If your dog is suddenly itchy, you may be wondering what is going on with your beloved companion. Not all itches are created equally.
Dogs can be itchy for a vast variety of reasons, from exposure to irritants to presence of pesky parasites, not to mention a plethora of skin conditions that can cause dogs to persistently scratch.
Fortunately, it is possible to narrow down several potential causes, by trying to track down what your has been recently exposed to, where he is itching and through diagnostic testing with the help of your veterinarian.
When is Excessive Itching an Emergency?
Sometimes, excessive itching can be a sign of a severe allergic reaction to something in the dog's environment. A severe allergic reaction can cause a potentially life-threatening condition known as anaphylaxis.
The most common symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Excessive scratching, pawing at the face, rubbing the body against surfaces
- Presence of hives
- Facial swelling
- Elevated heart rate
- Difficulty breathing
- Pale gums
Dogs that develop anaphylaxis are considered an emergency and require epinephrine administration as well as symptomatic treatment after stabilization.
Fortunately, many cases of dogs just being suddenly itchy don't turn into a full-blown case of anaphylactic shock. If your dog though worrisome shows signs described above, play it safe and see your vet sooner than later.
Why is My Dog Suddenly So Itchy?
The ideal way to deal with excessive scratching and itchy skin is to determine the underlying cause. Consult a veterinarian if your dog's itching is excessive or unusual.
There are many potential causes of itchiness in dogs.
Let's explore each of these causes and discuss what to do in the event your dog becomes suddenly itchy and scratchy.
A Mild Allergy
One of the most common reasons dogs start to suddenly itch is because they have been exposed to some potential allergen.
Unlike humans, dogs don't start sneezing or getting a runny nose when they're allergic to something. Rather, most likely than not, they start to itch terribly.
The problem is, dogs can be allergic to a vast array of things, basically, almost anything in their environment can cause them to itch and scratch.
Dogs can be allergic to foods, seeds, grasses, pollens, plants, cleaning products (laundry soap, carpet powder) and just about anything they get in contact with.
Dogs with allergies will scratch themselves repeatedly, they'll often aim for their ears and they may also lick and chew on their paws.
How to Help Dogs Scratching From Allergies?
Dog allergies can be managed by giving simply to the dog an antihistamine such as plain Benadryl.
Make sure to use only plain Benadryl or generic Diphenhydramine and that there are no other "cold-type" medications listed in it such as decongestants.
Liquid Benadryl should be avoided because its high alcohol concentration can be harmful for dogs.
Although the children’s liquid formula is a better alternative since it does not contain alcohol, it does contain high concentrations of sodium which can be dangerous for dogs with certain medical conditions.
It should also be noted that the dosage for liquid Benadryl is different from the dosage for Benadryl pills. More about Benadryl is covered here: Benadryl for Dog Allergies.
Of course, no medication (even if over-the-counter) should be started without consulting with a vet.
If the skin appears irritated, an oatmeal-based dog shampoo in cool water for about 10 minutes can help sooth the skin.
Severe allergies may require steroid therapy. Steroids work quickly to give dogs relief.
The newest anti-itching drug for canines is called Apoquel. This drug, produced by pharmaceutical company Zoetis, is fast-acting and can be used to treat many types of dog allergies.
If the vet suspects an allergy to food, carrying out a food trial may be necessary. The dog may need to be placed on a special diet and it would take at least 12 to 16 weeks to see the full effects. No treats or other foods can be fed during this trial.
Presence of Fleas
Fleas can cause dogs to itch and scratch, especially when dogs happen to be allergic to a flea's saliva.
Dogs allergic to flea saliva, develop what's medically known as flea allergy dermatitis.
Flea saliva contains a variety of histamine-like compounds, enzymes, polypeptides, and amino acids to which dogs become sensitized, triggering an overreaction of their immune system.
Just one little flea bite a month can be enough to cause a dog to feel itchy and miserable.
Typically, dogs affected by flea allergy dermatitis develop skin lesions mostly located by the tail area, rump, thighs. abdomen and back. The skin lesions may develop as crusts, hot spots and hairless areas from the constant scratching.
At times, opportunistic bacteria may set in the scratched skin and cause annoying secondary skin issues.
How to Help Dogs Scratching From Fleas
The best way to prevent fleas is to keep your dog on year-round flea prevention.
