My dog keeps scratching. Why does this happen and what should I do?

by Cate Burnette, RVT

With the advent of warm weather, many pet parents notice their dogs begin to itch and scratch consistently, often licking and biting their paws, ears, and bellies to the point where there is significant hair loss and open wounds on the skin. Living with an allergic pup can be a constant battle with skin infections, sores, and hot spots – unless you can learn why they occur and what you can do to help prevent them.

What are the causes of the different types of canine skin allergies?

There are several types of skin allergies that can affect your dog and cause her pain and itching.

Atopic dermatitis, called canine atopy, is fairly common, affecting approximately 10 percent of all dogs, most particularly Golden and Labrador retrievers, Lhasa apsos, Dalmatians, poodles, boxers, bulldogs, West Highland white terriers, wire fox terriers, and Irish and English setters.

Dogs afflicted with atopy react first to air-borne pollens, which explains why your pooch may be itchier in the spring and fall months when pollen and ragweed are at their highest levels. Eventually, your dog will show signs of allergic reactions to mold, dust, feathers, and wool – all of those same airborne allergens that can affect you. The constant itching and scratching can lead to hair loss, with her skin becoming flaky and thick. You may even notice signs of a runny nose and eyes and frequent ear infections.

Flea allergy dermatitis is the most common skin allergy seen in dogs. Often, just the bite of a single flea can cause a pup sensitive to certain substances in flea saliva to break out in red, inflamed bumps on the skin and severe itching. This type of reaction is at its worst in high summer when fleas are most common, but can last all year round if you don’t have good flea control in your home.

Once the fleas have been eliminated, your dog may need topical and oral antibiotics to clear up any secondary skin infections and natural grooming products to bring her coat and skin back to normal. An all-natural flea spray containing no pesticides or poisons can keep the pests away while restoring your pet’s hair and skin to its optimal condition.

Food allergies occur when some substance in your pet’s food causes her body to react in the way it does with airborne allergens. Common triggers include wheat and corn products and protein-heavy foods, such as meat/beef, dairy, and chicken. In many cases, a dog can go for years eating the same kind of food without a reaction, and then develop a sudden sensitivity to it.

Typical symptoms of food allergies include facial itching, foot or leg chewing, recurrent ear infections, and belly itching. You can suspect your pup has food allergies if the itchiness is not a seasonal problem like atopy, if she isn’t responding to cortisone-types of veterinary medications, and if her skin issues developed after the age of 5 or 6.

Contact dermatitis is a fairly uncommon disease caused by direct contact of your pet’s skin with certain plants and grasses, medications, and particular chemicals. Humans are much more susceptible to contact skin allergies than canines because a dog’s hair coat works as a barrier to the allergen. However, if your pooch is sensitive to certain irritants or chemicals like those found in flea collars or particular grasses, you’ll notice the signs on the parts of her body making direct contact with the substance – around her neck, on her belly, legs or feet.

Depending on the substance, you’ll start to see red, itchy bumps appear within 24 to 48 hours after contact with the offending substance if your dog is allergic. If she experiences an irritant reaction, the signs are almost immediate, with painful blisters and ulcerations appearing on her skin. She is liable to develop secondary bacterial skin infections due to the subsequent inflammation and trauma.

How can my veterinarian tell what is going on?
Your veterinarian will want a complete history during his or her initial examination of your pet to rule out any food or contact allergies. You may be asked to stop feeding your dog her normal food and give her several different specially-formulated hypoallergenic diets to see if the itching abates while she’s eating one of them.

Typically, veterinarians take hair and skin samples to look for bacterial and yeast infections, and, if the irritation is particularly widespread, may ask to draw a blood sample to check a white blood cell count and prescribe appropriate antibiotics.

Your vet may also suggest that you take your dog to a veterinary dermatologist for a series of skin patch tests to determine which allergens are specifically causing her problems.

What are the veterinary treatments for skin allergies?
Traditional veterinary treatments typically revolve around removing the irritant from your dog’s presence. You’ll need to change her to an all-natural, hypoallergenic diet if food is determined to be the cause of her itching. You may have to clean and wipe her feet if grass is the problem, and in the case of air-borne allergens, your vet may suggest keeping her inside during times of high pollen counts or other irritants.

Veterinary shampoos containing antibiotics are often prescribed to help the skin heal and your pet may be given systemic antibiotics to clear up any lingering skin infections. Typically, veterinarians also prescribe either oral or injectable steroids to be given over a period of 1 to 2 weeks to help stabilize your pet’s immune system.

How can I treat my dog’s itchy skin with natural ingredients?
Once you’ve gotten a diagnosis and treatment from your veterinarian on any secondary skin infections, you’re left with the problem of your dog’s itchy, flaky skin. All-natural topical treatments, including organic shampoos and conditioners, can reverse the skin and hair damage caused by biting and scratching without the side effects of chemicals. Look for these types of ingredients in doggy bath products to return your pet to her healthy, happy self.

The following organics are just a few of the ingredients that can help keep your dog from itching:

Aloe Vera maintains the natural pH balance of your pet’s hair and skin, while encouraging cell growth. Aloe vera’s amino acids protect against skin damage, aid in preventing recurring flare-ups of inflammation, and soothe the skin.

Organic Chamomile reduces inflammation, strengthens your pet’s skin, and softens and smooths skin roughened by incessant scratching and biting. A shampoo or leave-in conditioner containing chamomile can keep your dog’s hair shiny and clean, while moisturizing her skin at the same time.

Organic Coconut Oils contains naturally occurring vitamins, anti-oxidants, proteins, and fats to protect your dog’s hair and skin. Absorbing quickly into your dog’s skin cells, coconut oil will leave her hair supple and shiny, and can guard against sun damage.

Organic Oatmeal is a natural moisturizer and anti-inflammatory, reducing the redness and itching that comes with skin allergies. An oatmeal-based shampoo during bath time can bring relief for dogs suffering from skin irritations and hot spots.

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