My dog is itching. I think it has allergies. What should I do?

Itching in dogs can be a simple thing or a very complicated condition. In our coastal location, fleas are one of the main sources of itching in dogs. Our hospital hears one statement a lot, which is “my dog doesn’t have fleas.” Well in fact, many dogs do. It is very possible–even likely–that fleas are part of the problem if your dog and your house are not treated for them. With an itchy dog, it is recommended to have a discussion with your vet on the best strategy to get fleas under control if they are found on your pet. If they are not found on your pet, discussing strategy to keep them off your pets and out of your home should be had. If fleas are under control by use of a prescription flea control and a good quality premise spray, then we should start to have the discussion of allergy or other sources of itching.

Owners often think that their dogs have “allergies.” It seems to be a catchall diagnosis like “cancer.” Often the first thing owners do is change the food to another over the counter foodstuff. This author does not recommend this approach at all, because a fairly large assumption is being made that the food is the problem. In the authors’ years as a veterinarian, food is usually only a small part of the problem, it is often not the part that the owner assumes it is, and by changing foods in a truly allergic dog you are often creating more allergies. The first thing I wish people did, would be do make an appointment with their vet to discuss itching as a problem.

Allergy is defined as “abnormal reaction of the body to a previously encountered allergen introduced by inhalation, ingestion, injection, or skin contact (source: So, allergen and allergy are different and it is important to understand that the allergen is what is causing the abnormal reaction called allergy. The intention of this article is to provide a very general discussion of itching in dogs. If further discussion is needed or desired an appointment with your veterinarian is recommended.

At the top of the article, it stated that figuring out the source of itching can be simple or very complicated. If the source of itching is clearly visible (fleas); then getting rid of the fleas is the answer.  But if the itching is subtle and not clearly visible then often it can become a diagnostic and therapeutic challenge. Tools used to determine the source of itching include (but are not limited to): basic exam, minimum database (CBC, biochemistry profile, and urine), coat brushing, skin scraping, photographs, body mapping, allergy testing, and therapeutic trials. Many of these techniques sound simple but often require machines or skills that your veterinarian will have to provide such as microscope, blood analyzing machines, and years of experience. Most of the time, itching in dogs is a condition that will need to be managed rather than cured. The management of this requires a good partnership between veterinarian and owner(s).

In dogs, the source of itching can broadly be grouped into three categories: parasites, infection and allergy. The control of allergy can be separated into two groups: avoidance of the allergen or suppression of the allergy. With itchy dogs that are making themselves and their owners miserable it is very tempting to simply suppress a suspected allergy with and “allergy shot.” This is not recommended, because if the source of the itching is a parasite or infection then it can make the underlying condition much much worse (and suppression can often cause other underlying problems). Often it takes a trained and experienced veterinarian several appointments to get a handle on the itching, and if suppression is the first therapy then it often takes longer to get the itching under control in a manner that doesn’t make the dog sick or sicker.

Now itching IS a real problem as dogs itching can cause skin infection, aggravate arthritis in older dogs, and keep the owner awake all night long among the many things. What also often bothers owners is that itching is a type of pain, and they hate seeing their dogs uncomfortable.

One thing an owner can do at home to help an itchy dog is rinse the coat off: this is not a bath as there is no soap used. The simple goal is to rinse out the coat to get rid of allergens (pollens, yeasts, dust, dirt, cigarette smoke dust, etc) that may be trapped in coat in-between the hairs of the fur. Rinsing is often done with warm water so the dog is comfortable and will stand for rinsing. The water pressure used should be moderate to moderate-high to help force sticky items such as pollens out of the coat, but not so high as to hurt the dog. Rinsing can be done daily but the dog should be towel dried or gently dried using a hair drier. The importance of rinsing cannot be overstated as dogs itch themselves three ways: scratching with their feet, chewing with their mouth, and rubbing on inanimate objects. When dogs are chewing at themselves allergens that are trapped in the fur are relocated to the mouth, the nasal passages, or into the lungs (if a deep breath occurred) all of which are membranous and highly reactive (highly vascular). This highly reactive tissue that has a lot of blood supply often causes a more generalized reaction.

Simple rinsing of dogs is important as is regular flea control, but if your dog is still itchy, please seek veterinary help for the benefit and comfort of your dog.

Dr. Dannell Davis
Astoria Animal Hospital