There are many causes for excessive itching in dogs and one thing is clear. When your dog is scratching constantly it’s a warning sign that there is a problem with its skin. The first step to resolving your dog’s itching problem is determining the cause.
Causes of Itchy Skin on Dogs
As pet owners most of us are aware of the significant risk fleas pose to our dogs. Fleas are tiny parasites live off of the blood of animals and their bites can cause major health issues. The most common symptom of a flea infestation is scratching. If you take a close look at your dog’s skin by parting its hair you may see small black dogs moving around. Fleas move rapidly and jump great distances easily so it’s easy to differentiate flea infestations from other causes like mites or lice. Flea bites manifest as small red spots on your dog’s skin which itch and cause your dog to scratch.
Some dogs have severe allergies to fleas, which is called flea bite dermatitis. For them a single bite can cause a widespread reaction. Severe flea infestations can also lead to anemia from the blood loss and can even cause tapeworm since fleas can be a host to this parasite.
As pet owners, we certainly don’t want fleas in our homes. Luckily, treatment for fleas is readily available and with proper application we can control and eliminate flea infestations. Keep in mind that it’s just as important to rid your home of fleas as it is to treat your dog! Only doing one or the other will perpetuate the problem.
Check out our article on all-natural flea remedies for information and tips for controlling flea problems without the use of harsh chemicals and prescription medications.
Dogs often display different symptoms than we do when exposed to airborne allergens. While pollen causes many of us to sneeze and our eyes to water, our dogs often develop itchy feet that causes excessive licking and biting at his paws. Some dogs may develop watery eyes and sneezing (like my German Shepherd Maya) but by far the most common allergy symptom in dogs is scratching. Excessive scratching can lead to hair loss, open sores and painful raised welts.
All breeds of dogs can be affected by airborne allergies. While allergies usually affect dogs over two years old they can affect dogs of any age. Normally dogs with allergies remain allergic their entire lives so it’s important to figure out a treatment plan early to prevent long term discomfort. If you suspect your dog has airborne allergies you should seek the advice of your veterinarian. There are some inexpensive anti-histamines (like Benadryl) that can be given to dogs, but proper dosing and monitoring is critical.
Like their friends the flea, mites are annoying creatures. The biggest problem facing owners is realizing their dog has a mite infection. Mites are so small that they usually cannot be seen crawling on our dog’s skin, unless you have exceptionally keen eye sight. What we can see is the effects of the parasite.
Mites generally cause some degree of skin irritation and inflammation. Burrowing mites which feed and lay their eggs in the skin, such as Sarcoptes scabiei and the ear mite, Otodectes cyanosis, cause intense itchiness. This often becomes so severe that affected animals scratch, lick, chew, bite and rub uncontrollably at the mite infested areas. The excessive scratching and chewing is so severe that it often continues to the point of self-mutilation. Dogs with ear mites generally focus their efforts on their face, head, neck and ears; and besides scratching symptoms can include include violent head-shaking and rubbing their head on whatever objects they can find.
A dog’s attempts to relieve the discomfort caused by mites often causes open weeping sores that are susceptible to developing secondary bacterial and viral infections. These open wounds are extremely painful and impossible to treat if the mites are not eliminated. Dogs with mites can also display a profound lack of appetite, weight loss and agitation.
Mites are commonly treated with topical ointments, shampoos, and medicated drops. If you suspect a mite infection you should have your dog screened by a veterinarian. Different types of mites require specialized treatment plans, and the vet can determine the type of mites with a simple skin test.
Luckily for us and our dogs skin infections are not very common. Our dog’s thick protective coats help protect them from scrapes and injuries which minimizes the chance of infection. When infection is present it usually appears in one of two areas.
Warm moist areas, such as the mouth, lips, in between their toes and groin are the common locations for bacterial skin infections. The moisture and warmth creates an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, and if their immune system is already compromised infection often occurs.
The second area is along pressure points. Common areas include the elbows, tail, belly and pads. These areas are subjected to much more environmental stresses than other areas of the body and they often have a less robust coat (especially on the belly). Because of this they can get scratched and injured more easily which allows for bacterial infections to penetrate the surface of the skin.
Infections often appear similar to the inflammation commonly associated with flea infestation, seasonal allergies, and hormonal imbalances. It is important to diagnose inflammation correctly as some of the causes can be quite dangerous. This is especially true when the infection moves beyond the surface of the skin and into the “deep skin.”
Superficial skin infections are usually characterized by redness and inflammation. It can present with symptoms such as small bumps and patchy hair loss. Deep infections cause severe pain and can lead to staph infection of the blood. Deeper infections usually present with symptoms including puss, foul odor and lumps on the skin’s surface. Minor infections can be treated with topical ointments, but deeper infections require prescription antibiotics and surgical draining if abscess forms.
