Itching is one of the most common symptoms seen in our domestic dogs, but unfortunately figuring out what is making them itch is not always easy. This article discusses the top five reasons that your dog could be itching, and reveals when a trip to the vet might be necessary.
It might sound obvious, but how do you tell if your dog is itchy? Although scratching is the most common sign that a dog has an itch, there are also other signs. Some dogs will lick at an itchy spot- in lighter coloured animals this can be seen as tell-tale orange-brown patches (known as saliva staining) over the spot where they’ve been licking. Chewing can also be a sign of an itch- although itchy dogs usually chew at the feet, the groin, backside and knees can also be affected. Other itchy dogs will choose to use carpets to scratch on- rubbing their head, ears, bottoms or bodies along the ground or even along the side of the sofa. If your dog is displaying any of these signs, chances are that they’re feeling itchy.
The most common reason for a dog to be itching is due to various parasites that live on or in the skin. Of these, fleas are the most commonly seen. Fleas live in the dog’s environment and jump onto the animal to feed- so just because you haven’t seen a live flea on a pet doesn’t mean that they aren’t coming into contact with them. Most dogs can cope with the odd flea bite without getting too itchy, but some are allergic to the bites making even a single flea a massive problem. Prevention is better than cure, as once an infestation has started it can take up to three months and hundreds of pounds to eradicate from a house. Regularly use a prescription flea preventative from your vet for best effect.
Mites are much less common than fleas but are invisible to the naked eye, making them much more difficult to diagnose- a trip to the vets is usually necessary. Most mites burrow into the surface of the skin, causing an extreme and infuriating itch. Sarcoptic mange is one of the most common mite infestations in the UK, and is also known as ‘fox mange’, as it is usually carried by foxes. It is just as happy living on Fido however, and can even transfer to people. Demodectic mange in another fairly common form of mite- these little beasts burrow into hair follicles causing itching and baldness. Harvest mite is an unusual but extremely itchy infection, with most dogs tearing themselves to pieces in an attempt to scratch the itch.
Lice are luckily rare in the UK, and thanks to their size are usually picked up early. Infestation is most common in young puppies or in kennels where lots of dogs are kept together. Luckily, most prescription flea treatments will also prevent lice infestation.
Dogs may lick and chew at painful areas such as a surgical site or arthritic joint. Although they appear itchy, these dogs are usually just displaying redirection behaviour, as they are unable to do anything else about the pain they feel. A common symptom is that of chewing and rubbing at the backside, which on investigation turns out to be painful and often infected anal glands.
Skin infections are extremely itchy, and unfortunately most of them cannot easily be seen. Dogs can become infected with yeasts. This is most likely in dogs with another skin condition that is making their skin prone to infections, and is usually seen in moist areas of the body, such as the groin or armpits. Dogs with folds of skin, such as facial folds in bulldogs, fat rolls in overweight animals, or leg folds in basset hounds, often get smelly yeast infections in the folds. The infection can usually be cleared up with medicated shampoos or wipes, depending how widespread the problem is.
Skin infections can also be caused by bacteria, although again this is relatively unusual in very healthy dogs and is usually a sign that the immune system is compromised. A simple surface skin infection can be cleared with shampoo, but some deeper infections may need antibiotics for several weeks in order to fully clear the infection. Some dogs get what is known as a ‘hot spot’ or localised skin infection. This can be extremely itchy and often requires medicated creams to fix.
Affecting approximately 5-10% of dogs, food allergies can cause a dog to feel itchy, get recurrent skin infections, or lose hair. Dogs are most commonly allergic to beef, followed by milk (and milk products). They cannot be allergic to a ‘new’ food protein, they must have contacted the protein before to have developed the excessive response. Unfortunately this means that well-meaning owners adjusting their dog’s diet regularly in the hope of finding something the dog isn’t itchy on, are reducing the diets that they can feed their dog if they do turn out to be allergic to their food. Instead, I recommend seeking out a vet and discussing your concerns.
Atopy, or atopic dermatitis, is an allergic reaction to the environment that affects approximately 15% of dogs in the UK. Labradors, West Highland White Terriers, Boxers and French Bulldogs are all extremely affected. Dogs may have generalised itching, recurrent ear infections, or excessive licking and chewing of the feet. Common allergens include dust mites, tree pollens and weeds- all things that are unfortunately impossible to completely eradicate or avoid- making atopy a difficult condition to treat. Blood tests and skin tests have been developed that help vets to work out exactly what allergens are responsible for the extreme reaction, but atopy can only be truly diagnosed when all of the other causes of itching – included those listed here - have been ruled out.