Irritated, itchy skin may prompt dogs to scratch, lick, and chew themselves to the point of skin injury. These symptoms are often caused by parasites, infections, or allergies that have the potential to make your dog miserable and leave you wondering what’s going on and how you can help.
Unfortunately, such skin irritations are common in dogs, but the good news is, they can be effectively treated or managed with a combination of home care, preventive measures, and veterinary intervention.
Causes of Irritation
There are many potential reasons for your dog's itchy skin. In some cases, the cause is obvious, such as when a dog has a severe flea infestation. In others, pinning down the problem may take some time and sleuthing. Once you and your vet get to the root of the problem, you can develop a treatment plan so your dog will be comfortable again.
It's relatively common for dogs to be affected by one or more external parasites. These tiny critters live on or in your dog's skin and can cause a lot of irritation and itching.
The most common skin parasites are:
- Fleas: Flea allergy dermatitis is an allergic reaction to flea saliva, which is transferred by flea bites.
- Ticks: Tick bites may itchy in and of themselves or become infected. If this happens, the skin may show signs of irritation within a few days of the bite.
- Mange: Sarcoptic mange (canine scabies) and demodectic mange are caused by different skin mites. A dog with sarcoptic mange experiences intense itching in the affected areas while large numbers of demodex mites typically cause hair loss with or without itching. Proper diagnosis and identification by your veterinarian are critical for correct treatment.
Skin infections show up relatively frequently in dogs too. An infection may be caused by microscopic bacteria or fungi that infect the skin.
- Bacterial infection: Pyoderma is a bacterial infection often caused by Staphylococcus bacteria (commonly called staph), but other bacteria may be involved as well. Bacterial infections often develop secondary to allergies or other skin problems including hot spots in dogs.
- Yeast infection: Malassezia dermatitis is a fungal infection caused by an overgrowth of the body's normal yeast. Yeast infections may also occur secondary to allergies or other health problems.
- Ringworm: Despite its name, this is not an actual worm. It's a contagious fungal infection that can affect pets and humans. Ringworm generally causes patches of itchy skin and hair loss.
Canine Atopic Dermatitis
Canine atopic dermatitis is precipitated by environmental allergens, like pollen, mold and dust mites. Reactions to these triggers can cause itchy skin, inflamed ears, and sometimes goopy eyes in your dog. There are medications available to help ease these allergic reactions. For severe skin problems, your vet may recommend allergy testing followed by desensitization therapy.
It is less common for dogs to develop allergies to certain foods. Most dogs with food allergies are allergic to the protein source in their food, such as chicken or beef. Some dogs are allergic to carbohydrate ingredients like corn or wheat.
Many dogs with food allergies do well on diets with novel (something your dog has not been exposed to) ingredients. Generally, this type of food contains one main protein (e.g., duck or fish) and one main carbohydrate (e.g., sweet potato). Another option is a hydrolyzed food made with proteins that have been broken down into tiny pieces that don't stimulate the immune system. The best hypoallergenic dog foods require veterinary approval before they can be purchased.
Many options are available to help soothe your dog's skin. Your veterinarian will be able to help you start a treatment program that should offer relief for your pooch fairly quickly.
Recommendations may include allergy medications, prescription flea treatments, drugs to treat mange or infections, medicated shampoos, or a change in food. However, it's important to understand that some skin problems in dogs, like allergies, are ongoing issues that cannot be cured and instead need to be managed over time.
Preventing Skin Irritation
It's important to be proactive about skin issues in your dog so they don't get out of hand, and you can do a number of things on a regular basis to prevent the irritation from flaring up again.
- Use flea and tick preventives regularly and throughout the year. It's important for all dogs, but even more so for those that have a history of flea allergies. Just a couple of bites from a flea can cause major discomfort or impede your treatment efforts.
- Make sure you know how to properly remove ticks from your dog, just in case one latches on despite your precautions. You want to pull the tick straight out with no twisting or turning and be very careful not to squeeze the tick's body to help prevent infections.
- Many flea preventatives also protect dogs from sarcoptic mange mites. A healthy immune system is essential to preventing overgrowth of demodex mites, so make sure your dog eats well, gets plenty of exercise, and sees the vet regularly.
- Ensure that you're feeding your dog a proper diet. High-quality foods should include the nutrients needed to promote healthy skin and coat. Many owners prefer a natural diet. Work with your vet to find the right food for your dog.
- Bathe your dog. Using a soothing shampoo, such as those with oatmeal or aloe, can bring a lot of relief to itchy dogs. There are many on the market that are designed specifically for irritated skin. Depending on your dog's condition, your vet may recommend a medicated shampoo as well.