These questions are asked around the world by many pet owners to their veterinarian. Before diving into the many reasons why a pet is seen itching, licking or scratching, let us define what is occurring.
What is itching (pruritus)?
The skin is a sense organ. Pruritus is the uncomfortable sensation the skin organ uses to provoke an animal to rub or scratch a specific area. There are nerves within the skin that facilitate the sensation of itching. These nerves are located in the skin throughout the body: skin within the ears, tissue around the eyes, nose, mouth and anus.
Scratching likely evolved in animals to remove harmful parasites, however prolonged itching in most animals does more harm than good as it can lead to self-mutilation, scratches, openings in the skin for bacteria and yeast infections, lack of sleep for the affected animal and their household.
Symptoms that your pet is itchy
- Pulling hair out
- Shaking parts of their body when petted or rubbed
- Self-induced scratches or wounds
- Head shaking
- Continuous licking of objects
What are the causes of itch?
Itching, or pruritus, is seen as the observation of licking, biting and/or scratching. It is known that almost any skin or ear disease may have some degree of pruritus.
The most common cause of itching is environmental allergies, followed by flea infestations or flea bite allergies, then other common manifestations are from secondary bacterial infections due to many possible diseases, and finally food allergies.
Hormonal disease (Cushing’s, Hypothyroid, Hyperthyroid) can be very itchy due to the level of secondary infections seen in some pets with these hormonal imbalances.
- Environmental allergies
- Food allergies
- Flea allergies
- Contact reactions
- Drug reaction
- Insect bites (mosquito, fly)
- Parasite infection (Mange: demodex, scabies, notoedres)
- Bacterial infection
- Yeast infection
- Ear infection
- Ear mass/tumor
- Ringworm (dermatophyte)
- Skin lymphoma
- Mast cell tumors
- Autoimmune disease
- Nutritional disease (zinc deficient)
- Hair follicle disease (follicular dysplasia or color dilution alopecia)
- Genetic diseases
- Neurologic diseases
Since itching in our pets has many different causes, the first step will be gathering a detailed history of your pet and a detailed examination looking at every part of your pet’s skin. Based on this information, the dermatologist will be able to recommend the next steps in order to gain a diagnosis. A certified veterinary dermatologist will know which tests are most likely to achieve a diagnosis and which tests to avoid. Since dermatologists see many itchy pets per day, they can easily recognize common and uncommon conditions. There is no one size fits all approach for diagnosing itching.
Common tests used to help find the source of the itch are:
- Cytology which is used to examine the cells and infectious agents (bacteria, yeast, fungi) that are on your pet’s skin or within their ear.
- Skin scrape to allow for identification of parasites.
- Allergy testing to help see what your pet is allergic to. Guided diet trials to eliminate food that causes itching.
Topical products: Depending on the severity of itching, temperament of pet and time commitment requirements, the dermatologist may recommend a topical product. These products are the safe, but they may not be strong enough or may take too long to treat your pet’s itching.
- Medicated shampoo
- Medicated lotions and leave-in conditioners
- Ear cleaning solutions
- Ear drops
- Eye drops
Itch Medications: These medications make your pet feel better by reducing itch but do not treat the actual disease, just the symptoms associated with the disease.
• Cytopoint (Lokivetmab)—Very Safe, monoclonal antibody used to block an itch mediator from conducting the itch signal. Will make most dogs stop itching for a few weeks. (dogs only)
• Apoquel (Oclacitinib)—Safe, Janus-Kinase inhibitor used to block the body’s production of immune messengers (Cytokines) involved in itch and to a lesser extent inflammation. Blocks itching quickly for up to 18 to 24 hours. (dogs only)
• Atopica (Cyclosporine)—Mild to moderate side effects, calcineurin inhibitor used for inflammation (swelling, redness) and itching. It targets the white blood cells, which lower the production of immune mediators involved with the symptoms of environmental allergies.
• Glucocorticoids (Prednisone, Prednisolone, Methylprednisolone, Triamcinolone, Dexamethasone) – Mild to severe side effects that are dependent on dose and duration. These medications have receptors all over the body and target many aspects of the immune system reducing itching, inflammation and blocking allergic reactions.
• Anti-histamines: (Benadryl, Zyrtec, etc.) Very safe, histamine type-1 (H1) receptor antagonists (block histamine). The majority of itch in our pets is not histamine related, thus many pets do not respond to anti-histamines, there is also great variability in oral absorption of anti-histamines in our pets.
Infection medications: If your pet’s itching is due to a bacterial or fungal infection, your pet needs to be cleared of the infection to provide them comfort. A dermatologist is skilled at selecting sites on your pet’s body to be sampled for a cytology which they look at using a high-powered microscope to identify infections which contribute to itching.
- Antibiotics: Using past history and discussion of medication sensitives, the dermatologist can recommend safe first line antibiotics or advise you if it is better to take a sample of the bacteria and send it to the laboratory. Laboratory cultures are used to identify the causative bacteria and what antibiotic would be best to use.
- Antifungal medications: both oral and topical anti-fungal medications can be discussed.
Natural remedies you can try at home
- Frequent bathing if your pet suffers from pollen or environmental allergy induced itch.
- Washing paws after going for a walk outside.
- Avoiding triggers for your dog. For example, if you notice your dog gets itchy all over after rolling around in grass, it would be best to have them avoid that behavior or rinse them off with water right after.
- Weekly ear cleaning with a mild ear cleanser.
- Washing your dog’s bedding frequently.
- Vacuuming and dusting inside the house frequently.
- Using air purifiers during allergy season and keeping the windows closed.
- Avoiding insect bites outdoors.
- Fish oil supplements can provide relief from some causes of itching.
- Feeding your pet a high quality balanced diet. Some homemade diets have nutritional deficiencies and can contribute to itchiness.
- Staying on flea prevention to prevent itching from flea bites and the presence of fleas.
Is there a cure for itching?
We often see pet’s with allergies who take anti-itch medications like Cytopoint, Apoquel, steroids and Atopica, but their itching has not resolved or has gotten worse. Frequently, this is due to a secondary infection caused by an underlying disease. Only by treating the infection and subsequently getting to the root cause of the infection can your pet be comfortable in their own skin.
We are experts at treating itchy pets, and we will be able to develop an effective plan to treat it. If the root cause of the itching is an infection or treatable disease, sometimes just treating the condition will provide a cure. If the itching is due to environmental allergies, immunotherapy can provide a great deal of relief for the pet and reduce the amount of itch they experience. If the itch is due to food allergies, then avoiding the foods that induce itch will provide a cure. If the itch is from flea or other parasites, getting rid the parasite and reducing exposure can provide a cure. Sometimes, pets will require a cocktail of treatments to keep them comfortable throughout the year and a dermatologist will be able to develop the best treatment plan.