Help! My Dog Won’t Stop Itching!!
We often hear of dogs with a chronic and insistent itching problem. And guess what? The problem can’t always be prevented by a flea collar. Sometimes other pet medication is needed. The chronic scratching can drive us crazy so imagine how the poor itchy dog must feel. There are a number of reasons why your dog might non-stop scratch and require some form of pet medication. Below I will list and try to explain 6 reasons why your dog might scratch himself.
Environmental Skin Disorders
Animals with environmental skin disorders are physically and nutritionally normal, but may still show signs of itchy skin, hair loss and skin irritation. Believe it or not, many dogs are very sensitive to simple lawn grasses. Enter detective mode to try to match what is visible on your dogs’ skin, with a possible environmental irritant. Once a possibility has been found, corrective measures can be taken. An example is Moist Eczema, which is often referred to as a “Hot Spot”. Often as a result of moisture on the skin surface from rain, pond or lake water, skin lesions can occur. Minute scratches on the skin from, for example, a clipper blade or tree branch, may trigger other cases. Especially in dense coated dogs or dogs where there is an accumulation of mats or shedding hair, moisture on the skin may remain long enough to allow superficial bacteria to reproduce and create an infection. Some cases of Moist Eczema will spread very rapidly and require rather aggressive pet medication to correct. Contact with some plastics can create an environmental pet skin disorder.
Nutritional Skin Disorders
Correction of these cases of itchy dog should be a very simple and no pet medication is required. Unfortunately, many dogs and cats are in less than optimum health their entire lives, because of being fed the least expensive food possible. Often the owner feels this food is ok for their pet because of the “Complete and Balanced” marketing blurb on the packaging!
Hundreds of dogs and cats lives have improved dramatically just by changing to a high quality, meat-based diet. Without proper nourishment, a dog’s entire body, not just its skin and coat, will be continuously in a state of stress. High quality meat-based dog foods seldom, if ever, create skin and coat problems. If you feed dry commercial dog food, make sure that the first ingredient listed is meat such as beef, poultry, lamb or fish.
What about dog supplements? Supplements will absolutely help! (expect an upcoming article on dog supplements) However, if your dog’s diet is a high quality, meat-based brand, the need for supplements or other pet medication is much less important. Sometimes a supplement such as omega fatty acids, vitamins and table scraps can help a dog that is eating a generic, commercial dry dog food. Many types of dermatological problems are avoided if the dog or cat is consuming an optimum diet
Parasitic Skin Disorders
Pet owners most commonly associate dog scratching with fleas. Often this guess is correct. Fleas are big enough that they can be seen scurrying along the dog’s skin surface trying to hide within the forest of fur.
- There are a number of highly effective and safe flea pet medications and natural flea remedies. Fleas are ubiquitous, but an understanding of their life cycle, where they hide in the dog’s environment, and utilizing modern pharmacology breakthroughs, no dog needs to be “driven crazy” with itchy skin, hair loss, scabs and infections as a result of flea infestation. Also, repeated exposure to fleas can trigger a hypersensitivity to the bite of even a single flea. In some cases a simple flea itch can turn into a complicated allergy itch from the flea’s saliva. It is very important to get rid of dog and cat fleas as soon as possible.
- The common tick rarely triggers itchy skin or allergic reactions on dogs, but on occasion will leave an ulcerative lesion that is notoriously slow to heal. Gnats (sometimes called No-See-Ums) can be considered nuisances and generally do not create remarkable systemic skin problems for a dog. Local treatment with first aid ointments generally is successful and no pet medication is needed.
- Cheyletiella mites look like tiny spiders under a magnifying glass and are often called “Walking Dandruff” because upon close inspection it seems like little flakes of dry skin are actually moving about. Partly because they live on the surface of the skin, these tiny critters can be eliminated easily by using any common flea shampoo and no further pet medication is needed.
- Sarcoptic mites can be a terrible problem and can only be solved with pet medication. Also called scabies or red mange, they create very intense itchy skin, alopecia, and inflamed skin with multiple small scabs often present. Sarcoptic mite infestation, more than any other entity, is frequently misdiagnosed as Allergic Pet Skin Disorder. Unfortunately, many dogs are treated with cortisone for a supposed allergic dermatitis when in fact these Sarcoptic mites are the cause of the itchy, inflamed skin
- Then there are also Demodex mites – also called “mange”. These parasites live and reproduce just under the skin surface in the tiny hair follicles and oil glands of the dog’s skin. Demodex mites can be seen on a skin scraping viewed under the microscope. Demodex is most commonly seen in young dogs. In adult dogs, Demodex cases seem to be associated with dogs that are stressed from disease, poor nutrition, immune disorders or a harsh environment. If the dog is otherwise healthy, there are effective treatment protocols or pet medications for Demodex. On the “itch scale”, Demodex causes very little itchy skin. On the “baldness scale” Demodex creates mottled and patchy hair loss.
Infectious Skin Disorders
Bacterial, fungal and yeast organisms can lead to terrible skin and coat problems. Fungal organisms are called dermatophytes and ringworm is an example. Transmissible to other dogs (and occasionally some strains of fungi can be transmitted to humans) your veterinarian can diagnose, prescribe a pet medication and treat skin fungal infections in the office. Yeasts can irritate an already diseased skin surface. Yeast infections typically create greasy, smelly and itchy signs in affected dogs. The skin is stressed by the waste products of the organisms and responds by releasing histamine – which triggers further inflammation and itchy skin. If a yeast infection is diagnosed, there’s generally something else going on such as Hypothyroidism, chronic administration of cortisone medication or dietary fatty acid deficiency.
