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Itchy Skin in Dogs (Pruritus)

Itchy Dog Skin (Pruritus in Dogs): Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

Itchy skin, or pruritus, is a common and distressing condition in dogs that impacts their quality of life. 

The causes of dog itchy skin include allergies and parasites, infections, and underlying health disorders. 

The triggers of pruritus in dogs and the main symptoms of an itchy dog are persistent scratching, licking, or chewing of the skin, redness or inflammation of the skin, rashes or hives, hair loss in affected areas, scabs or open sores due to scratching, and behavioral changes such as increased restlessness or irritability.

Preventing a dog's itchy skin includes regular grooming, parasite control, a healthy diet, veterinary care, skin hydration, and environmental management. 

What is Itchy Dog Skin (Pruritus)?

Itchy dog skin (pruritus) is a condition in dogs characterized by persistent scratching, licking, or chewing of the skin. “Itchy dog skin (pruritus) is often caused by infectious or allergic skin diseases, such as parasites, bacteria, fungi, and hypersensitivity dermatitis,” according to the study by Favrot, C. titled “Difficult cases of canine pruritus,” 2015.

Pruritus is a distressing issue for dogs, leading to discomfort and damage to the skin. Common symptoms of pruritus in dogs include redness, inflammation, hair loss, and sores or scabs on the skin. The constant scratching and licking further exacerbate the problem, leading to secondary infections.

Pruritus significantly impacts a dog's skin health, leading to potential complications such as hot spots, thickened skin, and self-inflicted wounds when left untreated. 

What Causes Itchy Skin in Dogs?

The causes of itchy skin in dogs are listed below. 

  • Environmental Allergies (Atopy): Environmental allergies, or atopic dermatitis or atopy, occur when a dog’s immune system overreacts to typically harmless environmental substances. These substances are called allergens and include pollen, dust mites, mold spores, grasses, and weeds.
  • Food Allergies: Food allergies in dogs occur when their immune systems react adversely to certain proteins, such as beef, chicken, dairy, or wheat. Food allergies involve an immune response and often manifest as skin problems and other symptoms, unlike food intolerances, which are digestive issues.
  • Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD): FAD occurs when a flea bites a dog. The flea's saliva triggers a hypersensitivity reaction, leading to intense itching and discomfort. Flea saliva contains multiple compounds, including histamine-like substances, enzymes, and antigens, which provoke an immune response in allergic dogs.
  • Fleas: Fleas are parasites that feed on the blood of mammals, including dogs. Insects are a common external pest and cause itchy dogs.
  • Mites: Mites are tiny arthropods that infest a dog’s skin and ears, leading to conditions like mange. Mites cause sarcoptic mange (scabies) and demodectic mange (Demodicosis), leading to severe itching.
  • Ticks: Ticks are arachnids that attach to dogs to feed on their blood. Ticks cause localized irritation and are vectors for various diseases.
  • Bacterial and Fungal Infections: Bacterial infections (pyoderma) result from underlying issues like allergies or wounds. Fungal infections occur when there is an imbalance in the skin’s natural flora.
  • Dry Skin: Dry skin or xerosis, caused by low humidity, causes dogs to scratch more frequently. The condition occurs when the skin lacks sufficient moisture, leading to flakiness, itchiness, and discomfort.
  • Hormonal Imbalances: Hormonal imbalances lead to various skin issues in dogs, including itchiness. Common hormonal conditions affecting the skin include hypothyroidism and Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism).
  • Contact Dermatitis: Contact dermatitis is an inflammatory reaction to the skin that occurs when a dog comes into contact with irritating substances like certain soaps, pesticides, or plants.
  • Stress and Anxiety: Behavioral issues in dogs lead to excessive skin itching, scratching, licking, and chewing. These behavioral responses are linked to stress, anxiety, boredom, or other psychological factors rather than an underlying physical condition.

How can I Relieve My Dog's Itchy Skin?

You can relieve your dog's itchy skin using medicated shampoos, home remedies such as supplements rich in ceramides and essential fatty acids, and a healthy skincare routine.

Medicated shampoos help alleviate itching and soothe irritated skin. The shampoos contain ingredients like oatmeal, aloe vera, or hydrocortisone, which provide dog itch relief from itching and inflammation. 

Dietary supplements for dogs promote skin health. Supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, and biotin are known to improve skin condition and function as an anti-itch for dogs.

Are There Effective Treatments for Itchy Skin in Dogs?

Yes, there are effective treatments for itchy skin in dogs, such as topical and oral medications prescribed by veterinarians based on the underlying skin conditions. “A multi-faceted approach, including nonirritating baths, topical glucocorticoids, oral glucocorticoids, and antimicrobial therapy, is recommended for treating dogs with atopic dermatitis,” according to the study by Nuttall, T., Marsella, R., Rosenbaum, M., Gonzales, A., & Fadok, V. Olivry, T., DeBoer, D., Favrot, C., Jackson, H., Mueller, R., Nuttall, T., & Prélaud, P. titled “Treatment of canine atopic dermatitis: 2010 clinical practice guidelines from the International Task Force on Canine Atopic Dermatitis,” 2010.

