Is your dog scratching and licking himself a lot? Vet Emelie Fogelberg advises on some of the causes of itchy skin and what you can do about it.
Let’s start by looking at what the skin is and why it is important. The skin is the largest organ of the body. It regulates your pet’s temperature and provides a barrier against the environment.
It is made up of different layers, structures, and micro-organisms, and it is important to keep all these balanced to minimise the risk of skin disease developing. The skin is like a brick wall with the skin cells being the bricks and the substances that hold them together being the mortar.
The structure of healthy versus damaged skin.
So, what does the skin do?
The skin barrier is essential in protecting the body from external irritants, but also for keeping vital nutrients and moisture inside the body. It is therefore very important to support and protect the skin before, during, and after problems occur.
The picture below left shows a healthy skin barrier where allergens (such as pollens) and parasites are kept out, and moisture is kept in. As you can see, the ‘bricks and mortar’ structure is nice and strong. But the picture below right shows what damaged skin looks like, with the bricks and mortar separated and falling apart. This allows allergens in and moisture out, leading to dry and itchy skin.
Why is my dog scratching?
The reasons why a dog is scratching more than normal are many. Getting a diagnosis is not always straightforward, but some of the more common reasons for itchy skin in dogs are:
Flea dirt from coat brushing; note the red staining of the tissue when wet.
Fleas and flea-bite hypersensitivity
Fleas are the most common cause of dogs scratching a lot. Some dogs are allergic to the flea saliva so when the fleas bite, they have a strong reaction to it. Lesions in response to fleas often manifest themselves over the dog’s back as loss of fur — due to licking and nibbling — and lots of small scabs, but they can appear anywhere on the body.
The first thing to do if you think your dog is scratching more than normal is to check for fleas. If you take your dog to the vet he or she will do this by combing your dog with a flea comb to look for flea dirt (flea poo in the form of digested blood) and live fleas. This is also something you can do as a quick test at home. By placing what’s on the comb on a wet paper towel, the flea dirt will dissolve and leave red marks. This is enough to show that your dog has fleas and a veterinary recommended flea treatment should be applied. If the black specks don’t turn red, it is probably true dirt rather than flea dirt.
In some cases, if the dog is licking himself a lot, neither fleas nor flea dirt are found. Depending on the presentation of the skin lesion, your vet may recommend trying to treat for fleas to see if the skin improves and the scratching subsides.
Live fleas seen on your dog are only the tip of the iceberg.
Because of the nature of the flea life cycle, live fleas seen on your dog are only the tip of the iceberg. The majority of the flea population is in your home (95 per cent), and for effective flea control you therefore need to treat your house with a flea spray, and all other dogs and cats in the household with an effective flea control product. Fleas are very contagious and can be brought in by a dog or cat after they have been outside.
The easiest way to protect your dog from fleas is to use regular flea treatment all year around — prevention is better, and much easier, than managing an infestation. Another important reason to use flea preventatives regularly is because fleas can transmit diseases (such as tapeworm) to your dog.
Other parasites that can cause your dog to scratch include mites, such as scabies and demodex. Many flea preventatives also treat and prevent mites. Your vet will be able to advise on what treatment is the best option for your dog.
Allergies are a common cause of scratching in dogs. When a dog has allergies, the immune system is overly sensitive to certain everyday substances (food, pollen, or house dust mites for example) and it begins to identify them as foreign. Even though these substances (called allergens) are usually common in most environments and harmless to most animals, a dog with allergies will have an extreme reaction to them making the skin very itchy. As the dog licks and scratches in response to the itch, the skin gets damaged.
An allergic dog with sore skin due to a contact allergy.
A dog can be allergic to a number of different substances, making managing the disease challenging as it is not always possible to avoid all allergens. However, identifying and avoiding the major contributor(s) can make it easier.
It is important to realise that this is a lifelong disease and the skin will flare up at times. Also, remember that allergies can’t be cured but have to be managed for life with medications and topical therapies.
Atopy is a type of allergy where the dog has a genetic predisposition to develop a sensitivity to allergens in the environment. Dogs with atopy have a defective skin barrier, allowing easier entry of allergens into the skin, and allowing moisture out, making the skin dry and itchy. This also makes the skin more prone to infections, as bacteria and yeasts will gain access and start to multiply. Skin infections are a fairly common finding in atopic dogs. Topical therapies to support the skin barrier are therefore very important when managing this disease.
Atopy is a very difficult disease to diagnose as there is no specific test for it. Your vet will have to rule out any other causes for itchy skin first. This will involve a number of tests and a food trial where a hypo-allergenic diet is fed to your dog for a minimum of six – eight weeks. Achieving a diagnosis therefore can take months, so patience is critical to achieving the best outcome for your pet.
Commonly affected body areas for this disease include feet, ears, skin folds, and belly.
A Westie with longstanding atopy and patchy fur on his body and feet with areas of skin discolouration.
Supporting your dog’s skin
If your dog is diagnosed with allergies or just has sensitive skin, it is important to support his skin barrier alongside the medication prescribed by your vet. Topical therapies can help reduce flares and support your dog’s skin. These come in the form of shampoos, mousses, or pads. Bathing your dog will help get rid of irritants and debris from the skin and this is very important. Not all dogs like to be bathed, however, or maybe it is difficult for you to get your dog into the bathtub or shower. In these cases, mousses are a great alternative as they don’t require any rinsing.
Top tips on managing skin disease in dogs
SPEAK TO YOUR VET
— to identify the reason why your dog is scratching and/or losing fur. Allergies are lifelong and getting a proper diagnosis will help determine the best treatment plan for your dog.
— dogs with allergies have a defective skin barrier, so it is essential to support and protect it. This can be done using high-quality shampoo and/or mousses that help soothe the skin and restore the skin barrier ecosystem.
— the most common cause of dogs scratching a lot is fleas. Regularly treat your dog with a veterinary recommended flea treatment. Depending on the product, it may also protect your dog from ticks, worms, and mites.
— feed your dog a high-quality, balanced diet. This can be supplemented with essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals if recommended by your vet. Your vet may also prescribe a hypo-allergenic diet for your dog.
— schedule regular check-ups with your vet. This can help manage the condition and any flare-ups can be dealt with quickly.
MONITOR AND DOCUMENT
— keep a diary and take regular photos of your dog’s condition. This can help you and your vet pinpoint when your dog is likely to have flare-ups or if the treatment is successful. Remember, there is no cure for allergies and lifelong management will be needed.
DOUXO S3 CALM, from Ceva Animal Health, is available in both shampoo and mousse (no rinse) formulations, and is specifically designed to support and maintain the skin barrier while also soothing the skin. The pictures show a Staffordshire Bull Terrier with redness, itching, and scratch marks, in the armpits and along the chest, due to a skin flare-up. The second picture was taken after three weeks of using DOUXO S3 CALM. The skin was back to normal and the itching had resolved.”
● Remember to discuss any additions to your dog’s management protocol with your vet.