9 Possible Reasons Your Dog Is So Itchy

When your dog's got itchy skin, it's safe to assume it's fleas, right? Nope. Here's how to suss out the source of the scratching.

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Based on your dog’s constant scratching, you may be wondering whether you should have named him Itchy or Scratchy. And, of course, you’re also wondering what’s causing this and how you can help. But don’t reach for that flea medication just yet. While fleas are one possibility, veterinarians say there are many reasons that your dog could have itchy skin, and the wrong diagnosis and treatment could make things worse. These are the signs and symptoms you need to know in order to truly help your fur baby feel better.

Seasonal allergies

Just like humans, dogs can suffer from seasonal allergies. If this is the issue, your dog might have itchy skin, as well as flakiness, pimples, or even a skin infection. For mild cases, your veterinarian may suggest antihistamines such as Benadryl, Claritin, or Zyrtec. But don’t guess the dosage yourself; always get the specifics from your vet before administering any medication. “For more severe allergies, an oral medication called Apoquel or an allergy injection called Cytopint will usually be prescribed,” says Sara Ochoa, DVM, a veterinary consultant for DogLab.

To help your pup at home, prevention is key. If an outside offender like grass is the culprit, wipe your dog’s legs, paws, and belly with a warm washcloth on a daily basis, advises Bernadine Cruz, DVM, a California-based veterinarian. Just don’t soak your pup’s paws in the water. “That merely opens up the pores in the skin and allows the itch-inducing agent to get under the skin’s protective outer layer and gain access to the body’s immune system,” says Dr. Cruz. Don’t miss the most common health problems in 14 popular dog breeds.

Food allergies

Did you change dog foods recently? If your dog is scratching around the ears and rear end, this could be the reason. And even if you didn’t switch foods, an allergy can develop at any time. When this happens, Dr. Ochoa usually recommends switching to a novel protein diet—such as kangaroo, duck, or deer—that the dog has not tried before. “The different type of protein, which the dog’s immune system has not been exposed to, will help decrease the allergies to the food,” says Dr. Ochoa. When things settle down, your dog may stay on the new diet, or your vet may suggest a hypoallergenic food.

Allergic reaction to shots

Vaccines are essential to protect your pup from disease and illness, but sometimes the vaccine comes with an unwanted side effect: an allergic reaction. If this is the case, says Dr. Ochoa, in addition to seeing your dog scratching excessively, you “will also see swelling around the face and neck, hives, and sometimes difficulty breathing.” Antihistamines and steroid shots are usually the go-to treatments for this type of allergic reaction. If the reaction is severe, your vet will also send you home with pills to manage your dog’s itchy skin and other symptoms. While it’s often clear that your dog isn’t feeling well when he’s experiencing an allergic reaction, this isn’t always the case. Here are 10 signs your “healthy” pet is showing illness symptoms.

External parasites

It’s no surprise pests could cause your dog to have itchy skin. Of course, fleas might be responsible, but your pup might also be dealing with sarcoptic mange (from scabies mites) or Demodex (mites). In these instances, besides scratching, your dog might also be biting and chewing at his skin, as well as have bald spots from scratching, red and irritated skin, or scabs. The good news: Once your vet makes an official diagnosis, your dog should be feeling better soon. “Fleas are often diagnosed on physical examination and then treated with topical or oral medication,” says Kim VanDuzer, DVM, a veterinarian at Prettyboy Veterinary Hospital in Freeland, Maryland. “The most common preventative and treatment options I prescribe are Nexgard or Frontline for dogs.” If your pup has a feline sibling, these are the best ways to get rid of fleas on cats.

Flea shampoo

It may seem like a great idea to amp up the flea-fighting power with a flea shampoo, but flea shampoos and flea powders can be extremely drying. That, in turn, can cause further itchiness, says Dr. Cruz. Check with your vet before buying a flea shampoo. “The label ‘medicated’ can be very misleading,” she says. “The wrong shampoo can be almost as irritating as what the pet parent is attempting to remedy.”

Bath-time mistakes

If shampoo safely cleans our hair, it must be OK to use on our pups, right? Probably not. “Many people use human shampoo or overly fragranced shampoos with chemicals that strip dogs’ natural oils and leave their coats dry and itchy,” says Ruth MacPete, DVM, a veterinarian and the co-founder of VetDerm Solutions. And pets with known skin sensitivity definitely shouldn’t be bathed with our shampoo. “This is such a common cause of itching in dogs,” says Dr. MacPete, “that I recently teamed up with a dermatologist to make a fragrance-free, paraben- and sulfate-free, super-hydrating shampoo for dogs.” While you’re getting your pooch clean, don’t forget about his ears. Here’s how often you should clean a dog’s ears—and how to do it.

New bedding

If you notice your dog scratching all over after buying a new bed, he could be sensitive to the new bedding. Even if your pet doesn’t have any known skin sensitivities, it’s a good idea to launder these items (according to the instructions) before using them. “New bedding should be washed to remove excess dye and chemical treatments used in the manufacturing process,” says Dr. MacPete. “Use hypoallergenic laundry detergent without added dyes or scents.” Also, make sure to regularly clean your dog’s bedding with the same detergent to avoid future bouts of itchy skin.

Hormones

“Certain hormone conditions—such as Cushing disease, hypothyroidism, and liver conditions—are notorious for weakening the skin and immune system along with the quality of the skin and coat,” says Dr. Cruz. “This leads to the irritating thump, thump [of dog scratching] that ruins a good night’s sleep.” It’s a big leap to assume a hormone-related disease is the reason your dog has itchy skin, so you’ll want to make sure it’s not something else first. If your pet still has excessive shedding, poor coat quality, and continues scratching even after eliminating the more common possibilities mentioned above, Dr. Cruz says that a vet should further evaluate the situation. A diagnosis is made after a thorough examination, a review of your dog’s medical history, and lab testing. Not feeling good vibes from your dog’s doc? Here are 13 signs that it’s time to switch veterinarians.

Genetics

Some breeds are predisposed to skin conditions, like allergies that cause a dog to have itchy skin, says Angie Krause, DVM, a holistic veterinarian at the pet-food company I and love and you. They include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Terriers, Chihuahuas, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers. Still, any dog—pure breed or mutt—can get itchy skin, and the gut could be responsible. “With the use of processed diets and antibiotics, we have changed our dogs’ gut bacteria,” says Dr. Krause. “This change in gut bacteria has happened over generations and predisposes the immune system to be overactive.” Surprisingly, some of the dog breeds predisposed to skin conditions are also among the most expensive dog breeds in the world.

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Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.