Vet Advice: Relief for Your Dog's Itchy Skin
Plus, what you can do to help them feel better fast.
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Just like humans, dogs can get itchy skin. In addition to seeing them scratch incessantly, you might notice their fur looks dry and a bit dandruffy, or they might seem to be shedding more than usual.
But why exactly is your dog so itchy? Dogs itch for many different reasons, and sometimes for no reason. Every dog’s gotta scratch from time to time — and that’s completely normal. But when a dog is incessantly licking, scratching, biting, and chewing to the point of hurting themself, then scratching becomes a symptom of an underlying issue.
The medical term for scratching related to excessive itching is pruritus, and it’s the second most common reason people take their dogs to the vet (gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea top the list). The causes of pruritus can be quite complex, but there are two main reasons why dogs itch.
The first has to do with the condition of the skin itself: Is it infected? Is it too oily? Is it too dry? Of these three, dry skin is the most common issue. The second major cause of pruritus is allergies. Keep reading to learn why your dog is so itchy, plus what you can do to soothe their irritated skin.
Why Your Dog Is So Itchy: Dry Skin
One common cause of itching is dry skin. If you live in a region with low humidity, it’s more likely that your dog will have dry skin, which is fairly easy to recognize: When you part your dog’s hair, you’ll see flakes of dandruff in the undercoat, and the skin itself may be cracked and tough. The slightest stimulation of the skin — including your gentlest touch — can provoke your dog to scratch violently.
Dry skin can be influenced not only by environmental factors, but also by diet. Commercial pet foods process out the good oils that contribute to healthy skin and a lustrous haircoat. Dry pet foods have an even more dehydrating effect on skin and hair. They also stimulate increased thirst, which only partially compensates for the drying nature of these diets.
If you feed your dog dry foods, be sure to add digestive enzymes. (In fact, digestive enzymes are good to use with any type of food.) Enzymes improve the release of nutrients, and beneficial probiotic bacteria also assist in the digestive process. Probiotics also help with allergies (as noted below). A healthy digestive system absorbs fluids more readily from the food your dog eats, which improves hydration and increases moisture levels in the skin and haircoat.
Why Your Dog Is So Itchy: Allergies
Another common cause of itchy skin is allergies, which may make your dog’s skin dry, greasy, or slightly dry and oily; it may be accompanied by frequent scratching, licking, or chewing. We are seeing significantly more cases of allergic dogs than we have in the past, and many veterinarians believe that we are experiencing an “allergy epidemic.” The reason is unclear, but some theories are the aggressive vaccination protocols that many dogs have been subjected to, poor breeding practices, and the feeding of processed pet foods.
Whatever the cause, allergies are difficult to address. In the worst cases, afflicted dogs require strong (and potentially toxic) pharmaceuticals just to get some relief. Though allergies are rarely cured, early identification and intervention can keep them under control, and in some cases, can substantially diminish them.
Clinical research has shown that one important way to reduce the likelihood that dogs will develop allergies is to give them high-potency cultures of beneficial probiotic bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bifidus when they are very young. Probiotics are relatively inexpensive, absolutely safe to use, and can save both dog and pet parent tons of grief — and visits to the vet — later in life.
Regardless of age, many dogs’ allergies are controlled by: improving the quality of their diet, giving them high potency acidophilus cultures and high doses of fish oils, adding freshly milled flax seed to their food, and in some cases, giving them antihistamines. (It can take up to three months for this regimen to take effect; see below for details and dosages.)
How to Relieve Your Dog’s Dry, Itchy Skin
Determining which condition your dog is dealing with requires a vet’s evaluation, but implementing some of the suggestions below can help your pup be more comfortable in their own skin — literally.
Skip shampoo at bathtime.
When your dog needs a bath, try using plain water and a good, non-drying solvent. If you must use shampoo, use a moisturizing type with humectants, and follow up with a moisturizing conditioner. Avoid blow dryers.
Avoid hot blow dryers.
If you have your dog groomed, speak to the groomer about turning down the heat on the blow dryer (it’s usually set pretty high).
Feed your dog moist food.
Add digestive enzymes to every meal.
Go for probiotic bacteria, 2 to 10 billion CFUs/day.
Keep your dog hydrated.
Provide fresh, filtered drinking water.
Try oils and supplements.
Dogs with itchy skin benefit when you add fresh oils and other supplements to their meals, such as:
EPA/DHA from fish oil or algae (5 to 20 mg of EPA/pound of body weight/day)
Lecithin granules (1/4 tsp. to 1 tbsp. per meal)
Nutritional yeast (1/2 to 1 tsp. per meal) or hypoallergenic B complex (10 to 50 mg twice daily)
Kelp powder (1/4 to 1 tsp. per meal daily)
Spirulina (500 to 1,000 mg twice daily with meals)
Alfalfa, nettles, or horsetail (dried or powdered, 1/4 to 1 tsp. of individual herb or a mixture)
Robert J. Silver
Robert Silver, DVM, founder of Boulder's Natural Animal: A Holistic Wellness Center, is also a certified veterinary acupuncturist. He received his DVM from Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1982.