For dog owners, this is a common sight: your pup, on its haunches, scratching itself behind the ears with an air of satisfaction. As humans, we can sympathize. When you have an itch, you just need to scratch. And while the occasional itch is perfectly normal, if you’re seeing your dog constantly scratch, it may be cause for concern.
There are a few common culprits. Mites, fleas, or ticks may be the source of the problem, or the itchiness could be caused by skin allergies. If your dog is constantly biting and scratching himself but doesn’t have external parasites such as fleas or mites, then dermatitis and pruritus could be to blame.
What is Canine Dermatitis?
As noted by the Merck Veterinary Manual, the underlying condition of itchiness is dermatitis, a broad term for inflammation of the skin caused by a variety of issues such as dryness or food allergies. When your dog has itchy skin, they’re experiencing pruritus, which is dermatitis that is very itchy. When dermatitis becomes pruritic, it can be uncomfortable for your dog, causing them to persistently scratch, chew, and lick the affected areas.
Types of Canine Dermatitis
There are several types of dermatitis that can affect your pup, and they all have similar symptoms. The causes of dermatitis conditions can range from behavioral to bacterial, so treatment plans will vary depending on the type. It’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian to find out which type of dermatitis your dog has. To do this, your vet will examine the affected areas of your dog’s skin and may analyze samples of skin cells, blood, or hair.
- Contact Dermatitis: A patch of irritated, inflamed skin caused by coming into contact with an allergen.
- Atopic Dermatitis: A chronic condition that creates red, itchy blotches on the skin.
- Acral Lick Dermatitis: A self-induced sore, usually on the legs or feet, caused by persistent licking over a long period of time.
- Flea Allergy Dermatitis: An allergic reaction, often resulting in hair loss, caused by antigens released in a flea bite.
- Acute Moist Dermatitis, or “Hot Spots”: A well-defined area of moist, itchy, and inflamed lesions that most often develop due to allergies.
Symptoms of Canine Dermatitis
There are many signs of canine dermatitis. If your dog can’t stop scratching, licking, or chewing specific areas, check their skin and coat for these common dermatitis symptoms.
Dry Skin: Dry skin often looks scaly or leathery. Feel for patches of rough, irritated skin around the area your dog is itching.
Scabs: Healing wounds can be the cause of the itch, but if you’re noticing lots of scabs on the skin, your dog needs to see the vet.
Rash: There are a variety of rashes and skin conditions your dog may have picked up, but look for discoloration, sores, or raised or flat dots.
Dandruff: Dandruff is an indication of dry skin, which can lead to itchiness. Look for white flakes on their fur or skin.
Hair Loss: While some breeds shed, if you’re finding clumps of hair on the floor or seeing visible bald spots on your dog, this is a cause for concern.
Depending on your dog’s coat, it may be difficult to notice some of these issues. And while these symptoms are likely causing the itching, there may be underlying (potentially serious) conditions that are the root cause of the problem, in which case, you should consult with a vet.
Common Causes of Itching Scratching & Biting
Pinpointing the reason why your dog scratches so much isn’t always straightforward. Dermatitis aside, there are many other reasons your dog may scratch or bite areas of their body obsessively. Below are a few common reasons your dog may be scratching their ears or biting their paws all the time.
If your dog is scratching constantly, they could be having an allergic reaction to something in their diet or environment. Make a note of your dog’s recent diet to help you identify potential food allergens. Prime suspects for canine food allergies are specific proteins such as beef or chicken and dairy products. The list for potential environmental allergens is seemingly endless. Your dog may be reacting to pollen, grass, dust mites, a household cleaner, or a pesticide, to name just a few.
For new itchy developments, think about what new products your pup may have come into contact with. Did you wash their bedding recently? Did you add fertilizer or pesticides to the grass? Once you identify these types of recent changes, you can eliminate the most likely culprits.
If your dog has always had a problem with scratching and biting, then they most likely have an allergy to something that’s a permanent presence in their life, such as grass, pollen, or dust mites. Talk to your vet about the best long-term allergy treatment for your dog.
Impetigo in dogs is an outbreak of visible sores and crusty skin, usually on the chin or stomach, and is most common in young dogs. It can be caused by a viral infection such as canine distemper or brought on by an unhygienic environment.
Puppy impetigo will improve once the underlying condition is treated. The first step is to see your vet, who will likely prescribe antibiotics for viral infections. For faster results, you can also bathe your puppy with an antibacterial shampoo until the lesions improve.
