Simple Question – Many answers
Does it make you feel itchy to see your dog scratching? Have you stayed awake at night just listening to him scratch, chew, scratch? That’s a pretty miserable situation for everyone, but relief is possible. Just like people, many things can make your dog itchy. The trick is to figure out what is causing his problem so you can fix it. A little bit of detective work is all you need to get started on the path to comfort for your dog, and when he’s able to sleep through the night- you can too.
clues: “Where” is the key to finding What is causing the itch
Most of the time, dogs will have specific parts of their body that are most itchy. You might see him rub his face with his paws or notice he chews constantly at the base of his tail. That pattern is a huge clue to finding the root of the problem. It is not always as obvious as you might think, either. Scratching at ears might be directly related to an ear problem like mites or infection, but it could be linked to allergies as well. Allergies in dogs typically show up with a pattern of itching that involves their face, feet, ears, or some limited combination of any of these. Surprisingly, a dog who is chewing at his feet constantly is more likely to be feeling the itch from something he breathed in than from something his feet actually touched.
Parasites can also cause itchiness concentrated on certain parts of a pet’s body. You may be surprised that even though these unwelcome hitchhikers are the cause, you might not be able to find them easily. Fleas cause itching directly by biting, similar to a person’s response to a mosquito bite, and by crawling across the skin. But they also trigger an allergic reaction in many dogs that causes intense itching over their rump and behind their ears. If your dog is hypersensitive to fleas, a bite from a single flea can trigger an allergic reaction that causes his intense itching across their entire body. You probably won’t ever find that one culprit!
Other parasites, ticks and mites, are common causes, too. Ticks or remnants of removed ticks will cause an itchy reaction at the site of the bite. Mites are less likely causes, however if your dog picks up even one scabies mite, they will likely develop intense itching across their body. These mites do not really infect humans, but about 20% of people also have an intensely itchy allergic reaction to contact with scabies mites. It’s very important to get a correct diagnosis so both the dog and his family can be helped. The good news is that treatment is easy and provides quick relief.
Skin infections also cause itching. Typically, though, the infections come after the itching has started from one of the above reasons – allergies or parasites – and the infection will start at the site triggered by the root cause. Your dog starts to scratch, makes a tiny break in his skin, and the normal “healthy” bacteria that live on the skin surface find a way under the skin where they don’t belong.
As the itching and licking continue, the irritated and moist skin make a perfect place for the bacteria to grow and spread under the skin. This dermatitis adds to the itch. At its worst, the dermatitis develops into what’s commonly called a “hot spot” (moist pyotraumatic dermatitis) that is not only itchy but causes burning pain, too.
Getting relief means getting to the underlying cause of your dog’s itch. You may be able to control some of the itching with cool, soothing baths (oatmeal or aloe based do help) for the short term. Good flea control is important for any itching dog, even if you are not aware of fleas.
Although there are a lot of home remedies described on the internet, they do not tackle the underlying problem. Over the counter topical creams and sprays are rarely effective and can actually delay healing in many cases. It doesn’t help that dogs seem determined to lick off and ingest anything applied topically – risking adding stomach upset to your dog’s list of problems. For the fastest and most reliable relief, you will need your veterinarian’s help to get a specific diagnosis and a customized treatment plan for your dog.
Kate Crumley, MS DVM
Owner, Heartwood Animal Hospital, Youngsville, NC