There are three main causes of itchiness that we need to investigate and rule in or out when presented with an itchy dog or cat. The first is parasites. These can be in the form of parasites such as fleas, ticks, and mites, or fungus (ringworm ). We will comb your pet to look for evidence of fleas or ticks, potentially do a procedure called a skin scraping where we will look for mites that live on the surface of the skin (or just beneath), and possibly do a fungal culture to rule out fungal infection such as ringworm. We will be particularly interested in the latter two tests if we see hair-loss as well. The important thing to remember with all of these is that false negatives do happen and even if we don’t see evidence of these infections/infestations in our tests if our clinical suspicion is high enough, we may recommend treating with a safe medication just in case.
The second thing we look for is evidence of skin infection as a cause of the itchiness. A staph infection can make an animal incredibly itchy and sometimes a good course of antibiotics will be enough to cure the problem and stop the itch. We must, however, always keep in mind that while a skin infection may be the primary cause of the itchiness, it could be that your pet has something else going on and the skin has become infected secondarily due to excessive licking and scratching. Often with deeper skin infections, antibiotics may be prescribed anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 weeks depending on the severity of the condition. It is important to remember that infections might not be just bacterial as well. It is not uncommon for animals to get yeast infections in their skin which can compound things as well as cause odor. This component of infection may be treated with oral anti-fungal medication or special shampoos and wipes depending on the severity and on the individual pet’s needs.
The third and probably most common reason we are presented with itchy dogs and cats (especially dogs!) is allergies. Animals can be allergic to most of the same things that we are but can largely be broken down into three main categories: allergy to fleas (see the first thing we look for above!), allergy to food (dogs and cats often manifest a food allergy as itchy skin), or allergy to something in the environment (mold, dust, dust mites, pollen, weeds, grasses, shampoos, detergents, etc). Usually, when an animal has an allergy, the problem is recurrent. If we are seeing the problem year-round, we are more inclined to think of food as a culprit. If we are seeing flare-ups of itchy skin seasonally, we are more likely to think of environmental causes. Allergies can be very difficult to manage as there is no cure. We do the best we can to identify the cause of the allergy and keep your pet as comfortable as possible with as few flare-ups as we can manage throughout the year. If a food allergy is suspected, we will recommend a special diet for your special girl or guy. If an environmental allergy is suspected, we may recommend frequent bathing during certain times of year to wash off allergens or avoidance of grasses or weeds that seem to set things off and potentially even antihistamines. Some dogs are severely affected enough to warrant allergy shots, just as they do in humans. Always important though is to keep your pet current on their flea/tick medication as sensitive skin can be set off by just a couple of fleas so prevention is key there!
There is an entire branch of veterinary medicine, just as in human medicine, devoted to the skin of our beloved pets. Veterinary dermatology is a specialty for which after completion of vet school, an internship and a residency must be completed to certify these experts in their fields. And if we have a particularly challenging case, or if an owner wants an expert opinion from the get-go, we can offer a referral to a specialist in our area. It is obviously a complicated topic and these are just some of the most common things we see causing itchiness. There are definitely others but you at least can get an idea of our initial thought process when we see your uncomfortable, scratching pet that just desperately wants to be comfortable again.