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How to treat & prevent itchy skin in dogs

Danni Sheppet-HamiltonBy Danni Sheppet-Hamilton
(Qualified Vet Nurse and dog training instructor)

Is your dog suffering itchy skin? Learn the do’s and don’ts of treatment and prevention!

It’s that time again… summer and hot weather can mean itchy skin for our canine friends.

Puppy scratchingIs your dog keeping you awake scratching and chewing? To find a solution, we must first understand why our dogs get skin allergies and the different variations of what could be causing your dog to keep you up at night scratching and chewing. We also must understand why treating the cause doesn’t necessarily treat the problem.

Causes of doggy skin problems

The most common problem is fleas

When your dog is itching, looking for fleas is probably the place to start. Even if you can’t obviously see a flea on your dog, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an infestation about to hatch. Fleas have 4 stages involved in their life/breeding cycle. The adult fleas you can see are only 5% of the problem.

Prevention: This is why prevention is so important. Most owners try and use ‘top spot’ products expecting them to have an instant ‘fix it’ affect on their dog that may have a huge flea problem.

Remember, although these products do kill the adult flea, their main job is to PREVENT the flea cycle from getting out of control. That’s why it is important to use these products all year thru, as once the warmer season hits, if your dogs haven’t had flea prevention used over this time, the eggs that have been lying dormant over the cooler period will hatch– and that has the potential to become a big problem.

Unfortunately, flea powders and collars are ‘yesterdays’ remedy. I say they only make the flea ‘sneeze’, not drop off the dog – or better drop dead and off the dog!

New solutions: Fortunately technology has come a long way and your dog simply doesn’t have to endure the itch and discomfort of fleas any longer. Consult your Vet for the appropriate product that suits your lifestyle.

EVEN ONE FLEA IS TOO MANY. It is also important to keep in mind that even if your dog is not madly scratching, it doesn’t mean he/she doesn’t have fleas–it could mean his/her sensitivity isn’t as great. Also remember the importance of treating the entire doggy environment–carpet, dog bedding, etc.


A fancy name for what is best described as hay fever for dogs. Although our dogs don’t sneeze, cough, and walk around with puffy eyes and runny noses, it is the way that this condition is transferred that is similar.

Atopy is an allergy against inhaled allergens. This might include dust mites, pollens, mould spores, and any other inhalants that may be affected by a seasonal change. The way we can determine if our dog has an Atopic allergy is by asking:

  • Does my dog itch all over and in no particular place?
  • Does my dog get regular ear infections?
  • Does my dog lick and chew it’s feet?

This condition has varied treatments and it is important you take your dog to the Vet as soon as you suspect this condition–once it has gone too long it can create severe skin infections and ear problems. Definitely do not try to fix this problem on your own.

Contact allergies

Basically just like it sounds–an allergy from coming into contact with grasses, trees, plants,etc. These are the more common causes, but some dogs may also be allergic to wool (eg. carpet) and other allergic matter that has contact to their skin. This usually presents on the underside of the dog as though the dog may have a ‘water line’ along it’s side, where the dog comes in contact with the allergen when it lies down. It may also lick & chew its feet. Again, go straight to the Vet –another problem you shouldn’t try to resolve yourself. Before you race to the Vet, have a good look around your garden and take note of what is there. Your Vet will know what may be a likely cause of the problem.

Food allergies

If this is the cause, you dog is probably not just starting to itch now that warm weather is here, so that will be a tell tale sign. Your Vet can explain how this works, but food allergies are less common than the other problems we have discussed so far.

Sarcoptic mange

Don’t forget about good old mange mites. Sarcoptic mange is transferable to humans, so be careful. Ask yourself:

  • Where has my dog been lately?
  • Has my dog come into contact with any wildlife?

Demodectic mange is different, but with both problems the solution is to go straight to your Vet–medication is required.

Treating your dog’s itchy skin

Why is it so important to attend to itching dogs quickly and why shouldn’t you try to cure the problem yourself with different shampoos, potions, and lotions?

As our dogs become irritated by any of the problems mentioned above, they start to itch, scratch, and chew at themselves attempting to provide themselves some relief.

Commensals: On a dogs skin is what we call ‘commensals’ – organisms that live naturally on the skin to keep the skin healthy and prevent worse pathogens or ‘nasties’ from entering the skin layer. These commensals are Staph (bacteria) and Malassezia (yeast). When our dog breaks the skin layer by chewing & scratching, combining that with salava and a warm, moist environment, these commensals get very excited. They start to help each other grow and before we know it, not only does our dog have the original reason for itching, but they also have a raging skin infection to go with it!

Treat the cause early: Hence the importance of treating the underlying cause quickly so it doesn’t get to the next stage. If you leave it too long, it is harder to resolve and your dog will go through the grief of excessive itchiness until mum or dad takes him/her to be treated. The yeast growth that will occur is actually very itchy all on it’s own so that the more it grows, the itchier your dog becomes. Some dogs are particularly sensitive to this, so even the slightest Malassezia growth will send a dog scratching madly.

Remember – Human products may irritate your dog
b_Dog-in-bathPlease don’t use ‘made for human products’ on your dog’s coat. Dogs have a thinner skin layer than humans and also a different PH. This is why we shouldn’t use human shampoos – even baby shampoos – on our dogs.

Essential oils are out as well, so NO shampoos containing:

  • tea tree
  • lavender
  • eucalyptus

…even if you can buy them at the pet shop! They are very irritating to your dog’s skin.

Also taboo: Wool wash, fabric softener, sunlight soap and any other variation of ridiculous methods people say are great to make your dog softer, whiter, blacker, and/or pink polka dots–all bad, forbidden, taboo for your dog if you want her/him to enjoy a healthy coat & skin.

Save time, money & frustration: Just stick to a good quality, soap free dog shampoo that is recommended by your Vet. You will save your dog hours of misery and yourself time and money sorting out problems that could have been easily prevented.

Remember – do not try to self treat!
I often see people try and treat their dog while stabbing in the dark about what may be causing the itch. They try essential oil (eg tea tree) shampoos and antibacterial shampoos trying to give their dog relief.

The problem is essential oils are terrible things for a dogs skin and will be sure to make the problem worse. It is a fallacy that treating with tea tree shampoo will help the skin infection.

Likewise, if we use an antibacterial shampoo before our dog has an infection, we will surely dry their skin and make the dog feel itchier with not only a skin allergy, but now combined with dry skin as well.

Non-professionals commonly treat the wrong problem with the wrong solution. This results in the dogs skin becoming worse so what could have been prevented, now has the dog suffering a raging skin infection.

So please remember… be especially alert for doggy skin problems during hot weather, treat underlying causes straight away so you then won’t necessarily have to end up treating the infection – and if in any doubt, consult your Vet.

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