By Patrick Mahaney, VMD
Itching and scratching is a common issue among dogs. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to witness your dog suffer. Here are a few of the more typical reasons for itching and scratching in dogs and how to best help treat and prevent it from occurring in the future.
Flea saliva is very allergenic, so a single flea can cause flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) that makes your dog itchy at the bite site (often around the head, anus, neck, tail base, or groin area). In addition to the itching/scratching, dogs with a flea infestation will deposit flea “dirt” (or digested blood in the form of their feces) on the skin. This flea dirt will appear like black pepper flakes.
Prevention: Minimize your dog’s exposure by limiting his access to locations where a heavy burden of fleas may exist — wooded areas, dog parks, daycare, kennels, etc. It is also important to utilize flea preventatives. As each pet’s needs differ, consult your veterinarian to determine which type of preventative is most appropriate (including topical, collar, or oral medication).
Like fleas, ticks seek blood to survive. That is why tick bites create inflammation at the point of entry that can worsen the longer the tick stays attached and releases its saliva into the skin. Additionally, secondary bacterial infection can occur add to the tick bite site that will lead to further irritation and itching.
Prevention: Limiting your dog’s exposure to areas where ticks may exist — wooded areas, dog parks, daycare, kennels, etc. – and using tick preventatives is the best way to prevent full blown infestations from occurring. Discuss with your veterinarian if using a preventative for both ticks and fleas is ideal for your dog.
Mites like mange (Sarcoptes, Demodex, etc.) are microscopic insects that burrow deep into the layers of the skin to feed and live. Chewing their way through your dog’s skin creates inflammation and leads to secondary infections (bacteria, yeast, etc.). Skin-lesions from mange can manifest all over the body, but the armpits, groin, ear margins, and areas having minimal hair (elbows, etc.) are most commonly affected.
Prevention: Keeping your dog in good health can help prevent some cases of mange. However, often treatment after mite infestation is the only recourse. Dips, injections, oral drugs, and spot-on treatments can all be used to treat sarcoptic mange. Mild cases of localized demodectic mange often resolve without any treatment when a dog’s immune system becomes better able to control mite numbers.
Seasonal allergies, which mainly manifests with itchy skin in dogs, tend to be most prevalent during spring, summer, and fall, but regions that undergo frequently warm and/or humid weather can have a year-round allergy season. Blooming plants and flowers, grasses, weeds, and trees are common contributors to seasonal allergies.
Prevention: Regular brushing and bathing, air filtration systems, and limiting the exposure to allergenic environments are some means by which you can also help prevent or minimize the risk your dog will suffer from allergic dermatitis.
While dogs most frequently suffer from allergies due to environmental triggers, allergic reactions to food is possible. Some dogs may be allergic to certain proteins (beef, dairy, chicken, etc.) and/or grains (wheat, corn, rice, etc.). This allergic reaction may exhibit in a number of ways, including skin inflammation and itching.
Prevention: Diagnosing food allergies in dogs can be difficult and should be done with the supervision of a veterinarian. He or she will typically put the dog on an elimination diet to try and determine what, if any, common ingredients may be causing the dog’s allergies. Depending on the ingredient(s) causing the dog’s allergies, your vet can then make suggestions for diets that restrict the potential allergen.