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Are you scratching your head over your dog’s incessant itching, licking, and rolling around on the rug? You may be feeling itchy yourself, just from watching all of this activity.

Well, there are a variety of reasons why your dog may be itchy, but veterinarians agree that the sooner you can discover the cause, the better. While scratching the occasional itch can be normal for dogs, when it happens more frequently it could indicate a medical condition that can get worse over time.

Allergic dermatitis, the condition that causes itchy skin, was the top reason pet owners took their dogs to the vet from 2012 to 2019, according to a 2019 Nationwide Survey on pet insurance data. Here are a few causes, symptoms, and treatments that can help you get to the heart of the problem.

Possible Causes for Itchy Skin

So, what’s behind your dog’s constant itching? Typically, it’s caused by a medical condition called allergic dog itch. This means your dog’s skin is reacting to an allergen somewhere in her environment. There are a number of potential culprits:

  • Fleas. Much like mosquito bites cause an allergic reaction and itch in humans, flea bites create extremely itchy spots for your poor dog. Flea bites can be found anywhere on the body, but are most common at her hind legs, tail base, and rear end where fleas typically love to hide. Just because you don’t see any fleas does not mean they aren’t there – and a bite from just a single flea can cause itchy skin.
  • Environmental. Many allergic reactions stem from common environmental triggers, like pollens, mold spores, or dust mites. Environmental allergens can cause itch during certain seasons, or even year-round. If you notice your pup scratching, rubbing, and licking – or see skin changes like redness or hair loss – it might be due to an allergen in her environment.
  • Food. Your dog’s itching might be a sign that her diet needs an adjustment. Some dogs are allergic to common dog food ingredients such as beef, chicken, and dairy. Dog food allergies can cause itchy skin, especially on the feet, face, armpits, or belly. Talk to your vet if you suspect your pet might have a food allergy.
  • Skin Infections. While not technically an allergy, yeast and bacterial infections can be a cause of itch and extremely uncomfortable for dogs. The skin is often red and greasy and can have a distinct odor. Yeast typically affects areas of folded skin, like ears, neck, under the tail, and around or in between your dog’s toes.  Bacterial infections can be found anywhere and are often the result of irritated or damaged skin from scratching.

Any of these can cause discomfort for your dog. And, if left untreated, can present new problems. When a dog licks or scratches an area excessively, it can create a condition known as a hot spot — red, inflamed, oozing skin that’s extremely itchy and painful. Continued licking only worsens the issue and hot spots require treatment by a veterinarian.

How to Treat Your Dog’s Itchy Skin

Because these symptoms and issues show up on the skin, it can be tempting to try an over-the-counter treatment or home remedy. However, treating your dog’s itch with an over-the-counter or at-home solution typically isn’t enough because many fail to effectively treat the root cause.

The following treatment options are commonly available and may offer some relief but may not be the right option if your dog requires long-term treatment.

  • Over-the-counter shampoos and oils. Most topical treatments only provide temporary relief and don’t get to the root of the problem. Every dog’s skin is different, and if your dog has skin allergies, common ingredients in these over-the-counter products might actually make things worse. 
  • Antihistamines. Studies have shown that antihistamines are often not effective at controlling itch from skin allergies because they don’t address the underlying cause. They can also make your dog uncomfortable, causing drowsiness, panting, or trembling.
  • Prescription steroids. Steroids prescribed by a veterinarian can be effective in reducing allergic dog itch, but they may come with their own unpleasant side effects. Dogs on prescription steroids often experience increased urination, thirst, and weight gain. They can also experience behavior shifts, such as increased aggression.

August is Itchy Pet Awareness Month. If you see your pet scratching repeatedly in August or any time of year, check in with the veterinarian or you can find a veterinary dermatologist.

As American poet Ogden Nash said, “Happiness is having a scratch for every itch.” For your dog, happiness is eliminating the source of every itch.

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