Occasional itching and scratching is natural dog behavior. Problems only arise, when our dog starts to itch and scratch with extreme frequency.
Common reasons for extreme dog itchiness include-
- Bacterial infection, or
- Skin parasites.
The irritation may sometimes cause our dog to rub his nose and body on the rug, on furniture, or even in the mud and snow. These behaviors may offer him some temporary relief, but it may also cause dirt to enter the wound, and further inflame the condition of his skin.
Depending on the cause of dog itchy skin, there could also be hair-loss.
1. Hot Spots
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 Husky developed a hot spot last winter, on the lower-inner part, of her back leg. It was raining frequently, and she probably developed the skin infection from exposing a scratch on her leg to water, or from lying on a damp surface. Being a Siberian Husky, Shania likes being outside in the rain. However, we now 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 kept the area dry. The most challenging part was supervising my dog, and making sure that she did not lick or bite at the inflamed skin. Sometimes, an Elizabethan collar may be necessary to prevent licking, scratching, and biting.
After a trip outside, we gently toweled-down the area, and then lightly fanned it, until it was no longer wet. Keeping it free of moisture reduced irritation to the skin, which in turn, made it less likely for my dog to continue worrying at it.
If the infection spreads or develops pus, it is best to get treatment from a vet.
2. Food Allergies
With food allergies, the itching and scratching 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.
I 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 some types of 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.
I start with only 1/4 portion of the first food. If everything goes well, I slowly increase the portion by quarters, after every few days (three or more). If the allergy symptoms do not come back after a couple of weeks, I introduce the next food on my list and so on.
Some good kibble brands include Orijen, Blue Wilderness, Nature’s Variety Instinct, and Wellness CORE.
3. Environmental Allergies
Dog itching can also be caused by plants, pollen, or other chemicals.
The best way to deal with 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, if I suspect outdoor allergens, I try keeping them mostly inside the house for a few days. At the same time, I limit and closely supervise their outside time.
If the itching improves, then my dog is likely allergic to something in the backyard or neighborhood. Once I identify which plant is the source of the problem, 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, symptoms usually include nose irritation and frequent sneezing.
4. Skin Parasites
Dog itching may also result from mites, fleas, or other skin parasites.
Our vet can easily diagnose this with a skin scraping. Depending on the parasite and the severity of the infection, different treatments may be appropriate. Ask our vet for the pros and cons of each.
Note that many parasite treatments involve the use of toxic chemicals to kill the mites or fleas.
Some dogs may have a bad reaction to these toxins. Therefore, I ask my vet about possible risks, as well as supervision and after-care requirements. I also get additional information from online sources to fill in the gaps, and provide a more comprehensive picture of available options. If I am still unsure about safety, I get a second professional opinion.
My 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.
Flea and Tick Repellents
There are also some horror stories on flea and tick repellent products. This article has some good information on possible risks.
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 a bad 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.
However, 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 find 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 with the Ticked off tick remover.
It may look just like a silly plastic spoon, but it works surprisingly well. 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 irritate 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 a vet.
When dealing with allergy issues, find a vet who is willing to help us identify the source of the problem. Medication may help in the short term, but for a long term solution, we want to pinpoint the origin of our dog’s allergy, and stop it there.
In this article, we only focus on itchy dog skin. 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.