Like humans, every dog has the occasional itch. But if you catch your four-legged friend scratching repeatedly, you might start to wonder if there's an underlying cause for your dog's itchy skin.
There are multiple possible reasons as to why your dog is itching so much, and the sooner you figure out the cause, the better. While the occasional scratch can be harmless, if it seems like your dog repeatedly has itchy skin, it can indicate something more serious that can get worse over time if not treated.
A dog's itchy skin is always worth looking into, and it’s important to help your pet get relief because severe itch can have a huge impact on a pet’s quality of life.
Causes of dog's itchy skin
Since there are many potential causes of a dog's itchy skin, it's important to consult with your veterinarian or a Pawp professional to understand what's ailing your pup and how to best treat it.
Common causes of itchy skin in dogs include:
Parasites, like fleas and mites
Parasites like fleas can cause itchy skin in dogs—even just one bite! Some pet parents assume that if they can't see the fleas, it means they aren't there. Unfortunately, fleas can be difficult to see, so it's possible that these pesky pests are still on your dog even if they're not visible. Fleas should be ruled out to make sure your pup is parasite free.
Using a good flea and tick preventative is the foundation of preventing and treating itchy skin. An effective flea product can also minimize symptoms of allergies, which is really helpful since allergy management is complicated (which we'll touch on next).
If your dog is currently taking monthly flea and tick medication and they're still itchy or you suspect fleas, you may want to consult a veterinarian to ensure the product you're using is providing sufficent coverage. For example, topical products can be stripped off when bathing. A soap-free shampoo should always be used for bathing if your dog is on a topical prevention. Oral flea and tick products provide better coverage since they're distributed through the body systemically.
The reason why your dog is itching so much could also be due to environmental allergies.
Allergens like dust mites, pollen, and mold spores can cause itchiness in dogs. Other signs that environmental allergies are causing your dog's itchy skin include excessive licking and rubbing, hair loss, and skin redness.
Similar to flea and tick prevention, types of skin infections can be avoided if a pet’s allergies are well controlled.
If the itching is due to your dog having allergies, it's important to understand the nuances of pet allergies so you know how to take the right action.
Dog allergy myth busting
The first question most people with an allergic pet will ask is:
“What could my dog be allergic to?”
That’s an understandable question to ask, but it’s not really helpful for managing your dog’s allergies.
Most of the time we won’t know, and that doesn’t really matter because there's usually not much you can do to avoid the things that trigger your dog’s allergies. While that may not be true for a pet who is allergic to food ingredients, food allergies are not nearly as common as people think they are.
Most dogs with allergies are allergic to things they breathe in (like hay fever in people) or come into contact with.
“So, should I have my dog allergy tested?”
In general, allergy testing is only critical for dogs whose best option for treatment is immunotherapy, or “allergy shots”, where the dog receives a series of injections of small amounts of the things he’s allergic to so he gets used to them. Obviously, you need to know what the dog is allergic to in order to make those shots effective. Allergy testing can be beneficial to any dog that has chronic skin issues since an allergy panel can specify the allergens and classify the severity of the allergic reaction. Immunotherapy may be avoided if your dog has an allergy that can be eliminated from the diet. Talk to your veterinarian about allergy testing your dog to see if it may be beneficial.
Another common question pet parents will ask when their pet develops an allergic itch is:
“What new things has he been exposed to?”
Unfortunately, allergies don’t work that way. A dog cannot be allergic to something he's never seen before. An allergy develops over time. If you consider the way hypoallergenic diets contain ingredients that are most likely new to the dog (like kangaroo and oat), that starts to make more sense.
The most important question for people with allergic pets to ask is:
“What can I do to help my pet get some relief?”
That’s the key to tackling allergies.
It’s important to understand that we don’t cure allergies; we can only manage them and minimize the symptoms so the pet is comfortable and doesn’t develop secondary issues like ear infections.
Some pets can get enough relief from things like omega fatty acid supplements and special shampoos to get by, but if your pet’s allergy symptoms are severe, you’ll need to ask your veterinarian about the options for more aggressive treatment that are available by prescription.
Medications like Apoquel and Cytopoint are likely the best option for most dogs with moderate to severe allergies, and immunotherapy is another option that works well for some dogs.
Although less common than environmental allergies, a food allergy could also be causing your dog's itchy skin.
If a veterinarian has determined that a dog actually does have food allergies, then a hypoallergenic diet may be recommended.
If your dog is itching and also has greasy, red skin with a unique smell, a bacterial or yeast infection could be the cause.
Bacterial infections typically occur when skin gets irritated or damaged from scratching. This can present anywhere on the body. Yeast infections, on the other hand, are commonly found where skin folds—in between toes, on the ears, under the tail, and on the neck.
These can be very uncomfortable for your dog, so it's important to talk to a veterinarian to help get some itch relief for your dog.
The reason why your dog is itching so much can also be due to dry skin, like many of us humans deal with seasonally—but be cautious about making this assumption. Dry skin and dandruff are most likely related to an underlying medical condition, so treating the dry skin may not resolve the issue.
Consult a vet about your dog's itching
The reality is that skin infections—regardless of the cause—look alike. Until you get the answer to the question, "Why is my dog itching so much?", it’s important to observe good hygiene and wash hands frequently after handling your pet to avoid spreading any infections or parasitic issues to other pets or family members.
If your dog’s itchy skin ends up causing broken and bruised or bleeding skin, or restlessness, sleeplessness, or depression, consult with a veterinarian as soon as possible to diagnose the cause of this discomfort and understand the best way to handle it. When in doubt, the Pros at Pawp are here to help 24/7.
Reviewed and fact-checked by
Mika, RVT at Pawp