One common topical medication recommended for dog itching is hydrocortisone cream. The cream helps relieve itching and inflammation. Oral medications such as antihistamines or steroids are necessary to control severe itching. 

Is Pruritus Common in Dogs?

Yes, pruritus is common in dogs, with diagnosis requiring a thorough examination by a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause. “Pruritus is the most common clinical manifestation of disease in dogs that causes owners to bring their pets in for treatment,” according to the study by Lobetti, R. titled “The Pruritic Dog,” 2012.

Certain breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, are more prone to skin issues due to their genetics, while German Shepherds and Bulldogs have sensitivities to specific allergens.

Is Pruritus Caused by Food Allergies?

Yes, pruritus in dogs is caused by food allergies, leading to skin irritation, itching, and discomfort. “Food allergies in dogs can cause pruritic skin disease and gastrointestinal signs, but these symptoms can be resolved when fed an elimination diet,” according to the study by Paterson, S. titled “Food hypersensitivity in 20 dogs with skin and gastrointestinal signs,” 1995.

A dog that experiences intense itching, redness, or skin inflammation due to food allergies indicates a hypersensitivity reaction triggered by specific ingredients in their diet. Common symptoms of food-related dermatitis include excessive scratching, red patches on the skin, head shaking, and ear inflammation.

What are the Symptoms of Pruritus in Dogs?

The symptoms of pruritus in dogs are listed below.

  • Scratching: Persistent scratching is the most obvious sign of pruritus.
  • Licking and Chewing: Dogs frequently lick or chew at their skin, paws, or other areas.
  • Biting: Dogs bite at their skin in an attempt to relieve itching.
  • Rubbing: Dogs rub against furniture, walls, or the ground to scratch an itch.
  • Hair Loss: Excessive scratching and chewing lead to hair loss (alopecia) in affected areas.
  • Redness and Inflammation: The skin appears red, inflamed, or irritated.
  • Sores and Scabs: Continuous scratching causes open sores, scabs, or crusty patches.
  • Thickened Skin: Chronic irritation makes skin thickened or leathery (lichenification).
  • Hot Spots: Acute moist dermatitis, or hot spots, are localized areas of inflammation and infection that result from constant licking and scratching.
  • Odor: Skin infections secondary to pruritus cause a foul odor.
  • Restlessness: Dogs with pruritus seem more restless or have difficulty settling down due to discomfort.

How can I Determine if My Dog's Itching is Due to Allergies?

You can determine if your dog's itching is due to allergies through a comprehensive evaluation by a veterinary professional. The assessment includes allergy testing, skin examinations, and a medical history review. 

Pay attention to signs that indicate allergies in dogs, such as excessive scratching, red or inflamed skin, hair loss, and recurrent ear infections. During the diagnostic process, veterinarians conduct various tests, including intradermal skin or blood tests, to identify the specific allergens triggering the dog's symptoms.

Are There Home Remedies for Alleviating Dog Itching?

Yes, there are home remedies for alleviating dog itching, such as applying coconut oil or rinsing with chamomile and green tea. 

Coconut oil has antibacterial, antifungal, and moisturizing properties that reduce itching and improve skin health. “Bathing the dog regularly with sulfur-containing soap and applying Virgin Coconut Oil can help alleviate itching and promote hair growth,” according to the study by Paraningtyas, A., Soma, G., & Suartha, I. titled “Sulfur Treatment for Scabiosis in Local Puppy,” 2023.

Chamomile and green tea have anti-inflammatory and soothing properties that calm irritated skin and reduce itching. “German chamomile extract or essential oil can be used as a home remedy for alleviating itching, and its combined with antihistamines might be effective for itching not fully resolved by conventional antihistamines,” according to the study by Kobayashi, Y., Takahashi, R., & Ogino, F. titled “Antipruritic effect of the single oral administration of German chamomile flower extract and its combined effect with antiallergic agents in ddY mice,” 2005. 

Can Dogs Develop Itchy Skin as a Result of Skin Infections?

Yes, dogs develop itchy skin as a result of skin infections caused by bacteria or fungi, leading to discomfort, inflammation, and potential complications that require veterinary treatment. “Common pruritic skin diseases in dogs can cause itchy skin,” according to the study by Sousa, C. titled “Diagnostic approach to the itchy dog,” 2013. 

Skin infections in dogs aggravate the itching sensation and manifest in different forms, such as bacterial pyoderma, fungal dermatitis, or yeast infections. Bacterial infections like pyoderma cause red, inflamed lesions, while fungal dermatitis often leads to scaly patches.

What are Some Common Signs of Skin Irritation in Dogs?

The common signs of skin irritation in dogs are listed below.

