Dogs can be itchy for many reasons, and the medical term for itchiness is called pruritus. The most common causes of itchy dogs are parasites such as fleas and mites, food allergies, seasonal allergies, and skin infections. Goals of treatment are to provide comfort for your dog and therapy will depend on the diagnosis. In this article, we will discuss the most common reasons why your dog is itchy and what you can do to provide comfort and therapy.

What are the clinical symptoms of an itchy dog?

The degree to which a dog itches are based on individual factors as the pruritic threshold is different from dog to dog. Some dogs will become intensely itchy with a low level of stimulus whereas other dogs can show mild symptoms of itch with a high level of stimulus. The typical and most common signs that your dog is itchy include:

  • Excessively licking their feet and paws
  • Rubbing and scratching their face
  • Scratching and itching their armpit regions
  • Rubbing and scooting their bums
  • Recurring ear infections

What are the most common causes of itchiness (pruritus) in dogs

Ectoparasites such as fleas, mites and lice

Importantly, many dogs that are itchy because of external parasites do not have any visible signs of parasites. For example, dogs are often itchy because of the flea bite itself and the subsequent reaction to that bite. Therefore, a few fleas that are on your dog can easily go undetected. Only in heavy infestations will fleas be visibly seen, or if you're lucky to spot one scurrying around through the fur.

Sarcoptic mange predictably causes intense itchiness in dogs. Typical affected areas are around the elbows, ears and hocks (ankles). Conversely, demodectic mange usually does not cause dogs to be itchy.

Lice (pediculosis), especially the biting form, can cause dogs to be itchy. Lice will typically affect young puppies and we can visually see the knits attached to the hair shaft.

Food allergies

Food allergies are very common in dogs and itchy skin is the primary symptom. Approximately 25% of all dogs that have a food allergy will also have concurrent gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting. The most common allergy food ingredients include beef, dairy products, chicken, and lamb.

We diagnosing food allergies in dogs, your veterinarian will first determine the age at which symptoms are first noted. Food allergies are typically seen in dogs less than 6-8 months of age and will have a non-seasonal pattern to their itch. Conversely, older dogs greater than 6 years of age that first develop itchiness, and food allergies should be on the list of differential diagnoses.

Seasonal allergies

While some dogs will be itchy all year round because of a food allergy, many dogs that have seasonal allergies may become itchier during autumn when pollens are high, or in spring when grass pollens are blooming. Seasonal allergies can also be called atopy or allergic dermatitis, which is an inherited condition that develops because of a complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors. In dogs with seasonal allergies (atopy), the itchiness is usually noticed after exposure to certain allergens – typically molds or pollens.

As with food allergies, your veterinarian will inquire as to the age of your dog when symptoms are first noticed. Dogs will typically start showing signs of seasonal allergies from the ages of 1-3 years. This is because the mechanism of the allergic response requires previous exposure and therefore you will not see signs of allergy until the first few years of life.

Skin infections

Skin infections can be bacterial, fungal (yeast), or both. Dogs with skin infections will typically have concurrent hair loss, redness, and a bad odor. The most common areas for infection are the feet (particularly between the toes), armpits, and groin region. Most skin infections in dogs are secondary to other conditions, such as allergies and therefore proper management of those conditions is important.

What can you do at home to help your itchy dog?

We encourage you to reach out to your veterinarian as they can help formulate a successful treatment plan with the proper diagnosis. There are some things you can safely try at home, however. If you suspect a food allergy based on what you've learned from reading above, avoiding the most common ingredients that cause allergies is a good first start. Remember that this also includes treats and snacks!

Fish oil supplementation (omega fatty acids) can be very beneficial in dogs with seasonal allergies as they provide a natural anti-inflammatory effect. Although omega fatty acids work best when combined with additional therapies, you can safely try this at home.

Antihistamines have been shown to be somewhat beneficial in the treatment of pruritus in dogs and cats, but they are unlikely to help with acute flare-ups. Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is a safe antihistamine to use in dogs and veterinarians recommend 2 mg/kg every 8-24 hours as needed. Remember to avoid antihistamines that contain pseudoephedrine as this is extremely toxic to dogs.

Regular bathing of dogs with seasonal allergies can be very beneficial. Using a regular, aloe and oatmeal-based shampoo once weekly throughout the allergy seasons can help reduce the pollens and contaminants from your dog's fur. Take care to avoid using fragrant shampoos as they can be irritating to the dog's skin.

Itchy dogs can be frustrating and uncomfortable for both the dog and the owner. In this article, we have discussed the four most common reasons why a dog may be itchy. The goal of treatment will depend on the diagnosis, but some things you can do at home include avoiding food allergens, supplementing with fish oil, and bathing your dog regularly. If you are concerned about your dog's itchiness, please reach out to your veterinarian for help formulating a treatment plan.