One of the biggest asks from dog owners is how do they stop their pet from constantly scratching. As a dogs skin is indicative of its overall health, constant itching and scratching is a symptom of an underlying problem. To rid a dog of this misery you have to identify the source of the problem to effectively treat it and prevent future recurrences.
There are a wide range of causes that affect an itchy dog, and different ways of treating them.
FLEAS: In addition to flea bites causing itchiness fleas can also cause parasitic dermatitis. Repeated exposure to flea bites can cause hypersensitivity to the proteins in flea saliva. Flea allergy dermatitis mostly manifests as severe itching on the back near the tail, inside of the hind legs, the abdomen and the sides of the abdomen. Dogs suffering from parasitic dermatitis can be completely free from fleas on inspection due to it grooming itself or because it only takes one bite to start an allergic reaction. Unless you have a full blown flea infestation or a dog suffering from parasitic dermatitis there are alternative natural methods to help your canine companion prevent and combat against these unwanted visitors. Click here for details on natural flea prevention methods.
TICKS: Ticks themselves do not cause itching and the bite is usually painless. However after the tick has been removed or falls off the skin the site of the bite may become red, inflamed and itchy. Most tick bites do not transmit harmful microbes, however as the threat of disease is always present ticks should be taken seriously. After removing a tick always cleanse the place of a tick bite with an antibacterial solution (take care around the eyes) and monitor the area for a few days. Some dogs are sensitive to tick saliva secretion and develop a rash, swelling, or shortness of breath. If your dog is experiencing these signs a visit to the vet is recommended. Click here for details on natural tick prevention methods.
OTHER PARASITES include Sarcoptic mites, Demodex mites, and Cheyletiella mites.
– Cheyletiella mites (also called Walking Dandruff) feed off dead skin cells and live on the surface of the skin. These mites are common in dogs and can live on humans for a short while causing an itchy rash. Symptoms in dogs include flaky skin, scratching, small skin bumps, scabs, mild hair loss, and if the mites enter the nose sneezing and scratching of the face.
– Demodex mites live and reproduce just under the skin surface in the tiny hair follicles and the oil glands of the skin. Demodex is most common in young dogs; in adult dogs cases are associated with dogs that are stressed from disease, poor nutrition, immune disorders or live in a harsh environment. Symptoms include bacterial skin infection and pustules caused by excessive scratching, and bald patches especially around the front legs, eyes, mouth, and elbows.
– Sarcoptic mites, also known as red mange or scabies are the nastier of the mites and live deep in the skin. These mites invade the healthy skin and cause a wide range of skin conditions. Symptoms are varied but usually include hair loss and severe itching especially on the areas of the skin that have less hair such as ears, armpits, belly, chest and hocks. As the infection worsens small red pustules and yellow crusts develop, with skin becoming traumatised due to scratching.
If you suspect your dog is infected with mites a visit to the vets is required to identify the type of mite so the dog can be treated accordingly. Once the type of mites present is determined there are a number of ways to treat. Depending on the type of mites and the breed of your dog, antiparasitics medication may be prescribed and given orally or applied topically, by injection, or via shampoo and dip. Results are normally seen after a month. Be aware that many skin treatment can be toxic to dogs and should not be repeatedly frequently. Some dogs may require additional treatment for secondary skin infections. Thoroughly clean bedding and rugs so that the mites does not re-infect your dog or infest others. If medication is being prescribed for a mite infestation check if Amitraz is a listed ingredient as this known to have severe side effects on dogs. When treating mites if the dog has a long coat, it must be clipped to a short length to aid healing.
In general regular cleaning and treating of bedding is recommended as part of a control and prevention program against all parasites. As safe and effective pet laundry solution to use is Pet Bed Wash from Animal Health UK.
FUNGAL INFECTION: there are several types of fungal infections and each have different treatments. Most fungal infections are caused by a type of yeast call Malassezia. This yeast usually lives in minute amounts in a dogs ears or on the skin. An overgrowth of this yeast is caused by allergies, sensitivity to products, flea treatment chemicals, or moisture trapped in the ears or coat. Symptoms of this type of fungal infection include chewing or licking of the feet, dark rusty coloured hair between toes and the nail beds, scratching the ears or head shaking, hair loss on the tail and upper back, dark speckles on the underbelly, baldness after being closely shaved, black skin, and foul smelling greasy hair. While some vets may prescribe steroids, anthistamines or antibiotics to treat this type of yeast infection this first step is to identify the cause of the infection and remove it as long term treatment of fungal infections is most successful when the cause is found and eliminated.
Ringworm is another form of fungus, however, this is a highly contagious infection that causes inflammation, hair loss, and scaly patches typically on the face, ears, paws, and tail. Ringworm itself is not an itchy condition but a secondary bacterial skin infection with scabs and crusts can cause a dog to lick and scratch itself. Treatment involves applying a topical antifungal agent to the infected area twice per day for at least four to six weeks. If a large number of sites on the skin are affected add an antifungal shampoo to the treatment program and continue for two weeks after the skin has healed to ensure the infection is removed. In difficult cases, your vet may prescribe an oral anti-fungal medication combined with a topical anti-fungal treatment program. Dogs with long hair should be clipped to allow the treatment to work effectively.