Generalized Dry Skin
What I like to call generalized dry skin is really a number of conditions that aren’t a result of a particular bacterial, parasitic, fungal, or allergic condition. Generalized dry skin can be more pronounced in the dry winter months and warm summer months. It can also be caused by poor nutrition and lack of access to fresh, clean water.
Seasonal dry skin occurs most commonly in the winter and summer months. During these times of the year our dog’s coats undergo changes to adapt to the new weather. Excessive shedding can occur and our dog’s bodies quickly use up stores of vital nutrients when producing its new coat. It’s important to ensure that they have access to plenty of clean water and nutritious food. You should also make sure you have an adequate supplementation routine during the change of seasons to ensure that your dog has all of the vital nutrients it needs to build a healthy full coat. You can check out our guide on winterizing your pet for more information.
Lack of essential nutrients is the most common cause of generalized dry skin on dogs. Most commercial dog foods are not a good source of essential fatty acids like Omega-3s and skin friendly vitamins like A and E. To ensure a healthy coat you should feed your dog high quality nutritious food year round, and supplement with Omega-3 oils and vitamins as needed.
Frequent bathing is another common cause of dry skin in dogs. Over bathing, even with pet friendly shampoos strips their skin and coat of vital oils which are critical to your dog’s overall health. You should bathe your dog as little as possible and use a moisturizing shampoo that is made specifically for dogs. Human shampoo should never be used on your dog; it is the wrong pH and is designed to remove oils that our dogs require. Grooming your dog regularly will help him stay clean and the brushing stimulates his skin to produce essential moisturizing oils.
Food allergies are becoming an increasingly more common cause of allergic itching and scratching in dogs. It can occur in dogs of all ages but usually develops over time. Unlike other allergies, food allergies are not seasonal. Dogs have been found to develop allergies to proteins like chicken, eggs, fish, beef, pork, and horse meat. Dairy products like milk and cheese. Starches like grains, potatoes, and soy beans.
The most common types of food allergies are grain based. This could explain why the prevalence of food allergies is on the rise in the canine populations. Prior to about 30 years ago dog food did not contain a large amount of grain but when the costs of corn rose, manufactures began replacing corn meal with grain based alternatives. Food allergies have also been shown to develop due to prolonged exposure to particular foods. This is one reason why I always recommend changing your dog’s food every 6 months (you can rotate between multiple high-quality foods). This helps to prevent them from developing allergies to particular products.
Signs of food allergies often mimic those of other skin conditions. The typical signs include severe itching, of small red bumps, pustules, and raised patches of irritated skin. The rash normally begins on the ears, feet, legs, and underside of the body. If a food allergy is suspected your veterinarian will help you plan an exclusion based diet to determine which foods your dog is allergic to.
Seborrhea is a skin condition in dogs that causes dandruff and may cause the coat to become greasy. This condition is fairly common and if left untreated can lead to secondary infections of the skin. Dog’s suffering from seborrhea will often smell bad due to the excess oil buildup on the skin and coat.
There are two common forms of seborrhea in dogs, oily and dry. The majority of dog’s suffering from this condition has a combination of the two types. Seborrhea normally causes the skin to produce a waxy substance that can be seen clumping up in the ears and in the armpits. You can sometimes find it on the belly, rump, elbows and lower legs.
Dogs will normally scratch at the area which can cause bleeding, sores and open wounds. Seborrhea can be treated easily with medicated shampoos designed specifically for this condition.
Due to our dog’s thick protective coats, contact dermatitis is not a common skin condition. When contact dermatitis does appear it is generally in response to an allergen or irritant found in the environment. Common allergens include plants, especially the wandering Jew family (which is often sold as decorative house plants), and medications.
Allergic reactions normally appear within 48 hours after the exposure to the allergen. Allergies often develop over time after repeated exposure to the particular source. It’s possible for our dogs to develop allergies to medications over time so don’t discount these as a possible source even if they were well tolerated in the past. Normally the dermatitis appears first on areas where the hair is thin such as the belly, inner ears, muzzle and paws. It often resembles poison ivy or poison oak in humans, with the same characteristic red blisters. Treatment is usually as simple as removing the source of the allergy from the environment, although identifying the source can be difficult. If more than one dog is present in the household the symptoms usually only appear on one. If all animals develop the same symptom it’s more likely that the cause is due to an irritant.
Contact dermatitis that is due to an irritant, such as household chemical exposure, normally appears very rapidly and often affects all animals in the home. Irritant reactions tend to be more pronounced, painful and have rapid onset. The can cause blisters and ulcers to develop on the skin and lead to discoloration and lesions. Secondary bacterial infections have quickly set in to the wounded area so prompt treatment is critical.
Treatment for irritant reactions depends on the irritant. If you know what chemical caused the reaction you can call your veterinarian for guidance. If they do not know the proper treatment procedure they will refer you to the ASPCA’s poison control center for more help. If the reaction is severe call the ASPCA poison control center immediately at (888) 426-4435 or visit their website http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/.