Excessive Dog Itching: Potential Causes

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Seeing your dog always itching and scratching is very distressing. Feeling itchy is something we’ve all experienced and we know it can drive you mad. Equally, having a dog that is scratching all the time can drive you insane as well, especially if they share your bedroom at night. There are lots of reasons your dog might feel itchy, so let’s have a look at the most common and what you can do to help them.

  1. Parasites

    Lots of people feel it reflects badly on them if their dog has fleas, but it's an inevitable part of a dog’s life. Fleas spend most of their time off your dog, so you may not spot them unless your dog has lots. For every flea you see on your dog, there are at least a hundred more in the house! Fleas tend to spend their time round the neck, head and the base of the tail. If you notice your dog biting, chewing or scratching in these areas, fleas are the first thing to rule out.

    A good trick to see if fleas are a problem is to look for flea dirt. Comb your dog’s fur onto a piece of white tissue. If you see dark specks, moisten the paper. If it’s dirt, the colour won’t change, but if it’s flea dirt (which is their poo full of blood), the tissue will go red.

    Some dogs are very sensitive to flea bites because they are allergic to the flea’s saliva, so they may get itchy even with only the odd bite. Talk to your vet about effective products for prevention. You may need to treat your house, too.

    Other parasites, such as mites, can cause very intense itchiness. Most mites aren’t visible with the naked eye, so your vet may need to do skin scrapes to get a diagnosis.

  2. Atopic dermatitis

    Also known as atopy, this is a common cause of itching in dogs. Atopic dermatitis is an allergy to environmental triggers, such as pollen, dust, dust mites, grasses and any number of other things. Many dogs with atopy are allergic to several different things. If your dog is allergic to pollen and plants, you might find they itch more in summer if the allergies are to pollen and plants, while other allergens can cause itchiness all year round.

    Some breeds of dog are more prone to atopy than others. These include Labradors, golden retrievers, West Highland white terriers, boxers, bulldogs, Jack Russell terriers and poodles, to name a few.

    Atopy can be difficult to diagnose and your vet will need to rule out lots of other things first. They may suggest medication, or test for specific allergens and then desensitise your dog.

  3. Infection

    Bacterial skin infections can make your dog itchy. It can be a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation because dogs that are scratching a lot traumatise their skin, and this can lead to an infection secondary to the initial cause. In some cases, though, it’s simply an infection, and treatment with appropriate antibiotics will clear it up and stop the itching.

  4. Food allergy

    Adverse food reactions can cause skin disease as well as intestinal problems. The most common food allergies in dogs are beef, chicken, dairy and wheat. Your vet may suggest a special diet trial for 8-12 weeks if a food allergy is suspected as the cause of your dog’s itchiness.

Food for thought

For any dog with a skin problem, food can make a big difference. Certain foods are formulated to help keep the skin healthy and, for dogs with conditions like atopy, where the skin barrier is faulty, this can make a huge difference.

The exact treatment for your dog’s itchiness will depend on the initial cause, but ask your vet whether changing your dog’s food might help as well. If you do decide to change, remember to introduce the new food over five to seven days to avoid a tummy upset.

Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA