Home Care for Itching or Scratching Dog

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Itching, also known as scratching or the medical term pruritus, is a common problem in dogs seen in veterinary clinics. In fact, it is one of the most common reasons people take their dog to the vet.

What Is Dog Itching?

Itching is the unpleasant sensation that causes the desire to rub or scratch.

What Causes Itching in Dogs?

Itching is caused by stimulation of certain nerves within the skin by mediators of inflammation. Thus, any skin condition that causes inflammation can cause itching. The act of scratching may stimulate the release of inflammatory mediators and worsen the itching causing a vicious cycle.

Itching is a symptom that results from a variety of causes and many different diseases. Causes of itching may include:

  • Fleas
  • Lice
  • Other skin parasites such as demodex or scabies
  • Skin infections
  • Allergies to fleas
  • Allergies to food
  • Allergies to other inhaled substances
  • Allergic reactions to insect bites or vaccinations
  • Atopy
  • Contact allergy
  • Cheyletiellosis
  • Ear mites
  • Ear infections

    The health impact on the animal depends on the severity of the itching. Mild itching will have a minimal impact. Severe itching, however, causes intense scratching which may lead to skin lesions that are painful and may become secondarily infected. These animals will often whimper or cry out, or may have trouble sleeping.

    For a full list of possible causes – go to Causes Pruritus in Dogs. Pet owners commonly ask, “What can I do at home?”

  • Home Treatment or Care for Itching and/or Scratching in Dogs

    Specific treatments of Itching and/or Scratching are dependent on the cause. Here is the general approach to dealing with a dog with itching:

  • Look at the skin. Examine the skin where the pet is itching the most. If it is the ears – you may notice red inflamed or smelling discharge in the ears which is consistent with an ear infection. That may be the cause of itching in that area. Licking of one are may be associated with a skin infection or lesion in that area. Itching everywhere with hair loss is most often associated with allergies or flea infestations. Look closely for fleas. You may see the live active flea or “flea dirt”. Flea dirt looks like small flakes of pepper and is actually the bowel movement of the flea.
  • Check for fleas. If you can identify fleas, a soothing bath that kills flea and is safe for dogs may be helpful. Flea prevention products would also be recommended. Home cleaning for fleas is also essential as for every flea you see on your pet- there are 200 in your home or yard in different life forms waiting to soon become an adult. If you only treat your dog – it won’t help as new fleas continue to jump on him. Dogs with flea allergy tend to scratch their back ends leading to lesions on the rump, hind legs, tail, and belly. There may be few to no fleas seen on the dog since it takes just one flea to make the dog react. Flea allergy is the most common allergic skin disease in the United States.
  • If you notice an ear infection – see Home Care for Ear Infections.
  • If you don’t see fleas and there is generalized itching and hives – I’d worry about an allergic reaction. Some pets will have allergic reaction to vaccines or often to insect bites. For more information – go to: Allergic Reactions in Dogs.
  • If you notice areas of red inflamed skin – your pet may have a skin infection called Pyoderma. For more information – go to Pyoderma in Dogs.
  • If your dog has generalized itching, no fleas, no skin infection and no hives – your dog could be itching due to allergies. If you notice severe itching and you cannot take your dog to your veterinarian (which is recommended), then you may try the following:

    – Administer only prescribed medications by your veterinarian.

    – Bathe your dog in soothing shampoo. Shampoo therapy may be very helpful in managing pruritus. Shampoos that contain colloidal oatmeal are soothing and since these shampoos are moisturizing, they can be used frequently without drying the skin. Some oatmeal-based shampoos contain topical anesthetics or topical corticosteroids that are very safe and further help to reduce itching. A shampoo with aloe and oatmeal and sometimes control symptoms. Use lukewarm to cool water. Hot water can often irritate the skin more.

    – Have your pet examined by your veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns.

  • Some veterinarians recommend antihistamines. Commonly used antihistamines include Benadryl (Diphenhydramine), Zyrtec (Cetirizine) (Zyrtec), and CHLOR-TABS (chlorpheniramine maleate). Antihistamines are much less helpful in dogs and cats than they are in humans. Some animals respond better to one antihistamine than to others, so veterinarians may try two or three different types before giving up on them.

    – When using the antihistamine Benadryl – the only active ingredient should be Diphenhydramine (the generic name for benadryl). The dose most commonly used in dogs is 1 mg/lb. Therefore, a 25 lb dog would get 25 mg. This can be used every 8 hours. The biggest side effect of using Benadryl in dogs is they can be sleepy. This be found at most pharmacies and does not require a prescription. It is often used for a few days to long-term in some dogs.

    – Medication should never be administered without first consulting your veterinarian. Please do not administer to cats without first consulting with a veterinarian to avoid toxicity.

    – If your dog is being self-destructive – an e-collar is recommended. Some dogs will chew themselves raw actually creating lesions. The e-collar is a cone that goes over a dogs head, fastens around the neck and allows him to eat and drink but not lick and chew at his skin.

    – Dogs with long term allergies may benefit from fatty acid supplements. These may help relieve pruritus by modulating the immune response and may be helpful for chronic pruritus. Certain fatty acids, such as eicosapentanoic acid found in fish oils, help to change the chemical composition of mediators produced during the allergic response, thereby making them less inflammatory. Like antihistamines, these products are not helpful for all animals, but are very safe. Some dogs that do not do well on antihistamines may do well on a combination of antihistamines and fatty acids.

    – This is important! If the itching continues, the skin is red and inflamed, or you notice the onset of other symptoms, call your veterinarian promptly. If your pet is not eating, starts vomiting, has diarrhea, acts lethargic, or any other physical abnormalities mentioned above, it is important to see your veterinarian. Your pet needs the professional care your veterinarian can provide. If your pet is having the clinical signs mentioned above, expect your veterinarian to perform some diagnostic tests and make treatment recommendations. Recommendations will be dependent upon the severity and nature of the clinical signs.

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