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Itchy skin in dogs: possible causes and how to help

Dr Joanna Woodnutt
Article written by Dr Joanna Woodnutt

Date published 18 April 2024

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Dog itching all the time? Vet Joanna Woodnutt shares her advice on the possible causes, as well as how to help your pet feel more comfortable.

🕒 5 min read

Itchy skin is one of the most common reasons that dogs come to see the vets, whether from parasites, allergies, or infections.

Getting to the bottom of their symptoms isn't always easy, but it is essential for improving their comfort and quality of life.

What does an itchy dog look like?

In some cases, it's obvious your dog is itchy – but I've also had plenty of clients in my consult room who haven't realised that their dog's quirks are actually symptoms of itchiness, resulting from things like allergies, infections or fleas.

As well as your dog scratching, other signs of pruritis (the medical term for itchiness) include:

  • Chewing, nibbling, or biting
  • Licking repetitively
  • Pink-stained fur on the feet (if they have white feet)
  • Shaking their head (a sign of itchy ears)
  • Twitching fur and skin along their sides

Why is my dog itching?

Now we know what an itchy dog looks like, let's move onto why dogs get itchy, in order of the most- to least-common causes.

Fleas, mites, and other external parasites

A number of external parasites like to feed off your pet. From lice that eat the skin, to microscopic mites, and fleas that suck blood, it's always possible that parasites are the cause of your dog's itching.

If your dog is on a routine flea preventative that's been applied properly, it's less likely they'll have parasites; but not all flea treatments treat mites, and it's certainly possible for flea treatments to fail.

As a result, the first port of call when checking out an itchy dog is checking, or applying, anti-parasite treatments.


Dog scratching but no fleas? The next most common cause of itching is an allergy of some sort, which affect about 1 in 10 dogs.

Common signs of an allergy include itchy feet, recurrent ear infections, and generalised itchiness. Canine allergies are mostly the result of things in the environment, such as pollen, mites, or even human dander. Depending on what causes these allergies, the symptoms might come and go with the seasons; but remember that many allergens are present all year round, so if your dog is continually scratching and biting itself, don't necessarily rule out allergens whatever the time of year.

Food allergies in dogs

Some dogs have a food allergy. This can appear suddenly, even to a food or foods that they have eaten their whole life with no problems.

However, food allergies don't typically just cause itching: other problems, such as gut trouble, are normally also present. Having said that, some dogs can also be allergic to something in their environment as well as a certain food, so it's a complex picture.

Unfortunately, testing for allergies is difficult (most of the tests on the market are unreliable) and it can get expensive. Furthermore, even once you know what your dog is allergic to, it can't be treated. Instead, allergies are managed with a mix of environmental changes, special diets, bathing, and medication.

Supplementing with omega 3s can be hugely beneficial, as these are anti-inflammatory, but they also help form a good skin barrier to help keep allergens out. Some promising early studies suggest that probiotics might help reduce the symptoms of allergies in dogs, or even prevent them developing if given at a very young age.

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Flea allergies

Just as some people swell up with a mosquito bite, some dogs are allergic to flea bites. A single flea picked up on a walk might not start an infestation, but their saliva can kick-start an allergic reaction and intense itching in your dog.

Contact irritants

Another reason for dogs to itch is sensitivity to a contact irritant (often colloquially known as dog skin allergies). Examples include the washing powder or cleaning materials you use.

If this is the case, dogs will usually be itchy where their skin has come into contact with the irritant (normally their tummy.)

Skin infections

Skin infections are another reason for dogs to be itchy. They normally smell a little suspect, and you might notice their skin looks reddened, but the main symptom will be a persistent itch.

Dogs with allergies or fleas are prone to getting a skin infection on top, but they're also common in dogs with folds of skin. Your vet will normally diagnose a skin infection by looking at samples under the microscope. If there's an infection, a very long course of antibiotics is needed: 6-8 weeks as a minimum, even if the symptoms improve quickly. Regular bathing with special shampoo can also keep on top of such infections.

When should I take my itchy dog to the vet?

Itching isn't normally painful, but it's distressing nonetheless.

Most causes of dog itching also won't go away on their own, and will require some sort of treatment – even if this is just an anti-itch medication. As a result, it's best to take your dog to the vet as soon as you notice them itching more than normal.

Firstly, your vet will do a clinical exam and ask you lots of questions. They'll usually take some skin and hair samples for examination, and potentially prescribe some anti-itch medication, as first steps.

If parasites are ruled out, and an allergy is suspected, your vet will need to rule out a food allergy using a diet trial. This process can take 6-8 weeks but is essential, as there are no reliable tests for food allergies.

Once your vet has a diagnosis, they'll help you work out how to manage your dog's condition. It's not a one-size-fits-all thing, and there's a fair bit of trial and error to work out the best combination of treatments to keep your dog's symptoms at bay.

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Dr Joanna Woodnutt

About Dr Joanna Woodnutt

After graduating from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands, where she developed an interest in chronic diseases and client care. Since moving home to the Channel Islands, Dr Woodnutt has worked as a freelance veterinary writer and locum relief vet across the islands.

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