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It’s normal for dogs to scratch, but a sudden and intense bout of scratching in dogs can be a sign of an allergic reaction. As such, it is important for you to determine why the dog is scratching, especially if the behavior is prolonged or intense in nature.
What to Watch For
A sudden, intense bout of scratching in dogs, especially one that goes on for an extended period of time or one that your dog cannot be distracted from, indicates a need to reach out to your veterinarian to immediately address the problem. This may manifest as itching, biting, licking and/or chewing one or more areas of the body (also known as "pruritus").
Allergies, mites, skin infections and insect bites are the most common causes of intense scratching in dogs. Some types of masses, specifically mast cell tumors, can be very itchy and require immediate action.
Note: Uncontrolled scratching can lead to self-inflicted injuries, or rarely, in the case of some allergic reactions, to anaphylactic shock.
Restrain the dog.
Check the dog’s skin, especially in the itchiest areas.
If you can identify the cause of the itching—such as insects or spiders—remove it.
Apply cold compresses to the itchiest areas for about 15 minutes.
An oatmeal dog shampoo may provide some temporary relief in many cases. Even better, some shampoos contain phytosphingosine salicyloyl, which is a skin calming agent.
If the dog’s scratching is intense, administer an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) (call your veterinarian for the correct dose).
If the scratching continues, gets worse or has no apparent cause, take the dog to the veterinarian for a full physical exam and basic laboratory testing.
Diagnosis of dog scratching variably involves skin scrapes, impression smears, ear swabs and other basic methods to analyze the skin and its potential parasites/infectious agents. Response to treatment with certain products or medications is another helpful resource that may prove necessary. Allergy testing through food trials and blood or skin tests may be necessary as well.
The treatment for scratching, itching, chewing, licking and biting (also known as pruritus) requires an initial diagnosis. Only then can the approach to treatment be determined. Treatment may include anything from shampoos, dips and cream rinses to dog antibiotics, antifungal medications for dogs, parasiticides and immunosuppressants (like corticosteroids and cysclosporine). Recently, several dog medications have become available to specifically treat itching in dogs.
Food restriction and hyposensitization protocols may also be in order (as for food and environmental allergies, respectively). It is best to seek advice from your veterinarian before trying a food restriction plan to ensure it is done safely and successfully.
Fleas and some mites may be prevented with a variety of prescription flea and tick meds. Ask your veterinarian for a product and/or drug recommendation. Otherwise, allergies have no specific means of prevention—only management of symptoms.