To combat fleas it's therefore important to use flea products that are commonly sold by veterinarians such as Frontline.
Avoid at all costs over the counter products such as Hartz or Sargents, which are ineffective and even potentially toxic to dogs.
Talk to your veterinarian about which option would be best for your dog. If your dog already has fleas, you should administer flea prevention ASAP and keep your dog up to date for at least 6 months.
Did you know? Other parasites that can cause itchiness in dogs include cheyletiella and sarcoptes mites as both lead to very itchy skin, explains veterinarian Dr. Kara.
Many brands of flea/tick preventatives are effective against mites.
An Insect Bite
Dogs spend time outdoors and can easily get suddenly itchy as a result of an insect bite.
Just as humans can get mosquito or spider bites, so can dogs! Insect bites in dogs may look like raised, round, reddened areas of a dog’s skin, just like the appearance of a bug bite in humans.
When a dog itches due to an insect bite, you'll notice that the scratching and licking may be focused on one specific area, and close inspection reveals redness and a small raised bump.
However, in dogs with long hair, it may be difficult visualizing the bite.
How to Help Dogs Scratching From an Insect Bite
Often over-the-counter antihistamines are sufficient to control bug bite itchiness, but some dogs may require stronger prescription medications if they are very bothered.
Some flea and tick prevention products repel mosquitoes; dogs frequently suffering bug bites may benefit from this protection, explains veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Masucci.
A Skin Condition
There are a lot of skin conditions that can cause dogs to suddenly feel extra itchy. Namely, two of the most common culprits are yeast and bacterial skin infections.
What are yeasts? Yeasts are fungal microscopic organisms that can be found literally everywhere. With more than 800 identified species, yeast play a plethora of different roles in different ecosystems.
Both you and your beloved dog have countless yeasts on you at all times. Most of them are of no concern. In fact, they are part of you and your dog’s microscopic world. However, yeasts can cause problems when there is an abnormal growth of the benign yeast population.
In a nutshell, same as humans, dogs have immune systems that keep the unwanted microorganisms at bay. However, if the immune system is weak, the risk of yeast skin infections becomes extremely high, explains veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec.
Symptoms of a yeast infection in dogs may include shaking the head, excessive licking of the affected area, greasy skin with an odor.
A skin bacterial infection is also a common cause of itching in dogs. Although bacterial infections are not life threatening, the symptoms can be unpleasant and difficult to treat.
How to Help Dogs Scratching From Skin Conditions
To treat yeast or bacterial skin infections, your veterinarian may prescribe antifungal or antibacterial products such as topical medicated shampoos or pills.
Did you know? Because skin folds on a dog’s face tend to accumulate moisture, these areas may be prone to excess bacterial and/or yeast growth. Dogs with facial skin folds are therefore prone to yeast and bacterial skin infections.
Can Itchiness in Dogs Be Caused By a Behavior Issue?
Yes, anxiety, stress, and compulsive behaviors can cause excessive licking, scratching and chewing in dogs. However, behavioral disorders are usually diagnoses of exclusion, meaning that medical causes like those described above must be ruled out first, explains Dr. Masucci.
If your dog is diagnosed with a behavioral disorder, working with a dog trainer/dog behavior professional may be helpful to increase daily enrichment and redirect unwanted behaviors in a positive way.
If behavioral modification through training is not sufficient, you may also speak with a veterinarian to determine whether medication is an appropriate next step.
More Tips for Itchy Dogs
Wiping the dog's paws after walks can help to remove allergens.
Oatmeal baths are good for itchy dogs, but you should not bathe your dog more frequently than once every 2 weeks unless directed by a veterinarian, as this can cause dry skin.
Fish oil supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids help to improve a dog's skin health, especially dogs prone to skin issues.
While flea products on the dog tend to kill fleas on their coats, it's also important killing the more juvenile forms found in the environment using insect growth regulators (IGR's). Ask your vet about these.
For allergies, desensitization, popularly known as immunotherapy, is a special treatment, usually conducted by a veterinary dermatologist, that reprograms the dog’s immune system. First the dog’s skin and blood are tested to determine the exact allergens. Then, these substances are given to your dog in small, but increasing amounts via injections called desensitizing vaccines, explains Dr. Crnec.
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