How do you change dog scratching habits? The answer is to find the underlying reason why the dog keeps scratching and treat that. This article will take a look at some possibilities.
Why is my dog scratching so much?
A dog licking and scratching themselves raw is only a symptom. Itchiness isn’t a diagnosis in itself, merely a sign that something is wrong. The trick to stop dog scratching is to pinpoint the driving force. The most common triggers for excessive scratching in dogs are parasites or allergies. A vet is best able to track down the problem. Seek a professional opinion sooner rather than later, before the dog damages their skin and creates complications.
Itchy and Scratchy Symptoms
Does your dog sleep on the bed? If so, you’ll be well aware of the dog scratching all the time. There’s nothing quite like the quiet of the night, with no distractions, for being the time to satisfy the urge to itch. As an owner, take note of where the dog scratches. (And no, we don’t mean “in the kitchen” or “in the living room.”)
Some dogs scratch their ears, others their belly, while others rub their faces. This gives the vet clues as to the nature of the problem.
What Can You Look For?
In fact, a dog scratching is not the only clue to itchiness. Some like to scoot their faces across the carpet or commando-crawl on their bellies across concrete as a means of quelling an itch. Then there are the lickers. Licking can also be a sign of itchiness. A tell-tale sign of a secretive licker is brown saliva-staining of the fur.
The classic places to check include the paws, butt, and belly. Unfortunately, excessive dog scratching can damage their coat and/or skin. This results in hair loss or skin infections, which require treatment.
When to Seek Help
Does this sound familiar? “My dog is constantly scratching and biting himself!”
Excessive biting, licking, or scratching is not normal and needs to be looked into. To ignore the problem means risking complications such as yeast infections (causing greasy skin) or bacterial invaders (creating weeping sores.)
Indeed, any change in habits could mean the dog is uncomfortable. Something as simple as a dog scratching their face could be a clue to any number of issues, from a grass awn stuck in the ear canal to sore teeth. A dog scratching and losing hair or making their skin red definitely needs to be checked by a vet. Get your canine companion seen at the earliest hint of discomfort, and dodge unnecessary distress.
What Causes Dog Scratching?
Top-most in your vet’s mind when presented with a dog scratching is to think, “Does this dog have parasites?” If a bug hunt proves negative, next under the spotlight is, “Could this dog have allergies?”
Parasites and Excessive Itchiness
Who hasn’t experienced the intense itchiness of a mosquito bite? I bet you couldn’t help but scratch! Just like mosquito or flea bites irritate human skin, the same can happen to dogs. Indeed, some dogs even have an allergy to flea bites, which makes them super-itchy.
Fleas are public enemy number one when it comes to dog scratching. But when going on a flea hunt, be aware that fleas hop on to feed, but actually live off-dog in soft furnishings or the yard. Fleas aren’t the only itchy hitch-hiker that can set a dog scratching. A bug identity parade of ‘most unwanted’ includes:
- Cheyletiella: A mite with the nickname “walking dandruff.”
- Lice: Yuck! A different species to human head lice, but super-itchy regardless
- Sarcoptic Mange Mites: These highly infectious scavenger mites are common on wildlife
Parasites play such a leading role in a dog licking and scratching that the vet will eradicate bugs first, before doing other tests. If the fleas are gone and the patient is still itchy, then it’s time to dig deeper.
Allergies and the Urge to Scratch
Do you suffer the misery of hay fever? The runny nose and streaming eyes are due to an allergy to pollen. Well, dogs also experience “hay fever.” But the symptoms affect their skin, rather than nose and eyes. You guessed it! Allergies make dogs itchy. Unfortunately, dogs can be allergic to anything from pollens to grass sap, from perfume to air freshener, from dust mites to mold spores.
A dog’s best defense against allergies is healthy skin. Unfortunately, scratching and licking damages the skin. This can allow secondary invaders in, such as yeasts and bacteria. What’s ironic is these secondary infections are also itchy, which creates the cliché of a vicious circle.
