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Does your dog seem itchier than usual?

The essentials

  • Many factors influence excessive itching, or pruritus, in dogs — Most underlying causes of pruritus are mild and treatable.
  • Pruritus can be caused by genetic or environmental factors — Common environmental factors include allergens, fleas, and skin problems.
  • Going to the vet for a diagnosis is the best way to treat pruritus  — Your vet can find the cause of pruritus in many cases and help you develop a treatment plan.

Usually, dog itching is nothing to worry about. However, if you’ve noticed your dog itching more than usual, they may be suffering from pruritus. Pruritus is the scientific term for ‘severe itching’ and can refer to both dogs and humans. 

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 serious concern. 

Why your dog might be scratching

All dogs and humans feel itchy sometimes. Mosquito bites in the summer, dry cold weather in the winter, and an array of seasonal allergies in the spring and fall cause itching at any time of year. Excessive itching, or pruritus, may be caused by many different factors or a combination of things, such as: 

  • Food allergies. Even high-quality dog food may include common allergens like chicken, beef, fish, pork, soy, and dairy. Talk to your vet to see if an elimination diet or hypoallergenic diet trial might be a good idea to see if their symptoms improve.
  • Seasonal allergies. Just as humans can have hay fever, dogs can develop seasonal allergies. Environmental allergies are usually caused by dust mites, pollen, grass, or mold spores. If you suspect seasonal allergies, look for accompanying symptoms such as sneezing, dry skin, and watery or irritated eyes. Affected dogs may also suffer from frequent ear and skin infections, especially on their paws and belly.
  • Fleas. Flea allergies are one of the more common causes of pruritus. Watch out for signs of fleas, such as 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 leave your dog vulnerable to other parasites, like tapeworms. Early and effective treatment is essential. 
  • Staph infection. 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. If your pup has a staph infection, they’ll likely be licking, chewing, and itching excessively, especially in specific hotspots.  
  • Yeast infection. Yeast infections tend to smell unmistakably foul and your dog may have scaly or greasy skin, hair loss, and shake their head more than normal.
  • Irritants. Like allergens, irritants can cause pruritus in pups. Common irritants include the scents and chemicals found in cleaning products, cosmetics, and soaps. 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. 
  • Dry skin. While dry skin and itching may be symptoms of underlying 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 because of the change in temperature during colder winter months. 
  • Genetics. While environmental allergies are often at the root of excessive itching, some breeds are also simply more prone to pruritus. Boxers, Maltese, Poodles, and Bull terriers are especially susceptible. 
  • 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 and lead to crusty, painful scabs with 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.

When to go to the vet

While you can usually treat mild itching at home, you should take your dog to the vet if they develop hot spots, or inflamed areas that have broken the skin and may ooze pus. A flea infestation also warrants a vet visit to get the problem under control so your vet can prescribe flea prevention.

Diagnosing and treating your dog’s itchy skin

Your vet will likely treat pruritus on the surface level with topical hot spot spray, but they’ll also want to get to the bottom of the issue. This might include measures like: 

Elimination diets or prescription food 

If your vet suspects food allergens are the culprit, they might recommend a limited-ingredient dog food that only uses novel proteins, such as venison, instead of common protein allergens like chicken or beef. 

You’ll also be asked to eliminate all table scraps and treats from your dog’s diet for a set period so you can know exactly what your dog is eating and can deduce whether the diet is the problem.  

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

Change hygiene habits

Overbathing your dog strips their coat from the natural oils their skin needs to thrive. Similarly, bathing your dog with a sulfate-based shampoo also dehydrates their coat. Your vet might recommend giving your dog less frequent baths and switching their shampoo to a gentle, nourishing formula without parabens, sulfates, alcohol, or fragrances to relieve dry, itchy skin. 

Flea control or prevention 

Flea bites are often worse than mosquito or ant bites because of the prevalence of flea allergy dermatitis . Flea allergies cause severe itching, resulting in hair loss and hot spots. While there are natural flea treatments, the most straightforward solution for pruritus caused by fleas is to administer an over-the-counter flea treatment that will eliminate the infestation. 

Several options are 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.

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. Furthermore, flea and tick shampoos aren’t always good for your dog’s coat.

Flea and tick shampoos tend to dry the skin. If it’s not rinsed well, it can cause residual pruritus and dermatitis problems and reactions to the soap.

Dr. Bruce Armstrong

The bottom line: Flea and tick shampoo may work in a pinch, but it isn’t an alternative to parasite control. 

Reducing environmental allergens

 After allergy testing confirms seasonal allergies, you’ll want to reduce 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

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.

Skin infections

Depending on the type of infection, there are several treatment options. For 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.

4 ways to reduce your dog’s itchy skin at home

If your dog only has a mild case of pruritus or the current vet-approved treatments aren’t working, you can also try these gentle DIY solutions: 

  • Oatmeal baths. Grind regular oatmeal into a powder and add it to 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. Spritz liberally on your dog’s skin, but only if they have no open wounds.
  • Nutritional supplements. Omega 3 fatty acids nourish your dog’s coat and reduce overall inflammation. A probiotic supplement can also help reduce inflammation and promote the growth of good bacteria in the GI tract and on the skin. 

While itchy skin is annoying, it’s not usually a serious health concern unless your dog’s scratching breaks the surface of their skin. Pruritus often has an underlying cause, such as a flea allergy, and visiting your vet helps you solve the case quickly. In the meantime, DIY remedies like oatmeal baths can bring quick relief and may resolve mild cases.

Frequently asked questions

What are some ways to relieve itchy dog skin allergies?

Chronically itchy skin usually signifies dry skin or an allergen. Talk to your vet about starting an elimination diet or changing your dog’s food to find out if food allergies could be the cause of your dog’s distress. Environment allergies are more common than food allergies, but unfortunately food is easier to eliminate than pollen or other offending allergens. 

At home, you might give your pet nutritional supplements with anti-inflammatory ingredients like Omega 3s and probiotics.  You can also relieve your dog’s dry itchy skin through oatmeal baths and gentle shampoos — just make sure not to overbathe them since that can make the problem worse. 

Is Benadryl effective in relieving itchy skin for dogs?

While it might not be the best long-term solution, Benadryl or diphenhydramine tablets are safe for dogs in appropriate doses. According to the Merck Vet Manual , you can give your dog 0.9 to 1.8 milligrams of diphenhydramine per pound of body weight. In practical terms, a 25-pound dog would receive 1 tablet of Benadryl at one time, while a 50-pound dog could handle up to two tablets in one dosage. 

Why is my dog suddenly so itchy?

Sudden itchiness may indicate an allergic reaction or flea atopic dermatitis (FAD). Check your dog for fleas and other parasites, including insect bites. If your dog seems distressed, monitor them for more aggressive signs of an allergic reaction, such as hives. Although rare, some dogs have severe allergic reactions to ant bites and may need immediate medical care. 

How do you treat pruritus in dogs?

While you can treat mild cases of pruritus at home, it’s always best to take your dog to the vet if they’re chronically itchy or if they’ve developed hot spots. At-home treatments can usually deal with symptoms, but it’s important to find the root cause so the problem doesn’t recur.

How to treat my dog’s hot spot?

Excessive scratching or licking causes hot spots, which are specific areas on your dog’s skin that develop lesions. These areas can become infected, so it’s important to visit your vet as soon as possible for medications and to find the underlying cause.