By The Farmer's Dog | December 31, 2019

For dogs, scratching is a normal and essential element of grooming, just like licking and chewing. But what do you do when your dog just won’t stop scratching?

This behavior can be motivated by anxiety or boredom, or it may have a clearer physical cause. In either case, constant scratching is a sign your dog is trying to relieve some irritation they’re experiencing, so it’s important to try to pin down the source of that discomfort.

Whether it’s a pest, an allergy, or a behavioral tic, getting to the source of the problem is the first step toward effectively alleviating your dog’s discomfort.

What causes itchy skin in dogs?

The most common causes of itching in dogs include parasites like fleas and ticks, allergies, skin disorders, stress, and hormonal imbalances. Let’s dive into each of them one by one.

Fleas and ticks: Fleas are common nuisances that can live for up to a year and reproduce rapidly. They’re parasitic creatures, needing a host to live on, so the ASPCA advises human companions to check their dog’s body for tiny dark or white specks (“flea dirt,” aka droppings, and eggs, respectively) in their coat. These are often most prevalent on a dog’s abdomen, near the base of the tail and around their neck. Patches of missing fur, scabs, and extra-sensitive “hot spots” are also resulting symptoms. Tapeworms, which are typically discovered in your pup’s stool, are another sign your dog likely has a flea problem, as dogs usually get tapeworms from ingesting an infected flea during grooming.

Ticks and their symptoms are very similar. They’re typically acquired on walks in woodsy or grassy areas—much like yourself, it’s important to check your dog thoroughly after rural rambles to ensure they don’t have any hangers-on. Ticks are capable of spreading serious diseases, such as Lyme disease, and the easiest way to prevent their impact is to remove them swiftly—ideally within 24 hours of exposure—and properly. The best way to remove a tick is to pull gently with tweezers as close to the skin as possible (read more about tick removal here).

Environmental allergies: Some dogs are sensitive to substances in their environment and can have allergic reactions to them, frequently in the form of itchy skin. Common environmental allergens for dogs include home cleaning products, pesticides, and soap, as well as dust mites, mold spores, pollen and animal dander. Some of these sources are easily controlled (by using a different floor cleaner, for instance); others are seasonal, much like human allergies. Your vet can test for common environmental allergens and recommend potential treatments if needed.

Food allergy or sensitivity: Allergies and sensitivities to certain food ingredients are fairly common in dogs, and itchy skin (and the resulting excessive scratching) is the number one way in which they manifest themselves. Other signs of food allergies in dogs include digestive problems like gas, diarrhea, and vomiting; hives; hair loss from excessive scratching; and facial swelling. Chronic ear and paw infections can also be a sign of food-based intolerances, and genetic factors can also play their part.

Bacterial or fungal infection: If you notice your dog’s skin looks thickened, scaly, flaky, or crusty, this could be a sign that their itchiness is caused by an infection. Other signs of skin infections are a musty odor, darkened patches of skin, redness indicating skin irritation, pustules (raised red bumps similar in appearance to human pimples), and chronic ear infections. Dogs don’t typically pick up these kinds of infections from interacting with other dogs, but rather from water, dirt and mud contaminated with high levels of certain bacteria.

Stress, boredom, and anxiety: Similar to compulsive human behavior like nail-biting, some dogs use scratching as a way to soothe psychological stress. In some dogs the compulsion can be as strong and as damaging as human obsessive compulsive disorder, and can result in self-injury from excessive scratching.

Dry skin: Just as many humans reach for skin lotion in the winter to alleviate their dryness, dogs can also experience dry skin when the temperature drops, causing itchiness. Certain nutrient deficiencies, such as a lack of quality protein or an improper balance of essential fatty acids, can also cause dry skin in dogs. This means diet can also be a strong factor, and exacerbate any environmentally instigated dryness.

Hormonal imbalance: Hypothyroidism, the scientific term for when the body’s metabolism slows down, can cause skin problems in dogs. These include sensitive skin, itching, and dryness. Considerable fur loss and a coat that seems dull or brittle are other signs of hormonal problems, as are weight gain, darkened and thickened skin, and behavioral changes like lethargy.

