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Australian Shepherd scratching himself behind his ears outdoors.
pawprincestudios via Getty Images

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

There are many reasons your dog may be itchy. Many veterinarians believe it’s best to find the cause of the itch sooner rather than later. While the occasional scratch can be normal for dogs, frequent scratching could indicate a medical condition that may get worse over time.

According to a 2021 Nationwide Survey on pet insurance data, for the tenth year in a row, allergic dermatitis was the top reason dogs were brought to the vet. This condition can make your dog show signs of allergic itch, like frequent scratching, recurrent ear infections, and skin changes.

Possible Causes for Dog’s Itchy Skin

So, what’s behind your dog’s itchy skin? It may be caused by a medical condition called allergic dermatitis (skin allergies). This means your dog’s body overreacts to an allergen in the environment or food, which makes them feel itchy. There are a number of potential culprits:

  • Fleas. Flea bites can create extremely itchy areas on your dog. They can be found anywhere on the body, but are most common at the hind legs, tail base, and rear end. Just because you don’t see any fleas on your dog does not mean they aren’t there – keep in mind that a bite from a single flea can cause an allergic itch in your dog.
  • Environmental. Your dog may be allergic to environmental triggers, like pollen, mold spores, or dust mites. Environmental allergens can cause allergic itch during certain seasons, or even year-round. Dogs with environmental allergies will often show signs of allergic itch around their face, belly, and paws. If your dog gets itchy outdoors, invest in an outdoor dog bed to keep them off the ground.
  • Food. Your dog’s itching might be caused by a food allergy. Some dogs are allergic to common dog food ingredients such as beef, chicken, and dairy products. Food allergies in dogs can lead to signs of allergic itch around the paws, face, armpits, and belly.

Allergic dermatitis can make your dog uncomfortable. It also can lead to secondary health problems if there is a delay in treatment. When a dog licks or scratches an area excessively, it can damage the skin and lead to skin infections and wounds. These can cause changes like hair loss, body odor, and inflammation. Severe skin infections and wounds may even be painful for your dog.

How to Treat Your Dog’s Itchy Skin

When you notice these changes to your dog’s skin, it can be tempting to try an over-the-counter treatment or home remedy. However, using an OTC or at-home solution may not relieve your dog’s allergic itch. The following treatment options are commonly available and may offer some allergic itch relief but may not be the best option for your dog.

  • Over-the-counter shampoos and oils. Treatments like coconut oil and itch-relief shampoos only provide temporary relief. Signs of allergic itch may come back because the root cause has not been addressed.
  • Antihistamines. While studies have shown that antihistamines may relieve allergies in humans well, antihistamines are less helpful in relieving allergic itch in many dogs, according to a 2016 study on the effects of cetirizine in dogs with atopic dermatitis. In fact, it has been shown that antihistamines may have little to no effect in relieving the allergic itch of many dogs, per the guidelines of the International Committee on Allergic Diseases of Animals (ICADA).
  • Prescription steroids. Steroids prescribed by a veterinarian can be effective in reducing allergic dog itch, but they may cause side effects in your furry friend. Dogs on prescription steroids often experience increased urination, thirst, and weight gain, as explained in Kirk’s Current Veterinary Therapy XV. They can also experience behavior shifts, such as increased aggression as seen in a 2015 study on dog behavior when taking corticosteroids.

August is Itchy Pet Awareness Month. If your dog is scratching repeatedly in August or any time of year, they may need relief from an allergic itch, so schedule an appointment with your vet. If your dog has allergic dermatitis, then a prescription treatment from your vet may be the best way to get your favorite sidekick feeling better.

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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