Does your pet have itchy skin?

June 3, 2022

Reading Time: 6 minutes


These are some of the most frustrating nonlife-threatening illnesses you and your pet may have to face. Allergies are a common cause, but other skin problems can be involved. Unlike humans with allergies, dogs and cats do not typically sneeze, cough and have blocked sinuses. Instead, in our cats and dogs, allergies may show up as itchingRedness of the skin (sometimes they may even ooze or weep ), licking and chewing of the paws, pimples or rashes, dry flakey skin, areas of hairloss and less commonly  runny eyes and nose.

So what are the causes and how do I find out what is causing my pet to itch, watch or read below ?

To get to the bottom of what is causing your pet to itch, the vet will need to exclude common causes of skin problems. The vet uses both the details unique to your pet such as their breed, sex and age, as well as details on the onset, duration, location and severity of the skin problem. After this discussion, and a full physical exam, your vet may perform different tests to further narrow down the cause.

For example:

Mites (Scabies and demodex) can sometimes be identified by gently scraping the skin and looking under the microscope for these little parasites. Mites can’t always be found, so in some cases, a treatment trial (if the itch resolves with the treatment, then we have got our diagnosis) will be recommended

Ringworm - (a contagious fungal infection, more common in cats) can sometimes be diagnosed by using a special light (called a Woods lamp) run over your pet, to see if any hair flows – bright green glow can indicate ringworm is present. Sometimes a hair sample may be sent to the lab to see if any fungus grows, confirming the infection. Bacterial and yeast infection- These are conditions that often occur as a secondary problem to allergies. These infections are commonly seen in itchy ears – the vet may take a swab of the ear wax or skin and look under a microscope (cytology) to see if there is bacteria or yeast infection present. This allows the vet to determine what medication is most appropriate for your pet. In some cases, these samples may need to be sent to an outside laboratory for further testing if the infection isn’t resolving as would be expected. Sometimes there can be resistant bugs and the tests (culture and sensitivity) we can do in an outside laboratory gives us more information on the best way to treat these infections.

Underlying Diseases -  Sometimes skin problems are a symptom of a bigger problem. The vet will perform a full exam and with a discussion with you on the rest of your pets health, it may be suggested that a blood test is performed. Certain conditions such as Diabetes, Cushings and Hypothyroidism, can make your pet more susceptible to skin infections. In some cases, a skin biopsy may be recommended. This is where a small piece of skin is surgically removed under sedation or general anaesthetic and sent to a laboratory to identify certain problems such as skin cancers.

Flea allergy - A flea allergy is an ABNORMAL reaction to a flea bite. The animal doesnot need to be infested with fleas, a single bite is all it takes to cause chewing/itching and irritation for your pet. Fleas can be detected by using a flea comb, which can show both fleas and flea dirt (or poo!). A treatment trial, as for mites, may also be recommended, and medication prescribed to calm the itchiness down

Food Allergy - Some animals can be itchy because of the type of food they are eating. This can be a very tricky one to diagnose as to confirm a food allergy, the vet will recommend a 10-12 week trial with a special diet that contains a protein source that your pet has never had before (novel protein). This means absolutely no other treats/chews/scavenging can occur in this time. The allergy could be to things such as chicken, beef, pork, corn, cereal etc. Simply changing to a different brand of dog food is not sufficient to exclude food allergy as a cause of your pets skin issue.

Contact Allergy - This can occur when your pet comes into direct contact with something they are allergic to, touching the skin. This requires a good history check and may require eliminating certain things from your pets environment to see if the allergy resolves, if a contact allergy is suspected. (such as removing bedding that was washed in a different washing powder)

Atopy - This is the most common cause of skin allergies and itchiness in dogs. It is a diagnosis that is reached, once all the things above have been excluded from the list of possibilities. This is a condition were animals have allergies to small particles (allergens) in the environment, such as pollens, dust and debri. They may have a seasonal pattern. The same types of things that make humans sneeze and cough can make animals itch and scratch. Pets may be allergic to just one type of allergen or to a large number of irritants. Allergies can occur in both dogs and cats and it is seen to be more common in certain breeds, where there is a degree of heritability.

Animals suspected of atopy can see a skin specialist where they may be able to identify from a select panel of allergens, what your pet is allergic to. Once the types of allergens are known, a vaccine can be made to try to help reduce how sensitive your pet is to these itch triggers. This is called immunotherapy and this is the gold standard of treatment for Atopy.


So how do I treat my pet?

For many of the conditions above, such as mites, fleas, ringworm and  infections there is specific treatment that your vet will treat and cure your pet.

However in the case of Atopy, the most common cause of itchy dogs, there is no absolute cure. Life long management will be required to keep your pet comfortable and skin healthy.

Certain options to assist in the management of allergies and itchiness include:

Diet changes to improve the skin barrier
Scientifically formulated skin diets are safe, complete and balanced and have a special balance of essential fatty acids that help in strengthening the skin barrier, to resist absorbing allergens and can also act as an anti-inflammatory at the skin level to reduce the reactivity of your dogs skin to the allergens

This is effectively a “vaccine” against a little protein in the body that triggers the reaction within the skin causing your pet to itch.  Cytopoint is a monthlyinjection and stops your pet from itching. It lasts about 4 weeks on average. It is considered the safest mediation for long term use and can be used with most other medications.

This is a tablet given daily that works on the same “itch” pathway as the cytopoint, but at a different site. This medication again, is very effective, fast acting and and doesn’t have the side effects of causing increased thirst and appetite like steroids such as prednisone. Apoquel is a good safe option, however long term your vet will recommend periodic blood tests to check no side effects on the immune system. There are some circumstances where Apoquel isn’t suitable which your vet will be able to discuss with you.

Steroids are extremely effective at decreasing the redness and irritation associated with systemic allergies. There are short-acting steroids, such as oral prednisone, which lasts for a few days to a week and longer term medication, such as injectable Depo-medrol, which can last for weeks at a time. However, steroids have immediate side effects of increased thirst, urination and appetite, and if used over long-term can affect liver and adrenal function. Steroids should not be used with arthritis anti-inflammatories and vaccines

Topical steroids
These are highly effective at reducing itch and when used sparingly, are a good option for controlling itch. They can thin the skin, so must not be used more than once a week long-term.

Topical shampoos
There are many excellent shampoos designed to improve the skin barrier, treat infection, reduce inflammation, and lift scaling skin. Veterinary advice is recommended when choosing a shampoo in a pet with skin problems.

Food Trial to identify food allergies
A diet trial takes many months to see if there is anychange in allergy signs, and your pet must be on that diet and water only. Any other diet or treat will make the test inaccurate. Flavoured tabletsand medications must not be used. It is essential to use a specially formulated prescription diet and this will be prescribed by your vet if they feel this is suitable for your pets condition.

Allergy Testing / Desensitization Vaccines
Allergy testing to see what your pet is sensitive to and the production of a vaccine to help desensitize them to these allergens can be effective. The vaccines are relatively safe and produce immunity to the allergies – which means they stop the itch from occurring! It does take months to years to produce adequate immunity. It does not always produce a complete resolution of allergies. This treatment must bedone by a veterinary dermatology specialist in Auckland or Palmerston North.


Wow that is a lot of information…

If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed with all this information and have an itchy pet that is driving both them and yourself mad, come in and book an appointment with your vet.
This is the best way so we can check over your pet and make an individualised plan that meets you and your pets needs.