Vets see dogs with itchy skin almost every day. Not only is itchy skin uncomfortable and irritating for any dog, it can also be very upsetting for us owners to see our pets in discomfort. Some dogs may have obvious sores or areas of hair loss, whereas other cases may show no other signs other than persistent irritation. White dogs, such as West Highland White terriers and Bichon Frise are most commonly affected, though any dog can suffer with itchy skin. The most important thing to remember is that all cases of itchiness are uncomfortable, and if left untreated, can become serious. Dogs will often scratch incessantly, traumatising themselves or even introducing infection into the skin. This will complicate both diagnosis and treatment further, and so all dogs that are itchy should be brought to the vet.
There are numerous causes of itchy skin in dogs. Your vet will be able to advise you which cause they think is most likely judging from your dog’s condition. Skin conditions in dogs can be very difficult to diagnose. They often involve many tests and treatments before a diagnosis or correct management regime is identified. It’s also important to correctly follow any instructions that your vet gives you about timings of medications and treatments. This is because missing medications such as spot-on flea treatments can obstruct the pathway to diagnosis.
Common conditions causing itchiness include:
Flea allergy dermatitis:
This is an allergic reaction to flea bites. Contrary to popular belief, your dog doesn’t have to have a flea infestation to suffer from this disease. One single flea bite may set off an allergic reaction, even if the flea dies afterwards. Appropriate anti-flea medication is available for your pet if they suffer from flea allergy dermatitis, and your vet will be able to prescribe these. It’s vital that any dog with flea allergy dermatitis is kept up to date with these products. Flea allergy dermatitis is a very common cause of itchy skin in dogs. Your vet may wish to treat for fleas to eliminate this as a cause of infection prior to further treatment.
Other parasitic infestations:
Some pets will pick up other parasites such as lice or mites which can cause itchiness. Certain types of mange are intensely itchy, and some parasites causing itchiness can even be seen with the naked eye. A parasite commonly known as “walking dandruff” looks just as its name describes, and can be seen as a yellow orange creature walking on your dog’s skin. If you suspect that your pet has any unwelcome visitors living on their skin, it’s always wise to seek advice from your vet.
Insect bite reactions:
Sometimes pets will be bitten by insects, and just like on us, these bites can become intensely itchy and infected. Some pets may even go on to have dramatic reactions such as facial swelling and changes in breathing pattern. It’s vital that these cases should be seen by a vet. This is a common problem at the end of the summer months, as pets are often tempted to play with dying bumblebees and wasps. Therefore, injuries often occur to the paws and face.
Skin infections can occur either in one small place, or all over a dog’s body. Sometimes these infections will occur as a result of self trauma - particularly if a dog has been scratching or nibbling at a site that is affected by another disease (such as flea allergy dermatitis or an insect bite). Localised areas of skin infection often show as sores called “hot spots”. If left untreated, these skin infections can become very serious, and lead to blood poisoning or cellulitis of the affected areas. Sadly, I have seen one hotspot which was untreated for several weeks, causing the dog to pass away due to septicaemia. Skin infections can be tricky to treat, and often take a long course of medications to resolve. Your vet may recommend taking a swab of the affected area to deduce which antibiotic to treat your dog with. As skin infections often occur as a result of intense scratching or biting, you can appreciate how important it is to seek veterinary advice as soon as your dog becomes itchy.
Allergic Skin Disease:
Dogs can be allergic to many things, including foods, household detergents and chemicals, pollens, grasses and even human skin! “Contact allergies” occur when a dog comes into direct skin contact with something that it is allergic to. For example, a dog lying on a towel that has been washed with an allergy. Some dogs will have reactions all over their bodies, or may just get itchy feet or ear infections. If your vet suspects your pet may have allergic skin disease, they’ll be able to discuss tests with you and food trials that will help you identify the source of the problem. Allergies are often a life long condition that will need to be managed by working together with your vet.
There are many other less common causes of itchiness. Your vet will be able to discuss these with you if they feel they might be a concern for your dog.
Sometimes, pets can have two or more conditions at the same time. They may have a number of allergies, or have an infection on top of a parasitic disease. It’s therefore important to appreciate that your vet may need to run numerous tests to “get to the bottom” of the condition.
Treatments for skin conditions vary according to the cause. Some conditions will resolve quickly with special anti - parasite treatment. Whereas some cases of allergy may need long term medication to manage or reduce the signs. Your vet may even recommend a change in diet or the production of special injections for your pet as a result of further testing. It can be very frustrating owning an itchy dog – but, with help from your vet; we’re often able to massively improve the quality of life for our much loved pets!