That sound that wakes you and keeps you up at night. The slurping of them licking their feet, or the jingle of the collar that drives you crazy. You can’t sleep much and you know your beloved pet is having trouble sleeping too! Your pet is itchy, or pruritic for the medical term. We will first go through the main reasons I see pets itching and then discuss treatment/management.
This is the main thing people think about when their pets are itching/scratching/licking. It is very possible that you could have a flea issue. This is also the main reason people will use 3 or 4 different flea preventatives. They feel as if the product isn’t working and the pet is itching due to fleas, even though they don’t see any other evidence of fleas. The main thing we look for when looking for fleas: Flea dirt(flea poop). These will be little black specks close to the pet’s skin and usually stuck on the hair. Take the black speck and smear it on something white – if it turns red: flea poop, if it turns brown or any other color: dirt/debris. If your pet has flea poop, that means there are adult fleas feeding and pooping on your pet. Now would be a good time to consider the flea product you are using and when you last applied it. Some pets may have a flea allergy/sensitivity to where they are significantly more itchy than other dogs in relation to fleas. These animals will chew the hair at their tail base and can cause scabbing and bleeding from chewing so much. For more on fleas you can go to my blog about fleas: Heartworms/Fleas/Ticks
This is the main reason we see pets itching. There are two main types of allergies that we see: Contact and Food. These are NOT the same as an allergic reaction that causes hives and can be an emergency.
Contact Allergies: These are going to be more what most people think of with allergies that relate to them. These are pollen, grass, mold, dust mite and just about anything else that contacts your pet’s skin. These animals won’t sneeze and develop congestion like people will. This presents primarily as pets chewing at themselves, mainly their feet and belly. They will, sometimes aggressively, lick and chew their feet. The skin can become red/inflamed. These allergies can also be seasonal which can be frustrating. Owners may feel they just gave a product and within a couple days to week the pet began itching – which must mean the medication I gave caused it. We sometimes forget about the seasons outside, and the fact that animals can develop an allergy at any time.
Food Allergies: This type of allergy can be very difficult; difficult to diagnose and to treat. We are trying to call this “food sensitivities” to help us better focus on treatment. Pets with these food sensitivities can scratch/lick their belly and scoot/lick at their back end(mainly trying to lick under their tail to get to their rectum). They can also scratch at their ears as many of them will have chronic, bilateral(both) ear infections. One ear infection does not mean a food allergy, the key is multiple ear infections per year. To address these allergies is not as simple as moving from Chicken and Rice dog food to Lamb and Potato.
Most of the time a skin infection is tied in to an underlying allergy problem. If the pet has a rash/red-inflamed skin/scabbing/pustules then they could have a skin infection. If they are itchy from an allergy, sometimes they will be so pruritic and chew at themselves so much that they will traumatize the skin and cause an infection. This infection could be primarily bacterial, fungal or both. It could also be something like mange if it’s a young or very old dog/cat. Infected skin can be itchy, continuing and worsening the cycle of itching. This is important because if we focus on the skin infection alone and do nothing for the allergy/itching, we may not completely clear/manage the problem.
Diagnosing an itchy pet:
Location of itch / Possible cause:
Tail base over pet’s rear, all over / fleas, skin infection
Feet, face, stomach / contact allergies, skin infection
Rectum, under tail base, belly / food allergy, skin infection
Treating an itchy pet:
Reason for itch : Treatment
Fleas : Flea medications (treatments), I prefer Bravecto – this is a chewable tablet for dogs that kills fleas/ticks and will last for 3 months. For cats I prefer either Revolution or Catego. The link will discuss further about treatment for the environment.
Contact allergies, skin infecition : Apoquel, Cytopoint and Steroids(these three medications are used to control the itch but they are not usually used together), Medicated Shampoos and Mouses to help clean the skin and Antibiotics as needed. You can try 1 mg/pound(25 pound dog gets 25 mg or 1 capsule) of plain diphenhydramine every 8-12 hours but that likely won’t work, or if it does work, it is just a mild sedation for your pet, not controlling the “itch” factor.
Food allergy: Food trial – meaning try the pet on a special food. This is not as simple as switching from chicken and rice to lamb and potato. This usually means a prescription hydrolized diet. The proteins are broken down so small the body doesn’t recognize them as an allergen. Most important with a food trial: NOTHING BUT THE PRESCRIPTION FOOD AND WATER FOR 6-8 WEEKS! There are special hydrolized treats that you can use but make sure to speak with your vet before allowing your pet to eat/chew anything other than the food and water!
Some of these pets can have multiple issues. They can have a contact allergy AND a skin infection. They can have a food allergy but in the spring have a flare up of contact allergy to make you think the food no longer works. We have to make sure to look at the big picture and multiple things occurring to treat/control everything as best as we can.
So if your pet is scratching and keeping you up at night, or if you notice scabbing on their skin from scratching, you can first check for evidence of fleas(flea dirt – this is the easiest thing to find but not that most common I see), if you don’t see any evidence of fleas then it is time to head to the vet and see if your pet has a skin infection, allergy or if something else is causing the itching.