Occasional dog itching and scratching is natural dog behavior. Problems only arise when the itching becomes extremely frequent.
Extreme dog itchiness is usually a sign of dog allergies, or skin parasites.
The irritation may sometimes cause dogs to rub their noses on the rug, on furniture, or even in the mud and snow. This is done to alleviate some of the unpleasant itchy dog sensation.
Depending on the source of the irritation, there could also be hair-loss.
Dog Itching Reason 1
As I understand it, hot spots are caused by bacterial infection on the dog’s skin. It usually starts when a scratch or opening on the skin is exposed to moisture, for a prolonged period of time.
My Siberian Husky Shania developed a hot spot last winter, on the lower-inner part of her back leg. It was raining cats and dogs, and her outdoor bed was often wet. She probably developed her hot spot from lying on her wet bed, and exposing a scratch on her leg to moisture. Shania likes being outside in the rain, but now, we limit her rain time and make sure to dry her well when she comes in.
With hot spots, it is important to catch it as early as possible. Otherwise, the condition may worsen and spread when the dog continuously licks or scratches on the infected site. If untreated, the infected area may become painful, may develop pus, and may start to smell.
Luckily, we caught Shania’s hot spot early-on and stopped it, before it was able to expand. We cut away the fur around the spot, and made sure to keep it dry. The most challenging part was supervising Shania and making sure that she did not lick, or bite at the infected skin. Sometimes, an Elizabethan collar may be necessary to prevent licking, scratching, and biting.
We also made sure to dry the infected area very well after a trip outside. First, we used a towel, and then we would lightly fan the area until it was fully dry. Keeping it dry reduced irritation to the skin, which in turn made it less likely for Shania to continue worrying at it.
If the infection spreads or develops pus, it is best to get treatment from the vet.
Dog Itching Reason 2
With food allergies, the dog itch is usually accompanied by loose or watery stool. My Shiba Inu is allergic to wheat, and he used to get really itchy from it.
To identify the source of the allergy, I started feeding my dog really plain meals (boiled chicken and rice); no treats or other types of food. I was also very careful during neighborhood walks so that he did not slip in a “road-side surprise“.
It may take a few days before the allergens clear out of our dog’s system, and we start to see an improvement. Some dogs may be allergic to poultry, so if the boiled chicken does not help, then switch to an alternate meat source, for example venison or rabbit.
Only boil or microwave the meat. Do not add anything else, and absolutely do not use table scraps. Table scraps are usually too rich for dogs, and may contain spices or ingredients (e.g. onions) that are poisonous to dogs. Some dogs may be allergic to multiple common ingredients. My Siberian Husky, for example, is allergic to wheat, oats, and fish.
Once the extreme itching goes away, slowly introduce our dog’s normal food back into his diet, one by one, until we find the problem ingredient.
Start with only 1/4 portion of the first food, and slowly increase the portion by quarters in each subsequent day. If everything is well after one week, then introduce the next food on the subsequent week.
If we are using dry food (kibble), find one that is grain free, and has good protein sources.
Some good kibble brands include Innova EVO, Orijen, Nature’s Variety Instinct, and Wellness CORE.
Dog Itching Reason 3
Dog itching can also be caused by plants, pollen, or other chemicals.
The best way to deal with these environmental allergies is to keep our dog away from the offending chemicals or contaminants. For example, my dogs often stick their muzzle into holes, bushes, and plants. Therefore, I try keeping them inside the house-only for a few days.
If the itching improves, then it is likely that my dog is allergic to something in the backyard or neighborhood. Once I identify which plant is the source of the skin allergy, I remove it from my backyard and avoid it during walks.
Note that some plants can be poisonous to dogs.
Like us, dogs may also have a reaction to inhaling certain air allergens such as pollen, or mold. However, this usually results in nose irritation, and frequent sneezing.
Dog Itching Reason 4
Dog itching may also result from mites, fleas, or other skin parasites.
This can be easily diagnosed by the vet with a skin scraping. Depending on the parasite and the severity of the infection, different treatments may be appropriate.
Our vet will be most equipped to advise us on the different treatment options.
Note that many parasite treatments involve the use of toxic chemicals to kill the mites or fleas.
Some dogs may have allergic reactions to these toxins. Remember to ask our vet about possible dangers of the treatment, and get additional information from online sources before going ahead with it.
My Siberian Husky recently got demodectic mange from her puppy playmates in dog daycare. To treat the skin mites, our vet suggested the use of Goodwinol ointment. This treatment got the mites under control after about one week, but it also caused some vomiting and irritation to the eyes.
There are also some horror stories on flea and tick repellent products. This article has some good information on the dangers of various flea and tick repellent products.
Since these repellents are designed to kill fleas, ticks, and other skin parasites, they are all toxic to some degree. As such, there is always the possibility that our dog may have an allergic reaction.
Flea and tick collars can be especially dangerous because if they are not properly fastened, a dog may chew off pieces, or even swallow it whole.
Note however, that not using flea and tick repellents may expose our dog to skin irritation, as well as dangerous diseases such as lyme disease. Before making a decision, it may be useful to read what the FDA has to say about fighting fleas and ticks.
If we do find some ticks on our dog, do not try to pull them off with our fingers. This may cause the body of the tick to break off, and leave the head still embedded in our dog’s skin. Embedded tick parts may sometimes cause a skin infection.
One of the best tools for removing ticks easily and safely, is the Ticked off tick remover.
It may look just like a silly plastic spoon, but it works surprisingly well for removing ticks. Since I got it, I have been able to remove all ticks from my dogs without any problems.
Finally, dogs may also lick themselves as a result of stress, nervousness, or anxiety (e.g. separation anxiety). In these situations, a dog may engage in displacement behaviors such as self grooming, to calm himself down. Over-grooming can cause irritation to the skin and hair loss.
In general, we want to address skin irritation issues as soon as possible. Otherwise, our dog will likely keep licking and scratching at the problem area, and worsen its condition. Excessive licking may cause pain and further irritation to the skin, which will encourage even more licking, and so on. If not addressed, this may be habit forming, and lead to Acral Lick Dermatitis.
These are the most common reasons for dog itching, dog scratching, and hair loss. However, there could be other causes, so it is always best to consult with the vet.
When dealing with allergy issues, find a vet who is willing to help us identify the source of the allergy, rather than just treat the symptoms with shots.
Note – In this article we only focus on dog itching and scratching. For a broader, more general discussion of dog allergies, check out Allergies and Atopy in Dogs. Dogs may also have allergic reactions to their yearly vaccination shots. This article on Vaccine Side Effects and Risks gives a good overview of possible dangers.
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