There are several reasons why a dog might scratch themselves. Fleas, skin diseases, allergies and metabolic disorders can all give the sensation of itchiness. Complaints about dogs scratching themselves incessantly are one of the top reasons dog owners visit the veterinarian. Although skin itchiness can be caused by several different disorders, the most common reason is due to allergies and atopy.
Skin allergies in dogs are caused by allergens, which are substances that cause an allergic dog’s immune system to overreact. These substances include fleas (particularly flea saliva from bites), food (proteins such as beef or chicken) and environmental allergens (such as grass, pollen and dust mites).
Canine atopic dermatitis, also known as ‘atopy’, is a frustrating condition for owners and dogs alike. Caused by a hypersensitivity reaction to any number of common environmental substances such as dust mites and pollen, the intense itching associated with this condition can cause some dogs to feel miserable and often results in red skin, rashes, skin infections, scratched skin and bleeding.
As the skin reaction is due to common environmental substances, a dog with atopy will continue to react to these substances and will often get worse over time. It’s often impossible to remove these allergens entirely, therefore treatment is essential to bring your dog relief.
Signs and symptoms
The signs of allergies and atopy include generalised itchiness, rubbing their skin along the ground or wall, generalised redness of the skin, hair loss, skin rash and irritation, strange or strong odour from the skin, scabs, crusting, ear infections and skin thickening.
Depending on the allergy, symptoms can be seasonal in nature, with an increase in severity during the summer months often noted in those dogs with environmental allergies. Unfortunately, some dogs also react to year-round allergens, such as dust mites, so symptoms will be present throughout the year.
Ideally, the type of allergen should be identified by your veterinarian before commencing treatment. This is because avoiding the allergen (if possible), is the ideal treatment for this condition. If the type of allergen is unable to be identified, or multiple allergens are identified and unable to be avoided, then treating the symptoms is the next step. The goal of treating the symptoms of allergic skin disease is to prevent any secondary infections or complications and remove the itchy sensation for your dog.
Changing your dog’s diet to a low allergen diet can be useful in helping control allergies and atopy. Novel protein diets (where protein your dog is unlikely to have been exposed to is the only protein in the diet such as deer and rabbit) and hydrolysed protein diets (where all proteins in the diet have been broken down) are often used to help control skin allergies in dogs. These diets are available commercially and from your veterinarian.
Another way to soothe your dog’s skin is to use medicated shampoos as they contain ingredients which target the causes of secondary skin infections and are designed to be gentle.
There are a range of new medications available now for controlling allergies in dogs including APOQUEL and CYTOPOINT which provide effective relief for itchy dogs. Immunotherapy, where a specialised veterinary dermatologist develops a ‘vaccine’ for your pet against their allergens, is another excellent option and potential long-term solution. Ask your veterinarian about whether immunotherapy is an option for your dog.
Itchy skin is no fun for anyone, but fortunately, your veterinarian is available to help your dog resist the itch.