Dog scratching - Why your dog might be itching himself to distraction
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Dog scratching - Why your dog might be itching himself to distraction

All dogs enjoy a good scratch now and then, and seeing your dog scratching, licking or grooming himself is behaviour that you will probably notice occurring a couple of times a day. This is perfectly normal, and occasional scratching is rarely problematic or indicative of a more serious problem.

However, if your dog is scratching himself to distraction, will not leave his coat alone or appears to be uncomfortable or in distress, this indicates that an underlying problem may be at play, causing pain, discomfort, irritation or intense itchiness of the skin that will require further investigation.

Read on to learn more about the how to tell if your dog is scratching too much, plus some of the most common reasons for excessive scratching in dogs.

When does scratching become a problem?

If your dog is constantly or persistently scratching at either one area of his skin or his entire body, this indicates that something is amiss. Areas of the skin that appear inflamed, red, hot to the touch or sore also indicate a problem, as does your dog scratching to the point where areas of the fur thin or fall out.

The underlying cause of excessive scratching in your dog will vary from case to case, and over 500 conditions in total can lead to excessive scratching in dogs. However, ten conditions lead to excessive scratching in dogs occurring much more commonly than any others, any of which can drive your dog to distraction in fairly short order.

Fleas

The number one culprit behind excessive scratching in dogs is, unfortunately, the common flea. A significant flea infestation can make your dog’s life a misery within a very short period of time, and prolonged exposure to a large flea infestation can cause hypersensitivity in the affected dog, making the affects of each individual flea bite much more pronounced. Ensure that your dog is treated for fleas regularly using a veterinary recommended product, and talk to your vet about your options if your dog is suffering from a particularly stubborn or recurrent flea infestation.

Mites and other parasites

Mites and other parasitic passengers burrow under the top level of the skin, and can lead to extreme itchiness and irritation in your dog. Mange, ear mites and many other microscopic nasties thrive on the skin of the dog, and will soon make themselves at home, causing intense discomfort and irritation to your dog along the way. Your vet can prescribe preparations and medications to eradicate mites and other parasites in your dog.

A dirty coat

If your dog’s coat is dirty, matted or full of dead skin, this can lead to itching and discomfort in and of itself, as well as providing a much more welcoming environment for parasites and other nasties. Ensure that your dog is groomed regularly and bathed if necessary, particularly in the case of longhaired breeds and elderly dogs that will be less able to keep themselves clean.

Food allergies

If your dog is allergic to something within his food, this can manifest as a sensitivity and irritation of the skin, among other things. It can be hard to narrow down a food allergy as the culprit of excessive scratching, unless you already have reason to suspect that your dog is sensitive to certain foodstuffs. Changes in diet or choosing a special hypo-allergenic complete food can often address itching caused by food allergies.

External allergens

As well as food allergies, some dogs can be sensitive to other potential external allergens, such as pollen, some types of grass, household cleaning products such as washing powder, and many other potential causes. It can be even more difficult to identify definitively any external allergenic trigger, and your vet may advise running a board of allergen tests on your dog to narrow down the possibilities.

Fungal infections

Fungal infections of the skin can easily go unnoticed, but can cause itching and irritation that slowly spreads along with the fungal infection itself. Fungal infections can also affect your dog’s claws, where they thrive on the keratin-rich nail tissue, but are usually relatively easy to clear up with a topical fungicidal treatment.

Internal problems

A wide range of potential health problems such as cancers, liver conditions and problems with the immune system can present with a variety of symptoms, and intense itching or skin irritation is just one of them. It is important to take your dog along to your vet for tests if your dog appears to be scratching to distraction and you cannot identify a particular reason for why this is, particularly if your dog is displaying any other apparently unrelated symptoms.

Lice

Lice are an invasive and irritating species of insect that can affect a wide range of animals including dogs, people and birds. Instances of louse infection within the UK are relatively uncommon these days, and contact with a dog carrying lice is relatively rare. However, these small bugs are highly contagious, and can be passed from dog to dog or from a person to a dog and vice versa (such as in the case of head lice) simply by brief contact with the affected animal. Special shampoos and washes can be provided by your vet to eradicate lice.

Skin infections

Any cuts or grazes on the surface of the skin have the potential to become infected with bacteria, which can lead to inflammation, irritation and a much larger problem. If your dog has a sore, scab or graze on their skin and is scratching at it more than you would normally expect to occur with wound healing, your dog may have contracted a bacterial infection that will require treatment.

Dermatitis

Dermatitis is the name given to a generalised flare-up and sensitivity of the skin tissue, that can be caused by a wide range of issues including food allergies and environmental factors as described earlier on. Other strains of dermatitis, such as seborrhoeic dermatitis, can be caused by an overproduction of sebum from the skin, which leads to inflammation and potential infection. This can be treated by means of topical treatments and bathing with specific shampoos that are used to address the problem.

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