Itchy skin is a frequent problem for pets, and the condition can significantly impact their quality of life. If your pet has itchy skin, you need to find out what is causing the problem, so you can help your four-legged friend get relief. Read our Providence Vet team’s guide to the common reasons that may be causing your pet to scratch excessively.

#1: Fleas can make your pet itch

Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is the most common cause of itchy skin in pets. Affected pets are allergic to flea saliva, and only one flea bite can cause an itchy reaction. In addition to the constant scratching, licking, biting, and rubbing, pets with FAD typically have self-inflicted hair loss and red skin lesions on their lower back, inner thighs, and abdomen. If your pet has FAD, don’t be surprised to find no fleas on their body, because an affected pet’s constant grooming removes the fleas, causing them to find a more hospitable host. While fleas aren’t easy to find in your pet’s fur, they leave evidence in the form of flea dirt (i.e. flea excrement), which you may see in your four-legged friend’s coat or bedding, appearing as small black granules. When FAD is diagnosed, every flea on your pet’s coat and in their environment must be eradicated to ensure their treatment will be effective. To rid your pet and your environment of fleas, do the following:

  • Bathing — Bathe your four-legged friend using a pet-safe shampoo, and use a flea comb to remove fleas and flea dirt.
  • Flea preventive — All pets, especially those with FAD, should remain on year-round flea prevention, as should all pets with whom they have contact to prevent flea transmission.
  • Environmental management — Wash all bedding, vacuum floors and upholstery, and treat inside and yard areas with an appropriate insecticide. To remove fleas at every life stage, you will likely need to treat your environment several times. If the flea infestation is heavy, consider contacting a pest control service. 

#2: Environmental allergies can make your pet itch

Pets can be allergic to environmental allergens such as tree and grass pollen, dust mites, and mold spores. This condition, atopy, is pets’ second most common itchiness cause. Atopic pets can experience itchiness anywhere on their body, but commonly affected areas include around their eyes and mouth, feet, limbs, abdomen, armpits, groin, and under the tail. Signs typically start early in a pet’s life, between the ages of 1 and 3 years, and signs may occur seasonally, depending on the allergen causing their reaction. When atopy is diagnosed, treatment is usually multimodal, involving:

  • Flea prevention — Fleas can exacerbate atopy, and atopic pets should remain on year-round flea prevention.
  • Bathing — Bathing helps remove allergens from your pet’s skin but if you bathe them too frequently, their skin can become dry. Our Providence Vet team will recommend an appropriate bathing schedule and shampoo for your pet.
  • Steroids — Steroids are helpful to control excessive inflammation and itching, and we prescribe these products at their lowest effective dose to help prevent potential side effects.
  • Anti-itch medications — Our team prescribes appropriate medications to help control your pet’s itchiness.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids — Supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation and improve skin health.
  • Hyposensitization therapy — This treatment is the gold standard for treating atopy. Using the results from your pet’s allergy testing, allergy shots are created. Gradually increasing doses of your pet’s allergens are administered to help desensitize them to their problematic substances. Most pets see improvement with hyposensitization therapy after 6 to 12 months.

#3: Food allergies can make your pet itch

Pets can develop an allergy to ingredients in their food, typically a protein or complex carbohydrate. Common triggering ingredients include chicken, beef, eggs, dairy, and wheat gluten. Food allergies develop over time, and most pets have been eating the diet for months or years before signs manifest. Affected dogs commonly experience itchiness and skin lesions on their face, feet, and around their anus. Affected cats commonly experience itchiness and skin lesions on their head and neck. Some pets also exhibit gastrointestinal (GI) signs such as vomiting and diarrhea. The only way your veterinarian can definitively determine whether your pet has a food allergy is to perform a dietary elimination trial. Your pet must only eat the prescribed hypoallergenic diet for about eight weeks to determine if their previous diet caused their itchy skin. During this time, you can’t give your pet treats, medicated chews, or table scraps, because these items interrupt the food allergy trial. Once your veterinarian determines the causative ingredient, it should be banned from your pet’s diet forever.

#4: Skin infections can make your pet itch

Skin infections, caused by bacteria and fungi, can cause itchiness. Skin and ear infections commonly occur secondary to atopy and food allergies. These conditions allow the organisms, which normally live on the skin, to proliferate and cause infection. Common culprits include Staphylococcus and Malassezia. Skin scrapings and cultures help our team determine the causative pathogen, and we prescribe the appropriate topical and systemic antibiotics and antifungals to treat your pet’s infection. Clearing your pet’s skin and ear infections is important to help accurately diagnose underlying conditions that cause itchy skin. 

Definitively diagnosing your pet‘s itchy skin is important, so our team can appropriately treat your four-legged friend’s condition. If your pet is constantly scratching, contact our Providence Vet team, so we can determine the underlying cause and devise an effective management plan.