When to visit the vet

Again, every dog scratches from time to time. But if you notice your dog scratching excessively, whether it be at a specific zone or generally, you should make an appointment with your vet to determine the cause. In advance of your appointment, try to observe if there is any specific area your dog is focusing its energy on, as this information can help the vet to determine the cause.

Here are some of the signs that your dog’s scratching could be a medical issue warranting a talk with your vet:

  • Excessive scratching, biting, chewing or licking paws or other areas
  • Redness, scales, or sores on the skin
  • Hair loss
  • Frequent head shaking or scratching of the ears
  • Bad odor

How can I help soothe my dog’s itchy skin?

Consider if you’ve changed anything in your home environment, or if anything is different about any of the places you visit with your dog. It’s possible a new product or location can be the cause of your dog’s irritation. Likewise, if there’s anything new in your or your dog’s life that could be causing it stress, this could also be the root of the problem. Making sure your dog is safe and well-cared for both physically and psychologically is an important part of pet ownership, regardless of whether your dog is showing any signs of an issue.

Most crucially, pay attention to your dog’s diet. Food allergies and sensitivities are one of the most common causes of irritation in dogs, and they’re often the easiest ones to treat. Is your dog receiving everything it needs from its food—and most crucially, are you confident that you know exactly what it’s eating? Commercial pet food labels can be notoriously unreliable, meaning that your dog could even be ingesting substances in its regular meals that it shouldn’t be.

How can food help my dog’s itchy skin?

If you’re feeding kibble or canned foods—pet foods that are routinely found to contain ingredients not listed on the label, some of them extremely dangerous—it’s hard to be exactly sure what is going into your dog’s bowl. Therefore, it’s possible that your dog’s itchy skin is being caused by a “cutaneous adverse food reaction,” or CAFR. In plain English, this means your dog is reacting poorly to something in its meals—usually certain proteins, or wheat.

The best way to diagnose a food allergy or food intolerance and to identify problematic ingredients is with an elimination diet. Once you’ve fed your dog with an elimination diet for several weeks, it should become clearer as to whether your dog’s itchiness was being caused by something food-borne, as the symptoms will subside once you’ve removed the problem ingredient from your dog’s dinners. If the symptoms return when you switch them back to their original food, you’ll know almost certainly.

So, why not just feed a simple elimination-style diet constantly, to avoid potentially unpleasant ingredients ending up inside your pet? The answer is that elimination diets, while sustainable for a few weeks and useful for identifying issues, are not nutritionally complete and balanced for dogs. As you’re home cooking the food, it won’t have many of the essential nutrients and minerals dogs need for a healthy diet.

The next best thing is a fresh food diet. Not only are these foods specifically formulated to contain everything dogs need for their health, but as the food is fresh, its ingredients are typically far less processed than kibbles and canned food, which are subjected to intense heat and pressure to transform them from food into their final, shelf-stable form. And with fresh food still resembling actual food by the time it reaches your pup, you can truly tell what’s in it. Some are even made with human grade ingredients in USDA-certified kitchens, so you can actually taste it for yourself.

The importance of feeding fresh food

If you’ve ruled out external factors, food allergies and sensitivities are incredibly common causes of irritation for dogs, so it shouldn’t be surprising if one turns out to be the culprit in giving your dog grief. A vet visit is always recommended, but it’s actually recommended that all dogs suspected of having an allergic skin condition should be investigated for CAFR using an elimination diet.

When it comes to your part, what you feed your dog can have outsized effects on their overall well-being, not just in remedying apparent issues. From helping your dog avoid allergens and undesirable ingredients, to ensuring they’re getting a balanced, complete, and healthy diet that will help them avoid increasingly common issues — such as obesity, organ troubles, and digestive distress.

High-quality fresh food helps your dog to be comfortable inside and out, and appropriately fuels them to live their best, fullest life possible.

Image: Matthew Henry.