A couple of summers ago, my friend's dog Spock developed a persistent itch. Thinking he had fleas, my friend bought him a flea collar. The itching continued. She gave him a flea dip and "fogged" her apartment. The itch persisted. Three flea dips and countless sprays and ointments later, she took Spock to the vet, who diagnosed the problem as a nutritional deficit. Spock began eating a diet rich in meats and fatty proteins and the problem vanished.
Like my friend, many people assume that when a dog experiences itching, a parasite must be the culprit. Although parasites certainly are a common reason for itchy canines, there are other things that cause skin irritation as well. This article will examine the five most common causes of itchiness and will offer a couple of suggestions to give your scratching dog some instant relief.
COMMON CAUSES OF ITCHING
- Parasites. Although parasites are not always the offenders, they do rank high in the causes of itchiness. The two most common parasites are fleas and mites. Fleas can usually be identified by black specks in the dog's fur. You may even see the fleas themselves scrambling for cover as you groom your dog.
When dealing with fleas, it is important to break the generational cycle. An adult female flea may live only a week or two, but during that time she may lay up to thirty eggs a day. These eggs hatch on the dog, in carpet fibers, in bedding, etc. and soon begin breeding. Before long, the entire environment is infested. There are many good flea-fighting products available, some in the form of tablets, others in the form of topical creams. You will want to consult with your vet, though, since some flea products kill only adult fleas but do nothing to stop their eggs from hatching. In addition to killing the fleas on the dog, you will also need to kill the larvae and eggs in the dog's environment. An exterminator can help you evaluate your options.
Mites, including ear mites, fur mites, scabies, and mange are often harder to identify because they burrow under the animal's skin and thus cannot be seen. You may notice a red rash, discharge around the dog's ears, or what appears to be dandruff on your dog's coat. If you suspect a mite problem, check with your veterinarian for advice on proper diagnosis and treatment.
2. Environment. Have you ever rolled around in the sand at the beach and then found yourself scratching for the rest of the day? The same thing can happen to your dog. Rolling around in the grass, fur, or sand may cause itchiness that can be alleviated by a nice cool bath.
Fur mats, thistles, or anything else that sticks in the fur and pulls at the skin can also be an irritant. Grooming your dog should alleviate these problems.
Dogs may also develop itchiness if they have gotten wet and parts of their fur and skin haven't dried properly. This is known as wet eczema or a "hot spot" and may require a vet's attention for antibiotic or anti-inflammatory drugs.
3. Nutrition. Dogs require a high-quality meat-based diet, and if they don't get it, they are likely to develop a number of symptoms including skin irritation. Some low-cost commercial foods may not supply the appropriate nutrients, even if their advertisements state they provide a full and balanced diet. Consult with your vet about a good brand of food for your dog. The brand your vet recommends maybe a little more expensive than the one you're currently using, but will almost certainly lead to a healthier animal. If nutritional deficits are the cause of the itchiness, it may also help to add an omega fatty acid supplement to your dog's diet.
4. Allergies. Just like humans, dogs may become allergic to various substances in their environment. One allergy that many dogs share is an allergy to flea saliva, which makes a flea infestation doubly painful. Only a vet can diagnose allergies definitively, but you should suspect an allergic reaction if the skin is inflamed and dog continuously licks, chews, and bites at the affected site (often the ears, paws, or groin). There is no cure for allergies, only avoidance of the allergen. If your dog is allergic to a common substance, he or she may require allergy shots or antihistamines for comfort.
5. Infections. Finally, infections are a common cause of itchiness among dogs. The most common types of infection are bacterial and yeast. These infections rarely occur in healthy animals--they usually strike when the dog is tired, stressed, or ill. Bacterial infections of the skin typically look like small bumps. Yeast infections have a greasy appearance and may give off an unpleasant odor. Both types of infection require a vet's intervention.
So, now you know the common causes of canine itches. But it's three o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, your vet's office is closed until Monday morning, and your dog is suddenly scratching himself like crazy. What can you do to get through the weekend?
1. Bathe your dog with oatmeal shampoo in cool water. Don't use warm or hot water--you'll only make the itch worse. A cool bath won't cure the itch, but it may relieve the symptoms long enough to give your dog some relief. The oatmeal shampoo has also been associated with temporary relief of skin irritations.
2. Try an antihistamine. Antihistamines help about 40% of dogs with itching problems. They are commonly available in pet stores.
Unfortunately, man's best friend is often vulnerable to skin problems and itchiness. The information in this article cannot replace a veterinarian's advice, but it may give you ideas for identifying the cause of the itch and finding a remedy.