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canine health problems

Does your dog seem itchier than usual? It might be pruritus

Help ease your dog’s severe itching with our guide to underlying causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

Updated March 19, 2021

Created By

Lauren Cocking,
Dog scratching itself in the park

The essentials

  • There are many underlying causes of pruritus, or itching in dogs — But most are mild and treatable.
  • Pruritus can be caused by genetic or environmental factors — Common environmental factors include allergens, fleas, and skin problems.
  • Effectively treating pruritus depends on getting the right diagnosis — Your vet can help confirm the cause of pruritus in many cases.

What is pruritus and what are the symptoms?

Pruritus is the scientific term for ‘severe itching’ and can refer to both dogs and humans. If you’ve noticed your dog itching more than usual, they may be suffering from pruritus. Even though the word pruritus sounds worrisome, it’s actually a very common symptom of several (usually treatable) underlying ailments and rarely a cause for concern.

Sometimes the causes can be genetic, but most often pruritus is caused by environmental allergens like dust, pollen, and fleas. Common warning signs of pruritus include the following:

  • Red and inflamed patches of skin, often localized in a specific area
  • Sores, scabs, or bleeding from excessive scratching
  • Pyoderma, small pus-filled pustules that can develop due to excessive scratching
  • Hot spots, inflamed skin lesions that may indicate a bacterial infection, which are also known as acute moist dermatitis
  • Hair loss in severe cases

👉 Pruritus is nothing to be concerned about unless your dog’s itching becomes excessive.

What causes pruritus in dogs?

Pruritus is a symptom of several different doggy difficulties, most of which are seasonal and treatable once correctly identified. Here are some of the most common causes of pruritus in dogs.

Food allergies. Even in high-quality dog food, there are several ingredients that might cause your four-legged friend to have an allergic reaction. Common allergens include chicken, beef, fish, pork, soy, and dairy. It may be a good idea to start by narrowing down your dog’s diet to see if their symptoms improve.

If a food allergy is the cause of the pruritus, your dog may also have an upset tummy, ear infection, and other allergic dermatitis symptoms. These include dry, crusty, or irritated skin as a result of the excessive itching.

👉 Even though you can remove foodstuffs from your dog’s diet at home, it’s always worth consulting with a vet before making any swaps or substitutions. 

Seasonal allergies. Just as humans can have hayfever, dogs can develop seasonal allergies. Seasonal allergies — which, confusingly, can be present year-round — tend to be caused by dust mites, pollen, grass, or mold spores, though there are other allergens that affect dogs.

If you suspect seasonal allergies, look out for accompanying symptoms such as sneezing, dry skin, and watery or irritated eyes. They may also suffer more frequent ear and skin infections, especially on their paws and belly.

Fleas. Alongside allergies, fleas are one of the more common reasons for pruritus in dogs. They’re also one of the easier causes to diagnose as you can sometimes see fleas with the naked eye. If your dog has fleas, they might have caught them from another dog, household pet, or even just from being outside in your yard.

As well as looking out for the fleas themselves, consider whether your dog is also licking or biting themselves more than normal or if they have hair loss around the tail or hind legs. You can also take a look for any visible bite marks on their skin.

👉 Fleas are common but they can leave your dog vulnerable to developing mange and tapeworms. Early and effective treatment is essential. 

Skin infections. There are two primary types of infections that can cause excessive itching in dogs: bacterial staph infections and yeast infections.

  • Staph infections. Staphylococcus is a group of bacteria that’s normally present on the skin. However, an infection can occur when the staph breaks through the skin by way of inflammation of a wound. It can go hand-in-hand with fleas and allergies. If your pup has a staph infection, they’ll likely be licking, chewing, and itching excessively, especially in specific hotspots. They may also have bald spots, crusty skin, and pus-filled sores (pyoderma).
  • Yeast infections. These, on the other hand, tend to smell unmistakably foul and your dog may have scaly or greasy skin, hair loss, and be shaking their head more than normal.

Irritants. As well as allergens, irritants can cause pruritus in pups. The difference between allergens and irritants is that allergens (like mold spores and pollen) cause a deeper immune system reaction, whereas irritants cause a surface-level response. However, both can lead to contact dermatitis, a skin condition that ultimately causes pruritus.

Common irritants include the scents and chemicals found in cleaning products, cosmetics, and soaps.

Dry skin. While dry skin and itching are often symptoms of the aforementioned issues, dry skin alone can cause pruritus. Dry skin may develop because your dog’s diet lacks enough fatty acids (like omega 3 and 6) or simply as a result of the change in temperature during colder winter months.

Sarcoptic mange. Sarcoptic mange is a more extreme skin disease in dogs that can lead to excessive itching. It’s also incredibly contagious and, while treatable if diagnosed early, can spread like wildfire. Sarcoptic mange is caused by mites burrowing beneath your dog’s skin and laying eggs. When these eggs hatch, they provoke extreme itching, lead to crusty, painful scabs, and an overall ‘scaley’ look.

👉 If you suspect sarcoptic mange is the cause of your dog’s excessive itching, isolate them from other animals and take them to the vet immediately. And remember, humans can get scabies from dogs too. 

Genetics. While environmental allergies are often at the root of excessive itching, some breeds are also simply more prone to pruritus. However, remember that most cases of pruritus are mild, seasonal, allergy-related, or all of the above.

Dog breeds prone to pruritus

Some dog breeds are prone to pruritus and allergies which can cause excessive itching, especially purebreds. Here are some of the breeds most likely to suffer from pruritus.

