Why Won’t My Dog Stop Scratching Itself? A Guide to Stopping the ItchY.


Can you guess the most common type of non-wellness appointment we see in practice this time of year? If you guessed some variation of itching, scratching, or skin irritation, you are right!

Allergy Season Affects Pets, Too

All dogs will scratch sometimes. But scratching or licking that leads to redness, hair loss,
swelling, or skin infections is a cause for concern. We see this occur for various reasons, but by far one of the most common is allergies.

Allergies in dogs can be generally categorized into food allergies or environmental allergies. Environmental allergies leading to issues with the skin is called atopic dermatitis, or atopy. Commonly affected areas include the face, ears, paws, and ventral abdomen (belly). The degree of pruritus (itchiness) can vary from occasional, mild licking to severe, keep you up at night scratching.

A Veterinary Approach to Itchy Dogs

Nowadays, we are lucky in that we have quite a few options to treat environmental allergies. As with many health conditions, an individualized approach is best.

    1. Check for Parasites: External parasites like fleas and mites can be a primary cause of itching in dogs, but it can also be a secondary contributing factor that prevents us from successfully getting control of your dog’s allergies. If your dog is scratching and you haven’t given its monthly dose of preventative, this is always step one. Your veterinarian can recommend a safe and effective flea/tick preventative.
    2. Control the Itch: Targeting the itch response directly typically involves either steroids (oral or injections), Apoquel (oral), or Cytopoint (injection). Steroids are the standard go-to that were used for many years, and they still have their place in treatment. Apoquel and Cytopoint, however, are the newer gold standards for managing allergy-related itching. All options have their pros and cons, and your veterinarian will help you decide based on cost, ease of administration, and age and health of the pet.
    3. Provide Topical Therapy: Regular bathing (1-2 times weekly) has been shown to be effective at controlling the itch. The use of topical medications (ointment, spray, mousse, etc) are used on a case by case basis pending the severity and distribution of skin lesions.
    4. Fatty acid supplements or dietary management: Omega fatty acids are beneficial in some dogs at reducing the severity of symptoms by helping to restore a healthy skin barrier. Certain prescription and over the counter diets also work in this manner by including high levels of fatty acids in the formulation of the food.

Antihistamines May Provide Mild Improvement for Some Dogs

Antihistamines (like Benadryl and Zyrtec) have not been shown to be highly effective at reducing itching in dogs. However, in some dogs they may result in mild improvement, or give additional benefit if used in conjunction with other treatments. They are generally safe and low cost, so we may elect to have you do a trial of an antihistamine at home. If ineffective, we will move on to other options.

Your Dog May Have a Food Allergy

Food allergies, as mentioned above, are another type of allergies seen in dogs that results in itching and skin abnormalities. Your veterinarian may recommend a food trial to help rule out any ingredients your pet may be allergic to. A physical exam and your pet’s medical history are important factors that help determine the degree of suspicion as to whether food is the culprit.

Contact Us For More Information

If you suspect your pet may have allergies, please contact us to schedule an appointment. A physical exam is always an important part of evaluating this issue, and the best treatment options for your pet can be recommended from there.

– Dr. Heather Preston

Essex Middle River Veterinary Center provides medical and surgical care for cats and dogs at our animal hospital and veterinary clinic in Essex, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. Our services include preventive wellness care exams, vaccines, spays/neuters, and a variety of specialized care. Our state-of-the-art veterinary offices are conveniently located near I-695 where we see pets from Towson, Honeygo, White Marsh, and other neighboring Baltimore areas.

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