Worried about your pup’s scratching? You’ll be relieved to know that itching and other skin disorders are very common in dogs. So common, in fact, that dermatological conditions are the number one reason that owner’s take their dog to see the veterinarian. This makes sense, as excessive itching and scratching doesn’t just bother the dog, it drives everyone crazy! If you have ever had a dog that doesn’t stop itching, scratching, chewing, licking, rubbing, shaking, or is excessively shedding due to any of those annoying behaviours, then you’ll understand.
Why do dogs itch?
The skin is the largest organ on the mammalian body. It is our number one defence against the outside world, and as a result, is bombarded daily with all sorts of contaminants. Because skin is on the outside, pet owners often notice skin problems sooner than other health problems, such as dental disease.
There are many conditions that cause a dog to itch. Fleas are the number one cause of itching in dogs. Itching due to fleas is caused by a hypersensitivity to flea saliva. Mites, for example, cause redness, itching, and hair loss. Canine scabies, cheyletiella, demodex, chiggers, and other biting or blood-sucking mites are common culprits. Fungal infections, such yeast or ringworm (which can be spread to other animals including humans!) or bacterial infections can also cause dogs to itch. Parasites that penetrate the skin, such as hookworms, can cause itching. Excessively dry skin, either due to the environment or other causes, can also cause itching in dogs.
How do I know if an allergy is the cause?
Allergies or hypersensitivities are also an extremely common cause of itching in dogs. Allergies don’t typically manifest until the dog is an adult, so if you have a very young dog or a puppy that is itching, then it is more likely to be an infectious cause.
There are several types of allergies and hypersensitivities in dogs. Food allergies (otherwise known as ingredient sensitivities) are fairly rare in dogs. Contrary to popular belief (and pet food advertising), dogs rarely have celiac disease or sensitivities to corn or wheat. The most common food allergies in pets are to proteins. Beef, chicken, and soy are the main ingredients that cause itching and allergic reactions in pets. Pets with food sensitivities will be itchy year round and typically don’t improve with antihistamines. If you suspect your dog might have a food sensitivity, talk with your veterinarian about a diet trial with a hypoallergenic dog food. This diet is typically a prescription dog food, as most over the counter dog foods cannot guarantee that their food is made in a facility in such a way as to have had zero contact with potential allergens.
Dogs can also have contact allergies to various soaps or detergents. If your dog gets a rash on its belly or armpits after laying down on a freshly laundered bed or on your laundry, then maybe your detergent is the cause. Contact hypersensitivities can develop to fabric cleaners, plants, deodorisers, mulch, concrete, plastic dishes, synthetic carpets, leather/rawhide, floor waxes, rubber chew toys, and wool. The good news is that contact allergies are rare in dogs.
By far the most common allergy in dogs is atopy. Atopy is due to environmental allergens, such as pollens, mold, dust and dust mites. Most dogs will develop atopy in between ages of 1 to 3, and the problem is seasonal, not year-round (unless the dogs has several different allergies). Dogs with atopy are typically itchy on their feet, armpits, face, ears and/or groin area, and they can get secondary bacterial or yeast infections on their skin.
There are many ways to treat atopy. Antihistamines typically help in about 20-35% of dogs. Topical treatments with oatmeal or medication shampoos also help to calm the skin and reduce exposure to the allergen. Using a HEPA filter in the home is also helpful, as is wiping off your dog after contact with grass to reduce the allergen load. Supplementing with essential fatty acids reduces itching in 20-50% of dogs. Additional therapies that your veterinarian may recommend include allergy shots, CADI, Apoquel, Atopica, or alternative antihistamines. While steroids used to be prescribed, they are no longer considered the best treatment, as the side effects of chronic steroid use negatively impact a dog’s hormones.
Supplementing your dog with B vitamins could possibly also help with itching. A solid study on 120 dogs suffering from itching, coat dullness, brittle hair, hair loss, or scaly skin showed that in 60% of the cases all symptoms were reported to be cured after the biotin treatment and in a further 31% an improvement was noted; in only 9% no effect was recorded. The results confirm the favourable effect of biotin for treatment of fur and skin conditions in dogs1.
If your dog is itchy, it is important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to determine the root cause and help you with a solution.
1Frigg M, Schulze J, Völker L. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd. Clinical study on the effect of biotin on skin conditions in dogs. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd..1989;131(10):621-5.