  • Cocker spaniels
  • Boxers
  • Maltese
  • Retrievers
  • French poodles
  • Bull terriers
  • German shepherds
  • West Highland white terriers

👉 Although some breeds are more prone to pruritus any dog can develop excessive itching, including mixed breed pups.

Diagnosing pruritus in dogs

Treating pruritus effectively depends on accurately diagnosing the underlying cause of all that itching and scratching. However, diagnosis is not always straightforward. If you suspect that your dog is scratching excessively (and is showing the symptoms listed above) take them to the vet. There, they’ll likely do skin scrapings to check for fleas or mites, as well as looking for possible bacterial or yeast infections. If a fungal infection such as ringworm is suspected, the vet may also do a fungal culture test to get a diagnosis.

However, given that allergies are often the underlying cause of pruritus in dogs, you can start by removing possible irritants from their diet. Similarly, if you suspect your dog has fleas, over-the-counter flea treatments are safe and easy to administer at home. If your pooch is still scratching, then you should take them to the vet.

👉 It can be time-consuming and frustrating but it’s worth the effort to help your dog live comfortably and itch-free.

Dog itching remedies: how to treat canine pruritus

Treating pruritus effectively relies on diagnosing the underlying cause behind your dog’s excessive itching and scratching. Here are some of the most common pruritus treatments, depending on the underlying cause. Remember to consult with your vet before starting any new treatment plan.

👉 It’s not always possible to cure pruritus, however, most cases are mild and treatable. 

Food allergies. If your pup is likely suffering pruritus due to a food allergy, take their diet back to basics with an elimination diet. An elimination diet involves removing all of the most common potential allergens in your dog’s food and slowly adding them back in one by one. You can then watch out for which one (if any) provokes a reaction, including excessive itching.

Some people opt to do this by making their pup homemade food, although this is not advised unless the recipe is provided by a veterinary nutritionist. Others opt for hypoallergenic or limited ingredient diet (LID) dog food. Whichever you choose, it’s always best to speak to your vet first about brands, ingredients, and new diet plans.

👉 Avoid going grain-free unless directed by your vet. Grain allergies are extremely rare, so it could cause more harm than good. 

Seasonal allergies. After allergy testing confirms seasonal allergies, the first thing to do is keep your pooch away from their trigger allergens where possible. Perhaps this means walking them early in the morning or late at night when pollen counts are lower. You can also wipe off their paws with wet wipes or diluted apple cider vinegar solutions after you’ve been for a walk and invest in an air purifier for your home too.

More extreme cases of seasonal allergies may also require veterinary treatments such as allergy shots, allergy desensitization shots, supplements, antihistamines, or steroids to help ease the extreme itching.

🤔 Can I give my dog Benadryl? 

Fleas. The most straightforward solution for pruritus caused by fleas is to administer an over-the-counter flea treatment that will eliminate the infestation. There are several options available, including flea collars, spot treatments that are applied to the scruff of the neck, and oral flea medications to kill off the larvae. You may require a stronger prescription flea treatment from your vet if OTC methods don’t work, though.

Just remember that while using flea shampoo can be a good option, it will only rid your pup of their active infestation and may even strip away any topical flea products you’d applied. Rather, flea shampoo, collars, and monthly topical treatments should be used consistently year-round.

Skin infections. Depending on the type of infection, there are several treatment options. In the case of a staph infection, your vet will likely prescribe or recommend oral antibiotics, topical creams, lotions, and antibacterial shampoos. Just be aware that staph infections can take some time to cure, so be patient. In the meantime, you can employ soothing remedies (see below) to keep your pup comfortable.

Yeast infections, on the other hand, typically require antifungal medications and specialized cleaning, which you’ll need to talk to your vet about.

Irritants. Are irritants causing your pup to scratch too much? You’re in luck, because swapping out your current cleaning products for neutral, pet-friendly versions and making sure your dog is out of the room when you apply perfumes and deodorants should resolve the problem. And don’t smoke near your pets, either.

Dry skin. If your pup is suffering from dry skin, it’s a good idea to up their intake of fatty acids. This can be achieved through supplements and changes to their diet. Furthermore, you can help hydrate your dog’s skin by using some of the soothing techniques detailed below.

Sarcoptic mange. It’s essential to treat sarcoptic mange in a timely manner, as the secondary skin infections can be fatal in severe cases. However, if caught early, the best at-home treatments involve trimming your pup’s hair and giving them weekly baths. You’ll also need to give your pooch topical or oral medications designed to kill the mites and eggs which cause sarcoptic mange and pruritus.

Soothing the symptoms of pruritus

If you’re unsure of the underlying cause or simply want to help keep your dog comfortable while their medications take effect, you can try some of these at home palliative remedies for excessive itchiness.

  • Oatmeal baths. Grind regular oatmeal into a powder and add it into a tub of warm water. This should help soothe your dog’s itchy skin and it’s okay if they accidentally ingest some too.
  • Chamomile tea soaks. Fill your bathtub with warm water and let a few chamomile tea bags steep before bathing your dog in the soothing brew.
  • Apple cider vinegar sprays. Dilute apple cider vinegar 1:1 with water and put it into a spray bottle. Spray liberally on your dog’s skin, but only if they have no open wounds.

Preventing pruritus

You can’t prevent pruritus and cure your dog’s itchy skin entirely, but you can help stop it from recurring. For allergy-prone pups, keep them away from possible irritants and provide them with a high-quality diet, avoiding specific ingredients if necessary.

To keep flea bites at bay, make sure you follow a year-round preventative routine that combines flea collars or topical treatments, alongside anti-flea shampoos.

It can also be beneficial to give your dog some multivitamin supplements that work to improve their overall skin health. Look for those which contain fatty acids and flaxseed oil.