SKIN INFECTIONS: Dogs can develop a bacterial infection when the skin is damaged from scratching or biting due to the presence of another skin disorder, for example as a result of mites or a fungal infection. Once the skin is damaged from scratching it becomes difficult to determine the source of the original disorder. Therefore it is important to catch a disorder as soon as it originates to avoid difficulty in diagnosis and treatment later. Bacterial skin infections, hot spots, minor abrasions, or other skin problems that are either infected or could become infected should be treated twice per day with gentle anti-bacterial solutions such as povidone iodine solution until they clear. If you dog’s skin infection is oozing then a visit to the vet is recommended.
STRESS: excessive self-licking and chewing acts as a release of tension for dogs who are bored, not given enough exercise, socially isolated, confined for long periods of time, are physically punished by their owners, or those who have an over attentive or nervous owner who fosters nervous behaviour in their dog. Excessive licking can lead to acral lick dermatitis (ALD) a condition that causes inflammation of the skin that becomes thickened over time. Due to the constant licking the area cannot heal and may become raised and ulcerated leading to in an itch-lick cycle. To treat ALD you have to identify and eliminate the causative stimuli and modify the dog’s behaviour. Topical treatment may be required if the skin is particularly damaged, and covering up the area/s with a medical pet shirt will prevent further skin damage.
Before we speak about food and seasonal allergies it is important to note that allergies are not as common as people think but are often the first reason used when trying to diagnose what is behind a dogs skin condition. If you do have a dog that constantly scratches don’t be satisfied with a diagnosis of their being an allergy present without the proper tests being done first. This will avoid your dog entering into a cycle of antihistamines, steroids, or expensive immunosuppressive drugs.
FOOD ALLERGIES: Some dogs develop allergies to ingredients in commercial dog foods. While good for convenience many of these foods contain low-grade meats, meat meal, wheat, soy, corn, fillers, sugar, and colourings. Skin-related symptoms of a food allergy include recurrent ear infections, yeast overgrowth, or Itchy/dry/irritated skin and a dull coat. Food allergies can be treated by omitting the irritating ingredient/s and switching your dog to a balanced, nutritional diet. Reading the ingredients on dog food labels is this first place to start to understand what is in the food you are feeding your dog. Switch to a high-quality food or raw food diet, feeding your dog the best quality food you can afford.
A balanced nutritional diet is not just important to deter skin conditions, even if your dog does not have a sensitivity to ingredients there are a lot of other side effects of feeding your dog a low-grade commercial dog food. To determine what nutritional diet consists of check out our blog Nutrition and Health for details on how to choose a healthy diet for your dog.
SEASONAL ALLERGIES: Most allergens are of the inhalant type (atopy) and are seasonal. Dogs can be allergic to certain types of pollens in grasses, weed and trees pollens just as humans are, with symptoms including chewing of feet, rubbing their face on the carpet, scratching, hair loss and recurring ear infections. To successfully alleviate the impact of atopy the goal is to decrease the severity and frequency of allergic flare ups. Begin by strengthening your dogs immune system through a healthy and nutritious diet. Approximately 80% of the immune system resides within the gastrointestinal system so building a healthy gut supports the body’s immune response. Limit the exposure to environmental irritants by removing them from the skins surface through regular bathing. Avoid oatmeal shampoo which feeds secondary yeast overgrowth, and harsh antimicrobial shampoos which can damage the skin’s natural defenses. Always replenish the skin with an emollient when bathing to avoid drying out the dogs skin. A good dog suitable conditioning treatment or a homemade finishing bath rinse to restore skin pH is essential after each bath. Make your own rinse by mixing ½ cup of cooled brewed green tea, ½ cup apple cider vinegar, and 1 cup distilled water in a jar or bottle with a cap, shake well before use, apply and massage into clean skin, then rinse well and dry.
HORMONAL PROBLEMS can cause a change in skin colour, and coat consistency, thickness, and distribution. Skin diseases caused by hormonal abnormalities are difficult to diagnose as the thyroid gland, pituitary gland, adrenal glands, ovaries and testicles all produce hormones. If excessive or deficient, these hormones produce changes in the skin and coat. Most hormonal problems that affect the skin produce hair loss that is evenly distributed on both sides of the dog’s body. Some skin related hormonal diseases can be diagnosed with special blood tests; skin changes related to sex hormones can be treated with surgical neutering.
GROOMING PRODUCTS: Many of today’s off the shelf grooming products contain synthetic materials, chemicals, and unnatural ingredients, and are heavily scented or perfumed all of which can cause skin irritation. Consumers are blind-sided by labeling and marketing terms stating products are ‘all natural, safe, gentle, soothing’ when they contain ingredients harmful to your dog. Read our article Choosing Dog Grooming Products for details on how to determine the best products for your dog.
HOUSEHOLD PRODUCTS: Even when keeping our homes clean we can unintentionally be exposing our dogs to irritants through the products we use. The most common household products that irritate a dog’s skin are floor cleaners, laundry detergents and carpet powders. As dogs love to lie on cool floors their skin is exposed to prolonged contact with any residue left on the floor from these chemicals. Laundry detergent used for washing dog bedding and blankets leave these smelling super clean however the fragrances in these products are usually synthetic and loaded with chemicals. Switch to animal safe cleansing products to avoid irritating your dog’s skin. Animal Health UK has a great range of hygiene products that protect you and your pooch while also being safe for use in your home.
As you can see determining the source of your dog’s itching and scratching is not a straightforward process. However, you must persevere and find the underlying cause to rid your dog of this misery and ensure they have a happy itch free life.