Scratch scratch scratch! What on earth could be causing your dog to be so uncomfortable? Some poor canines itch and scratch to the point of self-mutilation, and the only way to break the cycle seems to be an expensive trip to the vets, a course of steroids and the wearing of the dreaded Cone of Shame!
If you’re puzzled about your dog’s itchy skin, some common causes are parasites, skin fold pyoderma, food allergies and environmental irritants. All of these can trigger dermatitis (a type of eczema) in dogs, where the skin becomes red, scaly and irritated. More information on each of these below, and some suggestions for how you might restore calm – without spending a small fortune.
Your first port of call should be checking for parasites such as fleas, mites and ticks.
Signs to look out for: with fleas - skin around the rump, tail, groin and thighs may well be irritated and red, with little scabs where bites have occurred. Just one bite can cause intensive itching for days – there doesn’t need to be an infestation. It’s similar with mites – the first sign is often hair loss from excessive scratching, dandruff and red skin. While both fleas and mites are tiny, you can usually spot them by parting the hair and looking closely.
Ticks are usually easier to spot – you’ll see or feel a small shiny bump on head, neck, ears or feet.
If there’s a positive sighting, you have many treatment options - though we prefer not to use the spot-on treatments that are recommended by vets. They contain a very intense dose of chemicals (such as pyrethroids) which are effective at killing the parasites, however there’s some evidence that they build up to toxic levels in the blood over time, and could cause health issues in themselves.
Instead what we do ourselves is thoroughly groom for 3 consecutive days using a pet-safe repellent spray and a flea comb, and physically removing the adults and eggs that way. You’ll also need to wash dog bedding, mats etc at a high temperature.
2. Skin fold pyoderma
A condition that’s becoming increasingly common, due to the rise in popularity of brachycephalic (flat-faced) dog breeds such as bulldogs and pugs. Also an issue for wrinkly skinned dogs such as the Shar Pei, skin fold pyoderma is an inflammatory skin disorder that develops in skin folds, which provide the perfect environment for bacteria and yeast to grow, and subsequently for infections to develop. The condition frequently affects facial folds, lip folds, and in the groin or armpits.
Signs to watch out for: moistness, discharge, redness, itchiness and a foul or musty smell emanating from the folds.
Suggested approach: regularly clean and dry in between your dog’s skin folds – we’d suggest using a very mild shampoo that has a pH the same as animal skin once a week. Dry off with a wad of cotton wool, then absorb any additional moisture with an antiseptic drying powder such as Biteback's Flowers & Zinc.
3. Food allergies can also cause itchy skin, as well as upset tummies and recurrent ear infections.
Signs to watch out for: intense itching and scratching; red rash and sore skin, especially on the paws,ears, face, chin, tummy and groin). With a more acute allergic reaction, hives (large swollen lumps) may be seen, which can cause some alarm, although they usually calm down pretty quickly once the irritant has been removed.
The most common allergens in dogs are proteins: beef, dairy, chicken, and eggs.
The only treatment is avoidance. Some dogs will require medication during severe episodes, but most pets can be successfully treated with a hypoallergenic diet. You should plan an elimination diet, starting with incredibly simple meals (such as a reduced ingredient commercial food or plain chicken and rice) and gradually re-introduce one ingredient at a time, to try and understand what is triggering an episode.
Some studies seem to show that a raw, non-processed diet can be good for managing skin allergies, we (mainly) feed a BARF diet to our own dogs and they seem to thrive on it.
- Environmental irritants – e.g. pollen, grass-seeds, dust
Certain breeds seem more prone to a reaction to common irritants in their surroundings. Current thinking is that there’s a genetic predisposition in the first place, which brings with it an exaggerated immune response and a poor skin barrier. This weakened barrier seems to easily let foreign bodies penetrate – such as microbes, or environmental allergens like pollens. The entry of these into the skin sets off a cycle of irritation and itchiness. The weakened barrier might also be triggered by harsh ingredients in some shampoos and grooming products.
Signs to look out for: Licking or biting their paws. Lots of scratching. Red and sore looking skin, especially around eyes, ears and between paws or on their tummy. Shaking their head and possible sneezing, wheezing and coughing as well.
If it’s pollen-related - the symptoms intensify in Spring and Summer in line with the quantities of grass pollen in the air, just like with humans. If your dog has some respite during the Autumn/ Winter months - this is a very good indicator that grass pollen may be the cause.
If you want an allergy confirmed, vets can offer an extensive range of testing – but these come at a considerable cost if not covered by insurance.
In terms of treatment, vets may prescribe antihistamines, corticosteroids, and topical ointments such as a cortisone cream or gel, to try and get on top of the reaction. Omega-3 (fish oil) and omega-6 fatty acids are common supplements used to help with itchiness and inflammation caused by a grass allergy.
What we would do:
- Daily paw washing after every walk to clean away any mud, grass seeds etc; weekly bath with a very mild, pH appropriate shampoo (such as Sweet Relief) to remove any potential allergens, paying particular attention to the undercarriage
- If there’s mild itchiness, we use the Quick-Silver spray every couple of days. It contains both ionic Silver (naturally antibacterial) and benzyl benzoate, which should help get the itching behaviour under control
- If there’s a flare-up in scratching behaviour leading to abrasions, the more moisturising Sweet Relief Silver cream is very useful. The Silver content supports the skin’s natural healing, and a visible improvement should be seen within 2-3 days.
So in a nutshell - no need to panic when you hear that scratching sound! With a little bit of attention and diligence, most itchy dog problems can be quickly and easily addressed - without breaking the bank, or making an insurance claim.
(Please do seek advice from your vet if your dog is exhibiting distress or unusual behaviour such as loss of appetite).
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