Your Itchy Dog Deserves Relief — Here’s What to Do
How you can help them feel better fast.
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Your dog probably isn’t stopping to itch just so they can ignore you when you tell them to “come” or “sit.” There is a chance this is exactly what they are doing, but most likely, your dog actually has itchy skin.
In addition to seeing your dog scratching a lot, 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. 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
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.
If your dog is itching, and they don’t have fleas 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 coat.
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, paw 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 while you wait for an appointment implementing some of these home remedies can help your pup be more comfortable in their own skin — literally.
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 such as aloe vera, and follow up with a moisturizing conditioner.
Avoid 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).
Probiotics are digestive enzymes that may help alleviate itchy skin in some dogs. Studies suggest that probiotics help reduce inflammation in the body which can contribute to itchy skin. Look for probiotic supplements with 2 to 10 billion CFUs/day.
Providing fresh, filtered drinking water helps ensure your pup stays well-hydrated and soothes your dog’s itchy skin.
Oils and Supplements
Dogs with itchy skin benefit when you add fresh oils and other supplements to their meals, such as:
Flaxseed oil (1/2 tsp. of oil/15 pounds twice daily) or freshly milled flaxseeds (1.5 tsp./15 pounds twice daily)
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)
When It’s Time To See A Vet
All that itching can lead to even more problems if left untreated. Scratching can introduce harmful bacteria into open wounds, increasing your pup’s itching even more. Hot spots (painful, red areas of skin which can ooze) and infections are potential health concerns for overly itchy dogs. If you think your dog is itching too much, it’s essential you prevent further scratching and reach out to your veterinarian for an evaluation.
Depending on what’s causing your dog’s itchy condition, your veterinarian may prescribe pet-safe antihistamine medications. Studies show antihistamines don’t help relieve itch symptoms in dogs with atopic dermatitis, but they may help pets with allergies.
Depending on the severity of your dog’s itchiness, your vet may prescribe corticosteroids, such as cortisone cream, to quickly block symptoms and help alleviate inflammation and swelling. But steroids have negative side effects, including increased appetite, weight gain, infection susceptibility, and organ damage.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is my dog itching so much?
Dogs itch for two main reasons: skin conditions (including dry skin or skin infection) and allergies (such as those triggered by food, the environment, or fleas).
What home remedy can I use to stop itching?
For home remedies to help relieve your dog’s itchy skin, try applying 100 percent aloe vera gel. Skip shampoos. And feed them probiotic supplements, flaxseed, and fish oil for added itch-relief benefits.
What cream can I put on my dog’s irritated skin?
A little organic cold-pressed, unrefined coconut oil can be massaged directly into a dog’s skin to help increase moisture and reduce irritation. Remember, a little goes a long way.
What can I give my dog orally for itchy skin?
Several natural remedies for itchy skin in dogs can be given orally, including flaxseed oil, fish oil, nutritional yeast, coconut oil, and olive oil.
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Robert J. Silver, DVM
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.