Itchy skin for dogs
Unfortunately for our four-legged friends, itchiness and uncomfortable scratching can be a fact of life for dogs. The proper veterinary term for the unpleasant feeling of itchiness is pruritis. Any dog can suffer from pruritis at any age for a variety of reasons, which we’ve detailed below.
How do skin conditions affect dogs?
In dogs, chronic itching or scratchy skin has a huge impact on wellbeing. Just as in humans, where chronic itching is said to be as debilitating as chronic pain – due to the impact on quality of life. Similarly, we’ve noticed that pet owners have reported that their dog’s demeanour, following treatment of their itchy skin, is hugely positive. We’ve had owners describe them as having a new lease of life, being more playful, eating better and seeming more interested in interaction – suggesting that conditions and skin allergies can have huge impact on quality of life for an itchy dog too.
Skin problems can cause great discomfort and irritation for your dog. They are rarely life-threatening, but if not treated promptly and properly can cause a great deal of suffering and make your dog uncomfortable. Your pet will likely become irritable, withdrawn, restless and in some cases, painful.
Which dog breeds are affected most by skin diseases?
Certain dog breeds are more commonly affected by allergies and are more often seen by our vets with skin problems and itchy conditions. These breeds include, but are not limited to:
- West Highland White Terrier (Westies)
- Shar Pei
- French Bulldog
- English Bulldog
What causes a dog to itch?
A dog scratching is a sign of an underlying skin problem, including bacterial infections, dog food allergies, and more. The most common causes of itching in dogs are parasites, infections, and allergies.
Parasites such as fleas and dust mites are the most common cause of itching in dogs. Itchy dogs scratching at flea bites can lead to bleeding, red skin and bald patches.
Unfortunately, some flea control preparations available from supermarkets and pet stores are no longer fully effective in controlling parasites, due to resistance developing. Spot-on treatments become less effective if your dog swims or you bathe your dog.
Dog skin infections
Infectious causes of itching include bacterial and fungal (yeast) skin conditions. These are sometimes secondary to other causes such as an allergic reaction or systemic illnesses causing weakness in the dog’s body or damage to the skin. Infections are often accompanied by patches of missing fur, scaly skin, odour and discharge.
Dog allergic reactions
Allergic itching or allergic dermatitis can be caused by insect bites, food allergies or environmental allergens such as pollens, mould and dust. Allergies may be seasonal or all year round, depending on the individual dog’s triggers.
Find out more about the most common dog skin conditions on our blog.
What are the symptoms of itchy skin in dogs?
In most dogs, itching may be generalised or focal (confined to one area). This means you might find hot spots or areas of bald skin, or you may just notice your dog scratching all over.
Common symptoms of itching in dogs include:
- Excessive scratching
- Chewing/ biting at the skin
- Licking (and saliva staining of the fur)
- Rubbing the skin against furniture or on the ground
- Rashes and redness of the skin
- Flaky skin
- Being unable to settle or rest
Excessive licking, scratching and rubbing can cause damage to the skin, leading to inflammation, thickened skin, hair loss (alopecia) and skin infections.
How to treat your dog’s itchy skin
There are several treatment options to try to get your dog to stop scratching. Successful vet treatment of your dog’s pruritis depends on diagnosing the underlying cause.
If your dog is suffering from itchy skin, contact our friendly call team or book online to make an appointment at your local Animal Trust vet clinic for expert advice. Our vet consultations are free (except for out of hours) and our veterinary surgeons will examine your pet for any lesions that may indicate the cause of their itching.
Our veterinary medicine nurses and vets will offer investigations of your dog’s skin condition based on their findings and outline any lab fees involved. They will then plan with you the most appropriate management of your pet’s skin condition. This will consider your dog’s age, the condition of their skin, hormonal imbalances, other underlying medical issues and other symptoms, and will ensure the plan is affordable for you.
Common dog skin condition treatments
There are a number of options available for your dog, which our team of vets will discuss with you at consultation.
Treating itching in dogs with antihistamines is one of the most common forms of treatment. However, in many dogs the response to antihistamines is variable, and their use is not supported by current research.
Prescription strength parasite control, ideally in tablet form, will be required to clear mite infestations for an itchy dog. These tablets can treat the entire flea life cycle where fleas are found.
Anti-inflammatory steroids are often considered the most effective medication to manage itching. Unfortunately, they can cause multiple side effects if used systemically for long-term courses, so are often used for short-term management or applied topically.
Where infection is found to be present, antibiotics or medicated shampoos will be required to clear the infection and relieve the itching. Sometimes this treatment may be required for a month or more.
Prescription hypoallergenic food trials (similar to an elimination diet) may be advised for 6-8 weeks to feed your dog to test for food allergy or intolerance. These diets can be used for longer-term management if they help to control the itching.
If a cause of itching cannot be identified, or the treatment of underlying diseases does not control the itch, then medical treatment may be required for longer-term management of your dog’s pruritis. These medications include steroids, Apoquel, cyclosporine and Cytopoint injections. These act on the dog’s immune system to prevent the excessive release of inflammatory mediators in reaction to an allergen.
Further things which may help relieve your dog’s itchy or dry skin include:
- Keeping up to date with parasite control. Fleas are prevalent all year round. Dogs at increased risk are those who encounter other dogs, cats and wildlife. However, 95% of the flea life cycle is in the environment, so all animals are at some risk of fleas. Some parasites, such as ear mites, demodex and scabies mites are only treated by prescription-strength medications.
- Avoiding strong detergents or biological washing powders if your dog has sensitive skin.
- Avoiding possible triggers eg., certain fields where grass/ plants have triggered a reaction, particular walks where your pet has become irritated.
- A hypoallergenic food trial, removing all additional treats and foodstuffs which may trigger gastrointestinal or skin reactions.
- Various skin care supplements are available to add into your dog’s food or be given as treats. These often provide omega fatty acids, which help to improve the oil content in your dog’s skin, soothe itching and reduce excessive moulting.
- Shampoos can be useful to moisturise your dog’s dry or sensitive skin, which can relieve irritation. Washing your dog’s paws after a walk will also remove allergens such as pollens and dust. Medicated shampoos may be required for dogs with skin infections or conditions (such as sarcoptic mange or folliculitis).
Home remedies for a dog with itchy skin
Our advice would be to contact your veterinary surgeon as the first port of call before trying a home remedy for your itchy dog. Your vet will offer a professional opinion on the likely causes of your dog’s itching. They can also offer investigations where appropriate and can prescribe medication or advise home remedies as deemed appropriate to alleviate your dog’s discomfort.
Can you cure your dog’s itchy skin?
Potential cures will depend on the underlying cause for your dog’s itching.
For example, if irritation is caused by a parasite, contact with an allergen which can be avoided, or an infection, then the itching can be cured with appropriate treatment.
However, for many dogs, there is an underlying hypersensitivity to food, allergens in the environment or atopy. In these cases, lifelong management of your dog’s condition will be required. This may include control of your dog’s diet, allergen avoidance, occasional or long-term medication, and treatment of any complicating factors (such as infection, conditions like an autoimmune disorder and more), may be required to keep them comfortable.
Skin conditions can be complex. Always follow your vet’s advice to avoid unnecessary flare ups and discomfort for your dog. If you do not feel that the current plan is working, or your dog suffers a relapse, please contact your vet for further advice.
Seeking a veterinary opinion in the early stages of skin disease may help to prevent the signs worsening, avoid suffering and ultimately reduce the amount of treatment required.
To speak to a vet about dog skin disorders or to arrange a consultation for your itchy dog, get in touch with your local Animal Trust clinic.