Itchy skin is a common problem for many animals. A dog with itchy skin will excessively scratch, lick or bite its skin, and the skin will become hot and lose its hair. If the scratching is severe, it might even have cuts and scabs, or a bad odour. The itching can be confined to just one area, or affect the dog’s entire body. This can make a dog absolutely miserable and understandably quite irritable.
What are the causes of itchy skin?
Itchy skin is not a condition in itself, but a sign of some other disease. The most common causes in Canberra are allergies. Atopic dermatitis is an allergy to airborne particles such as pollens, moulds or grasses, and causes itchiness of the face, armpits, groin and feet. The cause may never actually be isolated, or it may be widely dispersed in the air and therefore unavoidable.
- Mites can also cause itchiness when they wander over the skin, bite it or burrow into it.
- Yeasts and bacteria often compound the problem as they infect inflamed skin, increasing the itch.
- Many dogs have itchiness due to fleas. When a flea bites a dog its saliva can sometimes trigger an allergic reaction, and just one flea bite can cause itchiness for weeks! Flea allergy dermatitis usually affects the dog’s rump.
- Some dogs will have itchiness due to endocrine diseases like hypothyroidism.
Things to think about in itchy dogs.
- Age. If your dog is young, it may have a congenital tendency to skin disease. If you have an older dog, it might be predisposed to another illness that could cause itchiness as a result.
- Other animals in the environment. Whether in the house or wildlife, other animals can act as a source of fleas, mites, yeasts and other infectious agents that can cause itchiness.
- Diet. Some animals become allergic to components of their diet, often this is the protein source for that diet.
- Breed. Some breeds are more predisposed than others to contracting skin disease.
- Seasonality. Some conditions are more commonly seen in certain periods of the year. For example, flea populations increase in warm and humid weather, and atopic animals with allergies to pollens can experience an allergy flare when spring and summer grasses flower, much as we do with hay-fever.
What tests can the vet do?
The first thing the vet will do is physically examine your dog, looking for any rashes, scabs or inflamed areas. A flea comb may be used to look for fleas and other skin parasites. Smaller agents such as mites, bacteria and yeasts can only be seen under a microscope, so samples from the skin may need to be taken. This could include a swab, a sticky tape test (where the skin is gently squeezed and sticky tape is pressed against it), a skin scraping (where a scalpel blade is scraped against the superficial skin layer) or an impression smear (where a slide is pressed directly against the skin). Blood tests are required if endocrine disease is suspected.
Fleas are treated by using regular preventative flea treatments on all animals in the house at the same time and by removing fleas from the dog’s bedding and environment. Vet branded monthly top spots or tablets are proven to be more effective in removing fleas from the dog than those found elsewhere. Mite infestations require a combination of medicated shampoos and oral medication for some months. Food allergies are diagnosed by exclusion diets and treated by avoiding the offending food. Allergies are managed with medications that reduce the itch, as well as treating the secondary bacteria or yeast that colonise the inflamed skin and aggravate the irritation. Omega 3 supplements, medicated shampoos, cortisone and other medications that reduce itch are often helpful too. Endocrine diseases are treated with hormonal supplements. Recheck appointments are valuable to monitor progress and ensure your pet has maximum comfort whilst minimising the side effects of medications.