Itchy Pets - common causes

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If your cat or dog is constantly itchy and scratching it can be very upsetting for you as well as your pet. We all know how annoying it can be to feel itchy and so we can easily empathise. I’ve seen lots of owners over the years having nights of broken sleep because all they can hear is scratching, licking and chewing. You might notice that your cat or dog is losing fur or has scabs and red patches. Although the cause of the itching might be something quite easy to sort out, the simple act of scratching can make the skin more inflamed and the trauma can lead to deep skin infections. This turns into a vicious circle of itching and scratching. Even if you think the itching is mild it’s better to get a vet check sooner rather than later to nip it in the bud.

You may worry that your pet has a food allergy or atopy but there are more common causes of itching that should be ruled out first. We’re going to start with a word that lots of people don’t want to hear - fleas!


The very mention of fleas makes many an owner immediately tell their vet that they are absolutely positive the pet does not have fleas, they have never seen a flea and that the animal is completely treated for fleas. This may well be true but in the vast majority of cases fleas are still the cause, and here’s why. Fleas spend most of their life in your soft furnishings - carpets,  sofas, beds and so on. They hop onto your dog or cat when they want to feed so unless your pet has many fleas you may well never see one. In fact, for every flea that you see on your pet there are around 100 in your house! Gross, right?! You may have treated your cat or dog for fleas but the efficacy of this is very variable depending on what you’ve used and also how recently. Some animals are very sensitive to flea bites or may even be allergic, and need treatment with a good product very exactly following the recommended intervals.

A good way to know if your pet has fleas is to comb their fur onto a white piece of kitchen paper. If you see dirt come out, wet the paper. If the dirt turns the wet paper red then it is flea dirt or flea faeces. It goes red because flea poo is basically blood. Fleas love to hang out round the tail and rear end and round the neck too so if your pet has bald patches or scabs mostly in these places it’s REALLY likely to be fleas. The good news is that fleas can be easily got rid of and your vet will tell you how best to do it.

Other parasites

Other parasites like mites and lice can also cause itching and fur loss. Depending on the parasite involved your vet may need to take fur samples or have your pet in to take scrapings of their skin to look for the parasites under the microscope.

Other skin conditions.

Yeast infections and some fungal diseases like ringworm can also cause itching or hair loss. Some animals have very greasy or dry skin and these can be more common in certain breeds.

Once all these things have been ruled out your vet may want to look into food and environmental allergies and may need to do further tests.

All together now.

All cases of itching, fur loss and trauma, need to be approached in a logical way to rule causes in or out. We also need to remember that your pet might have more than one skin condition at the same time. Your dog or cat might cope with a few flea bites, for example, with no problem but add in some mites and they tip over their threshold for itching. They could also have something different like a food reaction going on. Skin issues can be simple but some can require lengthy investigation and time and energy from you. During this time your vet may also advise that your pet has a special therapeutic food for a period of time. These foods help reduce the itching and promote skin healing. Be prepared for all the investigation needed, get help early on and be patient with your vet as they take a logical, planned approach to figuring out just what is going on and the best way to treat it.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Emma Milne

Dr Emma Milne qualified as a vet in 1996. She worked in small animal practice for 12 years and as a clinical nutrition advisor for seven years. She is well known for her animal welfare work and has written ten books on pet animals.