Dogs love a good scratch, right? However, there’s a difference between a short-lived, satisfying scritch and chronic itching or scratching on your dog’s part…and it’s not always easy to tell which itch is which.
On top of not knowing what could be causing your dog to itch, figuring out what to do about it can be equally perplexing. Is it a “normal” amount of scratching? Could it be allergies or fleas? When is it time to call the veterinarian?
Here’s one thing we know for sure about itching and scratching in dogs. If your dog is experiencing excessive itchiness, they are certainly not alone. In fact, it’s one of the most common reasons pet parents seek care for their pets.1
Now, here’s the good news: Learning more about the underlying causes of itchiness in dogs can make preventing and treating your dog’s itchy skin much easier. And careful monitoring for changes in your dog’s skin health can give you the head start you need to provide your pup with quick, much-needed itch relief.
Dogs can have itchy skin due to a variety of causes, just like humans. Some purebred dogs— including poodles, cocker spaniels, and retrievers — are simply prone to developing itchy, irritating skin conditions.2 While other causes are external, such as parasites or seasonal allergens.
Here’s a quick run-down of common causes of itchy skin in dogs, to help you understand what you’re up against.
Parasites: When dogs start scratching, the first thing many pet parents assume is a flea infestation. But even if there’s not a flea in sight, don’t assume your dog is off the hook. The bite of a lone flea can keep your dog itching for days if they suffer from Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD).3 Other parasites, including mites and ticks, can prompt itching in dogs, too.
Dry skin: Dogs can be itchy due to dry skin that occurs from too many baths or a dry environment. While dry skin can be an issue all on its own, it can also be a symptom of other issues, like parasites or allergies.4
Environmental allergies: Mold, dust, and pollen can all cause dogs to be itchy, both through inhalation and direct contact with the allergen.5
Food allergies or sensitivities: While dogs can develop allergies to any food or ingredient, some of the most common food allergens for dogs — such as beef, lamb, chicken, eggs, soy, and gluten — are also common ingredients in many commercial dog foods.6 Along with itching, food allergies might also be accompanied by symptoms including diarrhea or vomiting.
Nutritional deficiencies: When dogs are deficient in certain nutrients, the health of their skin may suffer. Essential fatty acids are one group of nutrients that support skin and coat health, and when dogs don’t receive adequate amounts, they may develop skin irritations or a patchy, dull-looking coat.7
Underlying health issues: While rare, itchy skin that isn’t caused by any of the other factors listed could be a sign of an underlying health issue, such as liver disease. In these cases, it’s best to work with your veterinarian to determine what could be causing the mystery itching, to ensure you obtain the correct diagnosis and treatment.
Just like us humans, dogs scratch themselves all the time. And while some itching and scratching is normal, frequent, excessive, or incessant scratching is definitely worth monitoring and—in many cases—treating.
The Pruritis Visual Analog Scale (PRAS)8 can help you gauge just how serious an issue your pet’s itchy skin is. The scale prompts pet parents to answer questions such as: Is your pet itching while eating or playing? Does it disrupt their sleep? Your answers can help determine whether your dog is experiencing an issue beyond normal itching.
Whatever the case, if you’ve noticed your pet scratching more often, a visit to the vet is a good first step that can save you a lot of time, according to Cincinnatti-based veterinarian, Amanda Steffen, DVM.
“In the age of the internet, it is fairly easy to get lost in a rabbit hole of home remedies and expensive supplements that have no scientific merit,” says Steffen. Consulting with your veterinarian first will provide the most accurate information relevant to your pet’s condition.
What signs, exactly, should you look out for to help you and your veterinarian figure out the cause of the itching?
Swelling and Inflammation - One of the biggest signs that an allergy could be causing a skin problem is that it becomes red and inflamed, says Steffen. But there are other clues, too. “One thing to look out for is a pet licking at their feet or chewing on their toes. This may be more noticeable at night when you are in bed and you hear them licking and chewing,” she says.
Bumps - You can also watch out for small red bumps — especially along the belly — as these can be caused by scratching and can lead to skin infections. Look at your pet’s toes too, as they can turn red and inflamed. Steffen said that even frequent ear infections and redness around or in the whites of the eyes can accompany itching due to allergies.
Chewing - Some of the above symptoms could also indicate itching caused by parasites. But Steffen says there are specific signs to watch out for that can help pet parents tell the difference.
“Flea allergies usually potentiate from chewing around the tail base or hair loss around that area,” says Steffen, but she warns that fur may keep you from actually seeing active fleas.
Hair Loss - Mange, a skin condition caused by mites that can’t be seen with the naked eye, is often accompanied by hair loss around the face, feet, and trunk, and red, itchy skin.9 “Pets can also get ear mites that can cause itching around the ears or face. These can also cause thick dry black material in the ears,” says Steffen.
Pay attention to when your dog is itchy, as this can provide clues about the cause, too. If itching occurs seasonally, then it’s a sign it could be an environmental allergy caused by pollen, grass, or even dust and mold.
If you’ve just changed your pet’s diet or introduced a new treat, then itchy skin may be a food allergy. “If a pet has an allergy to a diet, it is usually correlated with the protein source of the diet. The most common allergens in diets are beef, chicken, and dairy,” says Steffen, adding that wheat and grains are uncommon allergies.
No matter what’s causing your dog to itch, finding a way to soothe that itch plays a crucial part in a speedy recovery. Otherwise, Steffen cautions, excessive scratching can lead to open sores and further skin damage. “This would require immediate care and most likely a course of antibiotics and anti-itch medications,” she warns.
Providing relief from itching and scratching often depends on the cause. While some home remedies and over-the-counter solutions may prove effective, prescription medications may be required in some cases to stop the itching at its source. So if your initial efforts aren’t providing any relief, it’s always a good idea to seek diagnosis and treatment recommendations from your veterinarian for your dog’s itchy skin.
Here are some common solutions pet parents can employ to relieve itching and scratching in dogs.
At-home treatments are often appealing to pet parents because they are a convenient itch relief option that doesn’t require a trip to the veterinarian or prescription medications.
Baths are a good choice to help relieve itchy skin and remove environmental allergens. “Baths with an aloe or oatmeal-based shampoo will be easier on the skin and can help with soothing,” says Steffen.
If fleas are an issue, Steffen cautions against using flea baths, which can contain harsh chemicals and toxic ingredients. Instead, she suggests bathing your itchy dog with Dawn dish soap. Though she warns, “This only kills the fleas that are on the pet and will not treat the fleas in your yard or house.” Be sure to use topical flea medication for at least 3 months to clear the entire cycle of the flea or parasite.
“There are also topical foams/sprays that contain fish oils and antihistamines such as diphenhydramine that can help soothe the skin temporarily,” says Steffen.
If you suspect environmental allergies, use wipes to clean off your dog’s paws after coming inside, especially if you notice they are itchier after a walk or at certain times of the year.
Itching due to food allergies can be remedied by pinpointing what is causing the problem and changing the diet. Often, prescription diets can help. “Diets based on a fish protein tend to be better for pets with skin issues,” says Steffen.
Adding supplements can also be beneficial for skin health. ”Look for something that has fish oils in it like omega-3, -6, and -9 fatty acids. You can also look for products that contain salmon oil and vitamin E for immune support,” says Steffen. She also recommends probiotics because they can support the immune system’s role in preventing itchy skin.
If your pet’s itchy skin is due to an underlying environmental allergy, Steffen says that the best remedy is likely prescription medication (among other solutions, like avoiding the allergen). “Your vet can also discuss over-the-counter medication options to use if the itching is less intense,” she says. Antihistamines can provide effective relief to dogs. However, you should never dose your dog with allergy medication made for humans because the results can be unpredictable. Only give your dog medication your veterinarian has approved or prescribed, and only in the dosage recommended for your specific pet.
To prevent or heal parasite issues, Steffen recommends keeping dogs on a parasite preventative medication. But always confirm the best treatment for your dog with your veterinarian to ensure it meets your pet’s specific needs.
Even if your pet isn’t experiencing excessive itchiness currently—or if you’ve already determined the cause—taking steps to keep your dog’s skin healthy plays a key role in helping them feel their best.
Here are three simple ways you can help dogs avoid itchy skin. While these measures can benefit all dogs, they are especially important to consider if you have a dog breed that is prone to skin issues.
Avoid too many baths: Just as too many hot showers can dry out human skin, too many baths can turn your dog’s skin dry and flaky. Minimize the number of baths your dog has, and be sure to use skin-soothing shampoos and hydrating products.
Prevent parasites: It’s much easier to prevent fleas, mites, or other parasites from biting your dog than it is to get rid of them once there’s a full-blown infestation. There’s a wide range of preventative treatment options available, ranging from over-the-counter topical treatments to prescription medications. Always consult your veterinarian to choose the best prevention method for your pet.
Feed a skin-healthy diet: Special diets that boost skin health aren’t just for dogs who suffer itchy skin due to food allergies or sensitivities. In a balanced diet, key ingredients that promote healthy skin can also support overall vitality for all dogs. “Look for supplements or diets that have lots of fish oils, Omega fatty acids, probiotics, and Vitamin E,” recommends Steffen. “There are also daily probiotic powders that can be added to their diets to help promote healthy skin and immune systems.”
Most dogs experience excessive itching and scratching at some point in their lives. However, keeping a close eye on changes in your dog’s skin health can help you quickly identify and treat skin issues, no matter what’s causing them. Knowing what to look for can also help you choose the right course of action — whether that’s an at-home remedy, over-the-counter treatment, or a visit to the veterinarian — to get your itchy dog feeling better fast.