Our guide to dogs with sensitive skin.
All dogs will have a bit of a scratch once in a while, but is your dog itchy all the time? If your dog keeps itching, there may be an underlying problem that you can help them with. Here’s what you need to know about itchy skin in dogs.
What are the signs of itchy skin in dogs?
If your dog has itchy skin, you’ll typically see them scratching, nibbling or licking excessively. Sometimes, dogs will be itchy all over, but in other situations only certain areas of the body will be affected. If a dog seems itchy all the time and chews repeatedly at a particular spot, you may see that the fur turns reddish or orangey brown from the saliva staining the coat. Other ways dogs may show itchiness are by rubbing their skin against objects or by rolling repeatedly on the floor.
Itchy skin doesn’t always look any different to normal, but sometimes it can become inflamed and red and can get infected. If you see a rash on dog skin, it’s best to seek advice from your vet.
Why does my dog scratch?
There are lots of different reasons why your dog may be itchy. In general, the most common causes are parasites, skin infections and allergies. For some simple problems like fleas, treatment is available over the counter, but if this is not enough to settle down the symptoms for your pet then they’ll need veterinary help. Other, more complicated conditions will also need to be treated by your vet. As a general rule, it’s best to seek veterinary advice if your pet’s itchiness persists despite flea treatment, and sooner if the signs are severe or if the skin looks sore or damaged.
Fleas are an incredibly common cause of itchiness in dogs. These pesky little parasites cause skin irritation by biting your pet to feed on their blood. Fleas can be tricky to spot though, as they’re just a few millimetres long and dark brown or black. You might see one leaping when you groom your pet, but it’s more likely that you’ll notice flea droppings in your dog’s coat.
Flea droppings look just like little flecks of dirt, but if you collect a few on some white paper and then dampen it, they’ll reveal their true colours! Flea dirt will go red when wet because of the dried blood. The easiest way to check your pet’s coat for fleas is to use a flea comb – these have very fine teeth so they pick up the flea dirt easily.
If you see any evidence of fleas on your pet, it’s best to treat them as soon as possible. There is a wide range of flea treatments out there including spot-ons, tablets, collars and shampoo. With these, it’s always important to follow the guidelines on the packet, and make sure you’ve got the right product for your pet’s weight and species. Your vet can help you with advice on what’s best for your pet. Dog flea treatments should never be used on cats as they can be very toxic to our feline friends.
Getting rid of fleas completely can be tricky, as these little creatures can hop onto other pets or lay eggs in the environment. So it’s always worth treating all your canine and feline companions at once, and you may also need to treat your house with a household spray and regular hoovering. Household sprays should never be used on pets though, as they are harmful to animals.
If you don’t find any fleas, this doesn’t completely rule them out as the problem. Some dogs have a condition called ‘flea allergic dermatitis’ which means they can get really itchy after only one or two flea bites. This often leads to a characteristic pattern of itching and fur loss in an area called the ‘flea triangle’, which basically extends from the middle of the back to the hindquarters and over the base of the tail. If your dog keeps itching in this area, your vet will be able to advise you if this is a likely problem for your pet.
Fleas aren’t the only parasite that can cause itchiness, unfortunately! Dogs can also pick up ticks and lice, as well as a few different varieties of mites. While ticks can be quite obvious (and disgusting to look at), most mites are too small to see, and you’ll typically need a vet to diagnose this problem by taking a sample and looking at it under the microscope.
Some flea treatments will protect against certain other parasites too, but it depends on the product. If you want to know what parasites are covered by your flea treatment, you can check the label on the packet and have a chat with your vet if you’re in any doubt.
Dog skin infections
Another possible reason why dogs might itch is dog skin infections. Dogs can get both bacterial and yeast infections, and these can be localised to a particular area of the body or more widespread. Your vet will be able to advise you if infection is a problem and how best to treat it. They may advise topical treatment with a cream or shampoo, or a course of treatment by mouth.
Often, dog skin infections develop secondary to other causes of itchiness – for example, if your dog has very irritated skin for some other reason, they may scratch too much and then get an infection in the sore skin. If there is an underlying problem, you may find that your dog is still itchy all the time, after you’ve successfully treated a skin infection. If this is the case, your vet can advise whether any further tests or treatments are a good idea.
Dog allergic reactions
Just like us, dogs can develop allergies, and these are a common reason for skin itchiness. Allergies can cause irritation all over the body, or just on specific parts such as the paws. Sometimes, dogs with allergies will develop frequent ear infections, and you may see your dog shaking their head or itching their ears. Ear infections normally need veterinary treatment to settle down properly so it’s best to pop your pet down to the vet if you see these signs.
So, what are dogs allergic to? Dogs can actually develop reactions to a whole range of things – we’ve already mentioned flea allergy, and it’s also not uncommon for dogs to react to other things in the environment such as pollen or dust. If your pooch is sensitive to pollen, you may see seasonal signs where they only become itchy at one time of the year, often the spring or summer. If your vet suspects that environmental allergies may be an issue, they may suggest doing special tests to try and identify exactly what it is that your dog reacts to.
Another cause of dog allergic reactions is food. Food allergies in dogs can cause tummy signs such as vomiting or diarrhoea, but sometimes skin problems are the only sign of a food allergy. If your vet thinks this may be a problem, they may suggest doing a diet trial where you avoid foods that your dog has eaten before. The idea behind this is that dogs can only be allergic to ingredients they’ve already met, so an entirely new diet should settle down the signs. If you start a diet trial with your pet, it’s important to stick to it strictly, as it only takes a small amount of a problem food to trigger skin signs.
If you find out what your pet is allergic to, you may be able to avoid it or your vet may prescribe treatment to manage the signs. Sometimes it’s not possible to identify the specific cause of an allergy, but your vet will still be able to advise on what treatments may help.
Looking after a dog with itchy skin
The best way to look after a dog with itchy skin depends on the underlying cause, and your vet will let you know if your pet needs any particular treatment. For dogs with generally sensitive skin such as those with allergies, it also helps to keep their skin in tip-top condition to enhance their natural defences.
To keep your pet’s skin in the best of health, it’s good to keep up with regular grooming. There are also various products that are designed to support the skin and keep the coat healthy and shiny. If your dog has skin problems, it’s worth consulting your vet before using new products to check they’re a good idea for your pet.
Some shampoos are great for dogs with sensitive skin, and there are also supplements that contain nutrients such as omega 3 essential fatty acids that also have beneficial effects. Certain foods are also formulated to be good for sensitive skin, though if your dog has a food allergy, it’s important to look at the ingredient list and check there’s nothing on there that is known to be a problem for your pet.
We’ve run through the most common causes of itchy skin in dogs here, but there are some less typical conditions and your vet will be able to advise on what’s right for your pet. If you see other signs alongside itchiness such as lumps on dog skin, it’s best to seek veterinary advice sooner rather than later.
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