Bacterial dermatitis rarely occurs spontaneously, since normal healthy skin has vast amounts of a variety of bacteria present all the time. Anything that damages the healthy, intact skin will hamper the skin’s defense mechanisms. Any Environmental problems caused contact with grass, plastic, an abrasion or moisture, can adversely affect the skin’s defensive barriers; at this point bacteria have a much greater opportunity to take hold. Damage to your dogs skin from parasites can also allow invasion by bacteria and trigger the body’s healing defense mechanisms.
Infectious pet skin disorders are often is so irritating that dogs will lick continuously at the lesion and undo any healing that has taken place. Typical of bacterial dermatitis is a moist, sticky, inflamed skin lesion along with hair loss. These areas can spread rapidly and even be transposed to other areas of the skin through biting, licking, and scratching of previously uninfected areas.
The treatment for Infectious Dermatitis often includes clipping the hair from the area to allow natural air drying. Applying a gentle topical pet medication may also be helpful; similarly, oral antibiotics may help to fight the organisms that are invading the skin. Whenever an infection is present, the decision to use cortisone needs to be very carefully evaluated. Consider antihistamines as a better choice of oral pet medication in this case.
Allergic Skin Disorders
Skin allergies can be a common affliction for your dog, lifelong, as well as a challenge to diagnose. Even after they have been identified, they can be resistant to treatment or pet medication. All the other categories of skin disorders must be ruled out before a diagnosis of Allergic skin disorders can be made. A variety of materials can trigger a pet’s allergic skin disorder – food ingredients, synthetic and natural fibers, medications and pharmaceutical products, plant material and even dust. Other materials your pet could be allergic to include carpeting, blankets, dust mites, mold spores in the air, pollen, plastic food dishes, furniture stuffing and ornamental plants. Even common bacteria on the dog’s skin can provoke an allergic reaction to themselves! Food allergies are so common that pet food manufacturers have invested millions of dollars in research, development, promotion and delivery of “antigen specific” diets to help in the treatment of dogs with food allergies.
How do allergies develop? On occasion, a dog’s various immune responses may over-react to a certain material and “learn” to recognize this substance in case of future contact with it. The offending agent is called an antigen. Flea saliva is a good example of an antigen that triggers “flea bite” hypersensitivity. When an antigen makes contact with the dog, the dog’s immune defenses set to work to disarm the antigen. Unfortunately, side effects of the battle can cause tissue irritation, inflammation, swelling and cell destruction. That’s when you notice the dog going into the “itch-and-scratch-bite-and-lick” mode!
Skin and blood tests are common methods of identifying what the dog or cat is allergic to. Probably the most common type of Allergic Skin Disorder seen in dogs is Atopic Dermatitis. This situation is triggered by a number of antigens including inhaled substances such as molds, dust, pollens and other static and airborne microscopic organic substances. Dogs with Atopy lick and chew at their paws and scratch their face, eyelids and ears. This disorder can be very troubling for dogs and frustrating for the owner. One minute the dog may look and feel normal, the next it will chew its paw or face raw from the intense itchy skin.
The treatments of allergic skin disorders include topical medicated soothing baths, ointments and sprays and other pet medications. The use of oral antihistamines can neutralize some of the destructive effects of internally released histamine. More effective in alleviating the discomfort of allergies is cortisone. WARNING: If you are sent home with a prescription for cortisone, or your dog has simply been given “a cortisone shot to stop the itching”, your dog may ultimately be worse off than before if the true diagnosis happens to be an unrecognized case of Sarcoptic mites!
Unfortunately there is no cure for allergies! It is important to avoid the food, material or parasite that is triggering the immune response and desensitize your dog through immune modulation techniques. Make sure your dog is eating a high quality diet and try to eliminate some symptoms through taking pet medication.
Neurogenic Skin Disorders
Neurogenic skin disorders are a major challenge to diagnose and treat. The most commonly seen form of Neurogenic Pet Skin Disorder is called Acral Lick Dermatitis or Lick Granuloma.
Although rarely seen in cats, in the dog something creates an impulse to lick at a specific area of skin. Characterized by persistent, obsessive licking and chewing at the target area, lick granulomas may have an unknown origin. The most common speculations about cause are boredom, separation anxiety, frustration, confinement, or even a minor physical origin such as a tiny abrasion that captivates the dog’s interest. No specific pet medication can be used to prevent this skin disorder. The dog persists in irritating the area, generally an easily accessible limb or ankle area, and never allows the skin to heal. Scarring can occur as the cycle of irritation, partial healing, and repeated trauma occurs. Deep bacterial infections are common and permanent skin damage results. These resulting (side-effect) infections and or skin damage can be treated with pet medication as recommended by your vet.
In summary, keep in mind that any dog whose skin and coat are not in optimal health needs immediate attention and possible pet medication because that dog surely does not feel well. Each category of “Pet Skin Disorder” must be evaluated, categories need to be ruled out, and a final diagnosis needs to be established BEFORE proper, effective treatment begins and pet medication can be prescribed. Expect laboratory work, skin scrapings and blood tests to be required to reach that diagnosis.
If your dog is suffering from Chronic Itching, all is not hopeless, but you must consult your vet immediately. Be persistent in trying to identify the cause and then pursuing a treatment, if necessary including pet medication and remember you may need a referral to a specialist.