is itchy he feels it all over. Many of us have seen our dogs suffer as they vigorously chew at their paws, scratch their ears and itch their hind end. No one wants to see their canine companion in pain. So as pet owners we need to ask ourselves: Why is my dog itchy? And more importantly: What can I do about it?

An itchy dog does more than just scratch- itchy pets also frequently lick, chew, and rub at the most affected areas. This can be a frustrating thing to cope with and can really test your strength as a pet owner. While there are many reasons why your dog may be itchy, the most common two causes of itchy irritation are external parasites and allergies.

The two most common reasons why your dog is itchy

1. Fleas

A common external parasite that causes itch and discomfort is fleas. Fleas are blood feeding parasites that can live on your dog. Fleas can infest pets that go outside and indoor only pets; there is no such thing as a risk free pet. The great thing about fleas is that with the right flea preventative, these creepy crawlers are completely avoidable. In the Ottawa Valley we see the most fleas from June to November, but don’t let these little suckers fool you- fleas are highly adaptable and if given the right conditions and a regular meal they can survive the winter.

Fleas are in the environment, which means that your dog does not need to come into contact with an infested pet to get fleas. Yes, fleas can be contracted that way, but your dog can also pick them up outside and in the home, without any other pet passing them on. Many pet owners never see a flea on their pet, and are surprised when their veterinarian diagnoses their dog with fleas.

Some dogs suffer from flea allergy dermatitis, which is an allergy to a flea’s saliva. Pets that suffer from flea allergy dermatitis may experience a stronger reaction to the bugs which increases itchiness, as well as fur loss and scabbing of the skin. Preventing fleas is a great place to start if you want to ditch the itch!

2. Mites

Another external parasite that can cause itchiness is sarcoptic mange mites- small bugs that can wreak havoc on your dog’s skin. These mites can be passed on to us- known as scabies in the human medical world- so a flea prevention that also prevents against sarcoptic mange is a great choice for both you and your pooch!

Allergies can be more difficult to manage than fleas. If your dog has an allergy the most important thing to understand is that allergies are not curable. Once you accept that fact, then you can start to manage the symptoms so your dog can live comfortably and pain free.

What are allergies?

Allergies are adverse reactions, commonly an allergy is a reaction to something in your dog’s diet or environment. Allergies don’t just contribute to skin concerns; dogs with allergies often experience symptoms like chronic ear conditions and can have fur loss.

Food allergies

Some dogs have food sensitivities that can result in chronic itch and allergic reactions. The most common food allergies are due to the protein sources, however in some cases carbohydrates, dyes and preservatives can be the culprit. While many pet owners will inquire about allergy testing to diagnose a food allergy, the most effective way to properly diagnose your dog’s food allergy is to start a food trial.

A food trial means that you eliminate the protein and carbohydrates that were present in your pet’s previous food, and start them on a new food preferably with ingredients they have never tried before. The best way to do an accurate food trial is to select a prescription hypoallergenic diet. These diets may seem more expensive, but then ensure that no cross contamination has occurred in the manufacturing process of the food.

Your food trial should last 8 to 12 weeks, and you will need to cut out any treats or human food during that time- sorry Fido! If the symptoms of the allergy have resolved after the trial is complete, try reintroducing the former food to your dog. If symptoms return then there you have it- it’s a food allergy! Sadly, dogs can develop allergies to new foods after frequent exposure, but once you’ve done one food trial successfully you will be a pro!

Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis (AD), or environmental allergies, is trickier to manage than a food allergy, but it doesn’t mean your dog is destined to a life of itchiness and pain. AD is a predisposition to developing skin problems due to exposure to things like pollens, grasses, dust mites, cleaning products, and other nasty things that live in the environment. AD is tricky because we can’t rid the world of these allergens, so we need to work around them.

Many pets with environmental allergies will need medication to manage the symptoms; especially during the months of the year when pollens and spores are most prevalent. Some pets will do well on skin support diets, while others will need to be medicated. In some cases your dog may even need to be on a steroidal medication. There are a lot of options available to pet owners now, so there is light at the end of the tunnel of scratching!

Our hearts go out to any pet- and pet owner- who is living with environmental allergies. Each case is so different, so the treatment can vary from dog to dog. That’s why it’s so important that your veterinarian tailor a treatment plan that is specific to your dog’s unique needs.

Other reasons why your dog may be itchy…

Secondary infections

In some cases a dog may be suffering from itchiness due to a skin or ear infection that is secondary to the allergy itself. Yeast infections or bacterial skin infections can amp up the itchiness. That is why it’s so important to properly diagnose your dog’s itch by visiting your veterinarian. Some pet owners may think it’s as easy as hiding a Benadryl in a piece of cheese, but if your dog has a secondary infection, antibiotics, anti-yeast medications and medicated shampoos and conditioners may be required.

What can I do to ditch the itch?

We can’t stress enough the importance of coming in for a visit to get a proper diagnosis. While budgeting for veterinary visits can be difficult for some pet owners, it can save you a lot of money down the line that may be wasted on store bought or home remedies that just don’t work- or make things worse. Chronic itch is not normal and your dog doesn’t have to live in pain. Protect your dog’s largest organ by visiting your veterinarian and designing a treatment plan that will ensure that you are both happy!

By Stacey McIntyre-Gonzalez

Stacey is a CSR and Media Coordinator at Pembroke Animal Hospital. She has been working at PAH for almost 5 years. She enjoys hiking with her two mountain dogs Hazel and Keira and  nature photography.

Edited by Dr. Carlie Paquette, DVM
Source: Veterinary Partner