  • Excessive Scratching: Dogs scratch frequently and intensely, targeting specific areas of their bodies. When a dog scratches persistently and vigorously, it signals an underlying issue causing discomfort.
  • Licking and Chewing: Licking and chewing are behaviors in dogs that indicate skin irritation. The actions are the dog's response to discomfort, and persistent licking and chewing lead to further complications if not addressed.
  • Redness and Inflammation: Redness and inflammation are visible signs of skin irritation in dogs. They indicate that the skin has some form of insult or underlying condition. The skin appears red, swollen, or inflamed.
  • Hair Loss (Alopecia): Hair loss, or alopecia, is a noticeable sign of skin irritation in dogs. The condition is a localized or widespread patch of missing fur that occurs due to excessive scratching, licking, or chewing.
  • Sores and Scabs: Sores and scabs on a dog’s skin are indicators of underlying skin irritation or injury. The lesions result from the dog’s attempts to relieve discomfort, such as through scratching, licking, or chewing.
  • Dry, Flaky Skin: Dry and flaky skin in dogs indicates underlying health issues or environmental factors. The condition, dandruff or seborrhea, causes discomfort and leads to other symptoms if not addressed.
  • Hot Spots (Acute Moist Dermatitis): Hot spots are moist, red, and swollen areas of intense inflammation and infection that develop quickly.
  • Thickened Skin (Lichenification): The skin appears thickened and leathery, often with darker pigmentation that results from prolonged scratching, rubbing, or other forms of skin trauma.
  • Odor: A foul smell emanating from a dog's skin indicates underlying skin irritation or infection. An unpleasant odor indicates the skin's natural balance is disrupted, leading to bacterial or fungal overgrowth.
  • Behavioral Changes: Dogs are unable to communicate discomfort verbally, so they exhibit changes in behavior to express their discomfort or distress. Irritated dogs become more restless, anxious, or depressed due to the constant discomfort.
  • Rubbing Against Objects: Rubbing behavior, known as "self-trauma" or "pruritus-induced behavior," is a visible indication of discomfort to the dog's skin. Dogs rub their heads, ears, and bodies against furniture, walls, or the ground to relieve itching.

When Should I Consult the Veterinarian for My Dog's Itchy Skin?

Consult a veterinarian if your dog's itchy skin persists or worsens over time or if you notice signs of infection. Incessant scratching, redness, hair loss, or sores are indicators that the dog is suffering from a skin condition. 

A veterinary professional is able to diagnose the underlying cause of a dog's discomfort. A veterinarian delves deeper through tests, such as skin scrapings, blood work, or allergy testing, to arrive at a precise diagnosis. Professional guidance is vital as certain skin issues in canines, like allergies, parasites, and infections, require specific treatment protocols.

How Can I Prevent My Dog from Excessively Scratching?

You can prevent your dog from excessively scratching through the methods listed below. 

  • Identify and Treat the Underlying Cause: Identify and treat the underlying cause with an examination by a veterinarian who diagnoses issues such as allergies, skin infections, or parasitic infestations. Addressing the root cause with targeted treatments alleviates the scratching and improves the dog’s overall health and comfort.
  • Home Remedies and Care: Various home remedies and care strategies help reduce the dog's scratching. Regular oatmeal baths with hypoallergenic or medicated shampoos soothe irritated skin and remove allergens. Natural moisturizers, such as coconut oil or aloe vera, help alleviate dryness and itchiness. Ensuring the dog’s diet is rich in omega-3 fatty acids supports skin health and reduces inflammation. Gentle brushing helps remove loose fur and prevent matting, which exacerbates itching.
  • Environmental Control: Regularly cleaning and vacuuming the house helps reduce dust mites and other allergens. Using air purifiers minimizes airborne irritants like pollen and dander. Maintaining a humid environment prevents the dog's skin from becoming dry and itchy, especially during winter. Washing the dog's bedding frequently with hypoallergenic detergents helps eliminate potential irritants. 
  • Behavioral Interventions: Behavioral interventions address scratching that stems from stress or boredom. Ensuring the dog gets plenty of physical exercise and mental stimulation through walks, playtime, and interactive toys reduces stress-related behaviors. Training sessions that include positive reinforcement help divert the dog’s focus from scratching. 
  • Regular Vet Check-ups: Regular vet check-ups are essential in preventing excessive scratching. Check-ups ensure that flea and tick prevention measures are up-to-date and effective. Blood tests and allergy screenings conducted during these visits uncover underlying health issues contributing to itching. 

How can CBD Oil Help Dogs with Itchy Skin?

CBD oil can help dogs with itchy skin by reducing inflammation, alleviating discomfort, soothing irritated skin, and promoting overall skin health as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. “CBD/CBDA oil decreased pruritus, but not skin lesions, associated with atopic dermatitis in dogs,” according to the study by Loewinger, M., Wakshlag, J., Bowden, D., Peters-Kennedy, J., & Rosenberg, A. titled "The effect of a mixed cannabidiol and cannabidiolic acid-based oil on client‐owned dogs with atopic dermatitis,” 2022.

CBD oil for dogs with itchy skin has calming effects, helping to reduce anxiety-related behaviors that exacerbate their skin condition. The anti-inflammatory properties of CBD oil support the skin's healing process, aiding in the regeneration of damaged skin cells.