Help! My Dog is Scratching All the Time!

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This article features advice from expert vet, Dr Carra Walters.

Itchy dog rolling on ground, scratching back.

Photo by Michael Oxendine

Have you ever thought, My dog is constantly scratching and biting himself – what’s going on? You may have even carried out all your routine tick and flea treatments, yet your dog is scratching but there’s no fleas? Well, the answer isn’t always as simple as it seems. Our pets can experience itchiness for various reasons, and to effectively tackle it we need to take a holistic approach.

Let’s look at a common problem: pruritus in dogs – pruritus meaning the itching of the skin. If your four-legged friend is always scratching their belly with their hind legs, scratching their ears and shaking their head, gnawing, or licking their fur and losing hair over time, you’re likely looking for ways to up your dog skin care routine. We can help! We’ve asked our favourite veterinarian, Dr Carra Walters, to delve into the topic of pruritus and break down the details for us. Here’s what she had to say.

Young dog scratching ear.

Photo by Rachel Claire

UltraVet: What are Some Triggers or Causes of Pruritis?

Dr Carra: Answering the question, ‘Why is my dog scratching so much?’ can be extremely frustrating for pet owners because there are so many causes or triggers to consider, such as the environment surrounding your pet, any surface allergens in or around your home, their daily hygiene, their diet, and their exposure to sunlight. 

UltraVet: What Dietary Measures Can You Take to Stop the Scratching?

Dietary Interventions

Owner giving dog treat, dog diet advice.

Photo by James Lacy

Dr Carra: I often have pet owners asking questions like, ‘Can I add oil (olive or coconut) to dog food for itchy skin?’, ‘Are there any homemade remedies or is there dog food for sensitive skin that you’d recommend?’ Pruritus can be linked to diet, and it’s worth looking at as part of a holistic approach. Rather than resorting to home remedies and adding olive or coconut oil to their food, you could try a hypoallergenic diet, which contains novel protein sources or hydrolysed proteins, since these can make a massive difference for pets with food sensitivities. If you’re considering the route of dog food for itchy skin, then you could try UltraPet’s Special Diet Hypo-Allergenic kibbles which have Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids to enhance skin health. They’re also made with novel duck meat protein and novel carbohydrate potato to enhance your dog’s nutrition.

What are novel proteins? These are proteins your pet hasn’t been introduced to before, and this lowers the chance of an allergic reaction. Hydrolysed proteins are proteins that are broken down with a chemical process called hydrolysis, resulting in smaller, less allergenic fragments. Always work with your vet to find the most suitable dietary approach for your pet. Whilst switching to a different diet can take time, it’s really worth the benefits gained and overall well-being of your precious pooch. Keep in mind that when you choose the hypo-allergenic diet approach, you should not be modifying it with snacks on the side. This can work against your pet, waste time and money, and contain allergens – defeating the purpose of the diet! Rather reward your dog with hypo-allergenic kibble (pellets) but be sure to remove this treat portion from their daily diet.

UltraVet: To What Extent Does a Dog’s Surrounding Environment Contribute to Their Itching?

Environmental Factors

Dr Carra: You should pay careful attention to your pet’s environment. Our pets are surrounded by allergy triggers or allergens, which send their immune system into overdrive, leading to an allergic reaction. You may think of flea infestations as a primary allergen, however, there are many things that can lead to a dog that’s itchy and losing hair. These include dust mites, pollen, and even mould. Such allergens are prevalent and are present in most homes, causing daily discomfort for our furry friends.

To fight against these allergens, the best you can do is reduce allergen exposure. Frequent household cleaning, including vacuum your living spaces and washing your pet’s bedding in hot water, is highly recommended. You can also get yourself a high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) to up home hygiene for you and your pet. These measures can really reduce your allergen load and give your dog itchy skin relief.

UltraVet: What Else Can You Do to Relieve Your Pet?

Dog taking a bath, itchy skin treatment.

Photo by benjamin lehman on Unsplash

Dermatological Hygiene and Surface Allergens

Dr Carra: Dermatological hygiene or your dog skin care regime, can play a big part in alleviating itchiness. I would recommend you bath your dog regularly to manage surface allergens. With this being said, be weary of choosing any old dog shampoo for itchy skin. Be on the lookout for ones that are specially developed for your pet. Dogs have different pH levels than humans do, so your shampoo won’t work as well on them.

You need to choose hypoallergenic shampoos that are formulated for sensitive skin. These shampoos often contain gentle, moisturising ingredients that will soothe itchiness and enhance overall skin health. Some tips I’d recommend would be to gently yet thoroughly bathe your pet. However, try not to overdo it, as harsh washing will rid the skin of its natural oils and make the problem worse.

You should also read the label carefully as some shampoos need to sit for a set – It’s usually 10 minutes for most shampoos. A helpful tip is to let your dog run around and play in the garden after applying the shampoo. This ensures you get the maximum benefit from the shampoo.

UltraVet: Are There Any Other Triggers You Can Think of That Pet Owners Should Be Weary of?

Photoprotection – Avoiding UV Light

Golden Retriever basking in the sun, dog skincare.

Photo by Cornelia Steinwender 

Dr Carra: Interestingly, ultraviolet (UV) light can agitate some skin conditions in pets. Although sunshine is healthy for our pets, too much UV exposure can worsen conditions that cause itchy skin, especially conditions like atopic dermatitis (eczema).

What can you do to help your pet? During peak UV hours, it’s advisable to reduce their sun exposure. Protective measures like shade and pet clothing can be a huge help. Dogs with light-coloured fur or exposed skin will benefit the most. In addition to these measures, you can apply pet-safe sunscreen for an extra layer of protection. It’s a good idea to speak to your vet before buying any products. Always ask them for their recommendations.

End of Interview.

When to See a Vet:

So, when should you see a vet? A little scratching here and there is often harmless. However, non-stop scratching that leads to a change in your dog’s typical routine and that accompanies hair loss, redness, a bad smell, or sores can indicate that you should seek professional help.

Bernese Mountain dog lying on grass, canine skincare

Photo by aisvri

We hope you’ve enjoyed this thorough exploration of canine pruritus management through a holistic lens. In line with Dr Carra’s insights, it’s prudent to note that our focus needs to shift further than symptom relief. To properly address the issue of a dog with dry itchy skin, constantly scratching at their ears or belly, we should always look at diagnosing and improving the underlying cause – whatever that may be. A little troubleshooting or a trial-and-error approach is often required in order to make progress.

To sum it all up, pet owners should look at reducing environmental triggers, selecting appropriate dermatological products, implementing dietary changes (such as hypo-allergenic dog food), and being mindful of UV light exposure. By employing a variety of treatment strategies, you can enhance the comfort and well-being of your beloved pet.

We’d like to thank Dr Carra for her valuable insights and knowledge as an experienced vet. If you would like to hear more advice from her, consider subscribing to her Paws and Effect YouTube channel and podcast (on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify) or following her on Instagram.

About Dr Cara:

photo of Dr Cara Walters

Image courtesy of Dr Cara Walters

Dr Cara obtained her veterinary qualification through The University of Edinburgh. She is the owner of the Hillcrest Veterinary Hospital and founder of Just for Pets. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in animal nutrition through the University of Glasgow and is host of the Paws and Effect podcast.