Itching is one of the most common concerns that brings dogs to the veterinarian’s office. In the world of veterinary medicine, we call this problem pruritus (pronounced “proo-RYE-tus”). Pruritus or being itchy can be caused by numerous issues, but first, let’s discuss what itching looks like in the dog.
How do I know if my dog is itchy?
As with people, itchiness is an uncomfortable experience that makes you want to scratch or rub a certain area (e.g., bug bites). But dogs will sometimes do other things to show that they are itchy. Here are some ways itching is displayed in dogs:
Scratching: Scratching is a pretty common sign of being itchy in dogs. They tend to scratch the itch with their feet/claws or move around when you pet them to have you scratch the itchy spot. Be aware that sometimes they just have a favorite spot they like scratched, like their belly. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are itchy.
Rubbing: Your pet may slide his body and/or face along the carpet or grass. This is just another way he is trying to scratch his itchy spot. Not having opposable thumbs can result in some pretty creative methods of scratching and rubbing- the sides, edges, and undersides of furniture can also be great things to rub on when itchy.
Licking: Believe it or not, licking a certain spot is another thing a dog does when he is itchy. A really common area to lick is the inside or tops of the paws. Numerous reasons and theories exist for this. For example, feet come into contact with allergens (i.e., things a pet is allergic to) like pollen regularly, leading to constant itching in that area. Additionally, some dogs with allergies tend to be prone to yeast overgrowth, and the paws provide a nice, warm, moist environment to grow, leading to even more itching and discomfort.
Chewing: Licking and chewing tend to occur together for our itchy pups. Chewing the feet, rear, flank, and/or along the front legs are typical signs of itching. Some chewing patterns can help veterinarians determine what the cause of the itching might be. Chewing the front legs in a manner that looks eating corn on the cob can indicate a food allergy. Chewing the top of the tail can be a sign of fleas.
Possible Causes of Itching
Many things can cause your dog to be itchy, and it may be difficult for you to figure out the cause on your own. If you see signs of itchiness, give your veterinarian a call to schedule a checkup. He or she can help figure out the problem and give your pet some much-needed relief. Common causes of itching include:
Allergies, or a hypersensitivity reaction to an allergen, are one of the most common causes of itching in the dog. Dogs can be allergic to just about everything to which people are allergic, including dander (including cat, dog, and people dander), pollens, insects (e.g., fleas) and dust or dust mites. Some types of allergies cause issues when they get absorbed through the skin, whereas others are more of an issue if inhaled. Allergies can result in allergic dermatitis, which is inflammation of the skin from the allergen. Food allergies can also cause itching in dogs. That may seem unusual given that the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and skin don’t have much to do with each other. However, research has shown that in the dog, food allergies (commonly beef or dairy) tend to cause skin issues more commonly than they do GI issues.
Atopy is a category of allergies that tends to have a genetic basis. Certain dog breeds are more prone to atopy than others, such as the boxer, golden retriever, and German shepherd. The skin barrier in animals with atopy is not as protective as it should be, allowing for increased absorption of certain types of allergens. Previous scientific studies suggested that inhaled allergies were more of a concern with atopy, but this may not be the case. Regardless, atopic dermatitis is a form of allergic dermatitis, resulting in inflammation in the skin and extreme itching.
Fleas, mites (e.g. sarcoptic mange mites, demodex mange mites), and mosquitoes are all parasitic causes of itching in dogs. Mange mites are microscopic, which means a microscope is needed to determine if they are present. Fleas are pretty easy to find with the naked eye in a short-haired dog, but can be tough to see in black, long-haired dogs. The arm pits, belly, and top of the tail head are good places to view them by parting the hair and looking at their skin. Mosquitoes bite and leave, so it may not be clear that they were the cause of the itching, but bug bite-sized bumps around the face can sometimes be an indicator.
Malassezia yeast overgrowth, bacterial infections, and ringworm infections can also cause itching. Allergies can make dogs prone to yeast and bacterial infections, so it is possible that your pet can have multiple problems that cause itching. Hair loss, red skin, stinky odor to the skin, and skin that oozes can be signs of a skin infection.
Many other causes exist that can lead to itching, including dry skin, a random one-time itch, medical disorders, and even occasionally pain. Some medical disorders make your pet more prone to things that cause itching, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing disease, which increase the risk for skin infections. Your best bet as a pet owner is to take your pup in if itching lasts more than a day or so. The vet can help determine the cause and let you know the best options for improvement.
Remedies to Help an Itchy Dog
For pets that are mildly itchy with no obvious cause for concern (e.g. no fleas present, no hair loss or redness), dog shampoos for itching may be a good solution. It is important to never use human-grade products as people and dogs do not have the same type of skin. Human-grade products tend to be too harsh. Your veterinarian will likely be able to offer suggestions on the safest products for your pet. Note that bathing more than once or twice a week (unless under the direction of your vet) will probably cause more harm than good.
Over-the-counter antihistamines may also be a good option for mildly itchy dogs. Again, your veterinarian should be able to help you figure out the right dose based on his body weight. Some dogs do not handle such medications well, so ask your veterinarian first before giving anything.
Some Temporary Solutions
Some owners will have their dogs wear an e-collar to prevent them from hurting themselves while they are waiting for a veterinary appointment or giving medication time to kick in. This should only be a temporary solution as wearing an e-collar can keep your pet from doing his favorite things normally. Another solution is to distract your pet from itching by offering treats or chew bones. Again, this is a temporary solution until the cause of itching can be addressed.
If your dog’s itching continues, make an appointment to see your veterinarian. He or she will need to determine the cause of the itching in order to offer the best treatment options. Preventives for fleas are needed if fleas are present. Antibiotics, medicated shampoos, and/or antifungals may be required for skin infections. Medications for allergies or atopy include antihistamines, steroids, medicated shampoos, and immunotherapy options like Apoquel® or Cytopoint®. If food allergies are the culprit, a special diet may be suggested.
What happens if I don't treat my dog?
Preventing your pet from causing damage to himself is difficult if you don’t fix the underlying cause. Further, being itchy can be miserable. Imagine how you or other people in your life feel during allergy season- it’s the same for dogs. Being itchy is uncomfortable and may eventually lead to poor appetite, not wanting to play, and bad habits of chronically chewing and licking. If the itching is severe, constantly scratching and rubbing can cause tears in the skin, which can become infected. Skin infections left untreated lead to open wounds, pain, fever, and a pretty sick pup. If you aren’t sure about what to do or if you need to do anything at all, call your veterinarian. Early treatment tends to keep your pup from feeling badly and will help keep him healthy.