Constant scratching, licking, chewing, and rubbing are good indicators that your pet is itchy, but what is causing the problem? Your pet’s itchy skin can have numerous causes, and our Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital team provides questions that will help you determine the reason for your pet’s itchiness.

Does your pet have fleas?

You likely are thinking, “Absolutely not!” But, before you answer, you should know that most owners whose pet has flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) never find a flea. Allergic pets react to compounds in the flea’s saliva, and one bite can cause severe itchiness that results in incessant licking, chewing, and scratching that typically remove the fleas from the pet’s coat. In some cases, owners do see flea dirt that appears as small black flecks in their pet’s coat and bedding, which is a good indication that the pet has fleas. All fleas must be removed from FAD pets and eradicated from their environment to prevent itchiness. 

The first step is removing the fleas from the pet, which involves bathing your pet and using a flea comb to help remove the fleas and flea dirt from their coat. More importantly, your pet, and every household pet, should remain on veterinary-approved flea prevention medication year-round.

The next step involves removing fleas from your pet’s environment. Fleas have a complex life cycle, and addressing a flea infestation can be difficult, because the fleas must be killed at every life stage. Recommendations include:

  • Washing — Discard or thoroughly wash all your pet’s bedding.
  • Vacuuming — Sweep and vacuum your floors and upholstery and discard the vacuum bag.
  • Treating — Treat all your home surfaces with appropriate insecticide. If your pet spends time outdoors, you may also need to treat your yard.
  • Repeating — Repeat these steps until all fleas at every life stage are eradicated.

Are your pet’s signs seasonal?

Pets can be allergic to environmental allergens that commonly include grass and tree pollens, mold spores, and dust mites. Depending on the cause of your pet’s reaction, their itchiness may be seasonal, and they likely suffer from a condition called atopy. Affected pets have a defective skin barrier that allows allergens to penetrate and cause inflammation, and some breeds, including golden retrievers, Shar-pei, Labrador retrievers, boxers, and pugs, are predisposed. Once atopy is diagnosed, allergy testing can be performed to determine what allergens are causing the reaction. Typically, multiple therapies are needed to control your pet’s skin inflammation and itchiness. Potential treatments we may prescribe include:

  • Year-round flea control — Many atopic pets also have FAD and require year-round flea control.
  • Antimicrobials — Atopic pets often have secondary skin infections and need antimicrobials to clear these infections.
  • Bathing — Removing allergens from your pet’s skin can help reduce irritation and itching. To prevent over bathing, which can lead to dry skin, wipe your pet’s coat with a wet cloth between baths.
  • Steroids — Steroids have strong anti-inflammatory effects and are often needed to control atopy, especially in acute flares.
  • Anti-itch medications — We may prescribe other medications to help control your pet’s itchiness.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids — Omega-3 fatty acids disrupt inflammatory compound production in the skin and promote skin health.
  • Acupuncture Acupuncture naturally improves immunity and can lower your pet’s allergic response.
  • Hyposensitization therapy — More commonly known as allergy shots, this treatment involves administering gradually increasing doses of allergen to help desensitize your pet to the problematic allergen.

Does your pet also have gastrointestinal signs?

Food allergic pets most commonly have Itchy, inflamed skin, but some also experience gastrointestinal signs, such as diarrhea, gas, and vomiting. Food allergies are typically caused by proteins, such as chicken, beef, eggs, and dairy sources and, in most cases, the pet has been eating the diet for several months or years before showing signs. If we suspect your pet has a food allergy, we may recommend a diet trial to aid in diagnosis. This involves:

  • The diet — You can use a hypoallergenic diet that contains a novel protein your pet has never eaten, or a hydrolyzed diet in which the protein is broken down to such small compounds that the body no longer reacts.
  • Adherence — During the diet trial, your pet must eat nothing but the approved food for at least six to eight weeks—meaning no treats, table scraps, medicated chews, or foraging outside. Any lapse in the diet can skew results.
  • Reintroduction — If your pet responds well to the diet trial, you can reintroduce ingredients from their previous diet to determine the problematic ingredient.
  • Avoidance — Once identified, the causative ingredient should be banned from your pet’s diet.

Where are your pet’s lesions?

In some cases, your pet’s lesion distribution can help determine the cause. Examples include:

  • Flea allergy dermatitis — Pets affected by FAD often have skin lesions and hair loss on their lower back, inner thighs, and abdomen.
  • Environmental allergies — Pets affected by environmental allergies often have skin lesions and hair loss around their eyes and mouth, on their feet, limbs, and abdomen, and under their tail.
  • Food allergies — Dogs affected by food allergies often have skin lesions and hair loss on their face, feet, and under their tail, while cats show signs on their head and neck.
  • Scabies — Pets affected by scabies often have skin lesions and hair loss at the edges of their ears, and on their face, elbows, hocks, and abdomen.

When did your pet’s itchiness start?

In some cases, your pet’s age when signs start can help determine the cause of their itchiness. Examples include:

  • Atopy — Itchiness caused by atopy typically starts when a pet is young, usually between 1 and 3 years of age.
  • Food allergies — Itchiness caused by food allergies typically starts when pets are younger than 6 months or 5 years or older. 

A thorough diagnostic workup is necessary to determine what is causing your pet’s itchiness. Contact our Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital team, so we can relieve your pet’s itchy skin as soon as possible.