Why is My Dog Scratching so Much? Reaching a Diagnosis
First off, go on a flea hunt. Look for those tell-tale flecks of dark dust in the coat. Capture some on a piece of damp cotton wool. If there’s an orange halo around each speck, this is flea dirt. In this scenario, the first step is to treat the dog against fleas. If the dog scratching has not improved a month later, the vet may suggest further investigation.
Typical actions include:
- Running a blood test to detect sarcoptes mites
- Bathing the dog with medicated shampoo to strength skin health
- A course of antibiotics if infection is present
- The dog is put on a hypoallergenic diet for eight weeks, in case they have a food allergy
Oh dear, still itchy!
- Blood or skin tests for allergies
- A skin biopsy
How to Stop a Dog from Scratching: Treatment
You can do a surprising amount at home to make an itchy dog more comfortable. This includes:
- Regular use of an effective flea preventative product
- Bathing the dog with a hydrating shampoo to wash allergens off the skin’s surface
- Feeding the dog a diet rich in antioxidants to strengthen skin immunity
- Giving a dietary supplement containing omega 3 & 6 oils, which are natural anti-inflammatories
- Reducing the levels of potential allergens, such as aerosol products, in the home
But if the dog keeps scratching, the vet needs to get involved. The vet will attempt to identify and treat the cause of the itch. This includes using antibiotics, medicated shampoos, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Options for Treatment
If an allergy is diagnosed, there are options for treatment. Traditionally, this involves using drugs that suppress the itch (we’ll look at these shortly) but there are other non-drug options. These include:
- Immunotherapy vaccines: A bespoke vaccine is developed. This contains small amounts of the allergen that triggers the dog’s itch. The idea is that giving small, but increasing amounts of allergen. This allows the immune system to get used to the allergen and turn off the unwanted exaggerated response.
- Biological therapies: The latest kid-on-the-block is Cytopoint. This injection, given every 4 – 8 weeks, isn’t a drug but an antibody. It takes out the pathway that triggers the itch, stopping it from developing.
Sadly, both of the above are expensive. However, there are a wide range of anti-inflammatory drugs which are also highly beneficial:
- Steroids: Inexpensive and extremely effective. However, a high risk of side effects means they’re often not first choice.
- Cyclosporine (Atopica): Originally developed to prevent organ rejection in transplant medicine, these help switch off the unwanted immune response. Effective and relatively side-effect-free, but expensive!
- Oclacitinib (Apoquel): A relatively new anti-itch medication, this works really well for some dogs and is almost side-effect-free. Sadly, this also is expensive.
Once an Itchy Dog, Always an Itchy Dog? Outlook and Prevention
There’s good news and bad news. A dog scratching because of parasites can be cured. Getting rid of the bugs stops the itch. The less welcome news is that allergies can’t be cured, but only controlled. This means taking lots of small steps. Making several minor changes adds up to a big increase in comfort. Strategies to reduce the itch include:
- Limiting exposure to allergens
- Improving skin health
- Washing allergens off the skin
- Controlling secondary infections, such as yeasts or bacteria
- Use of therapies such as immunotherapy vaccines
- Drugs to reduce the itch
Why is My Dog Scratching so Much?
The occasional lazy scratch of the ear is quite normal. Excessive scratching in dogs is not. Common things like fleas are an obvious cause of itchiness. But if your dog doesn’t have fleas, the explanation can be complicated.
If in doubt see the vet early, to avoid unnecessary complications such as hair loss or infections. After all, if the dog sleeps on the bed, getting rid of the itch means you get a better night’s sleep.
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References and Resources
- Bensignor, E. & Fabries, L. ‘Use of Antipruritic and Rehydrating Foams on Localized Legions of Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs: A Small-Scale Pilot and Comparative Double-Blinded Study‘, Veterinary Dematology (2018)
- Diaz, S. ‘Canine Atopic Dematitis‘, MSD Veterinary Manual (2020)
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
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