As the American Kennel Club notes, a ringworm isn’t actually a worm or parasite. It’s a rash brought about by contact with a fungus. Signs of ringworm in dogs are circular rings of redness or hair loss, sometimes described as a “bullseye rash,” and may or may not be itchy.
Ringworm is very contagious, which means your dog could have picked it up just about anywhere: a dog park, the vet, the groomer, or on a walk. This also means that your dog could potentially spread ringworm to you or other pets in your home, so it’s important to treat ringworm as soon as you see it. Your vet can provide a topical treatment and an oral anti-fungal medication.
Yeast infections in dogs are not uncommon. It’s caused by a buildup of yeast, most often in their outer or inner ear, that leads to an infection. This can be very itchy, and your dog may scratch or rub their ears or tilt their head frequently. A yeast infection in your dog’s ears is easy to spot. Look for waxy residue or scabbing around the opening of the ears. You may also notice an odor, redness, or swelling.
If you think your dog has a yeast infection, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Dog ear yeast infections can be caused by something as commonplace as allergies or as serious as a ruptured eardrum, so it’s important for your vet to identify the cause before recommending treatment. In most cases, a simple anti-fungal ointment is all that’s needed to cure your dog’s itchy ears.
Lupus in dogs manifests as sores or lesions. These will usually begin on a dog’s nose but may quickly spread to other parts of the body. Other lupus symptoms in dogs include scaly skin, itchiness, scarring, pale skin on the nose, lethargy, painful joints, and appetite loss.
Lupus requires long-term treatment to manage, though the required drugs often have severe side effects that can reduce quality of life. Sadly, many dogs with lupus do not survive either the disease itself or the treatment. If you suspect your dog has lupus, contact your vet right away.
How to Help a Dog with Skin Conditions
There are several home remedies to provide itch relief for dogs, while you wait for an appointment with your vet. Many of these will help you treat dog dermatitis at home, and they can also act as preventative measures against future itchy skin conditions.
- Adjust Diet: If an allergy is the issue, changes in diet may be necessary. PetPlate offers gently-cooked, vet-designed meals that are free of additives and fillers and contain 100% human-grade, nutrient-rich ingredients.
- Draw a Soothing Bath: The American Kennel Society recommends a variety of baths using common ingredients.
- Moisturize: Coconut oil is also a great moisturizer that will keep your dog’s skin healthy and (hopefully) itch-free.
- Exercise: Just like us, dogs can get stressed. Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise, as that’s the best outlet for them. Long, frequent walks and plenty of interactive playtime are ideal.
- Medicate: In some scenarios, over-the-counter dog shampoo for itchy skin or cortisone cream are best. Your vet will likely have recommendations based on your dog’s specific situation.
- Offer Supplements: PetPlate’s vet-designed Skin & Coat supplements are made with salmon oil, biotin, and zinc methionine, which support lustrous coats and healthy skin.
Can I Give my Dog Benadryl?
People often ask if Benadryl is OK to give to dogs with an allergic reaction. While the short answer is technically “yes,” it’s a little more complicated than that. While vets may use Benadryl from time to time, as WebMD notes, the dosage for dogs is much lower than for humans. We recommend consulting with your vet before giving your pet any kind of medication, let alone one designed for people.
Hydrocortisone cream is another human solution people often ask about. But, just like Benadryl, it isn’t designed for dogs, and shouldn’t be used without first consulting your vet.
When Should I Call My Vet?
If you notice your poor pup is constantly scratching and in obvious discomfort, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. A variety of problems could be behind this issue, and sometimes even more than one. Causes range from rash to diet, and your vet is best equipped to make the diagnosis. If you’re not sure if your dog’s itchiness warrants concern, look for the following symptoms:
- Biting, Chewing, or Licking. Your dog might resort to any of these if a simple scratch isn’t getting the job done and they could be the sign of something more serious.
- Excessive Scratching. If your dog is constantly (and aggressively) scratching at the same spot, there could be a more serious condition causing the itch.
- Odor. An unpleasant smell could be a sign of a bacterial or yeast infection, which can also cause itchiness.
What’s most important to keep in mind is that you know your dog better than anyone. If you notice behavior that you consider abnormal, then it’s best to give your vet a call. In the meantime, keep your pup healthy, happy, and safe.