If your canine friend is constantly scratching and biting himself, or they seem itchy and uncomfortable, you’re probably spending a lot of time wondering why and what to do about it. It’s heartbreaking to watch your best friend lick, scratch, and chew on themselves in such obvious discomfort, but sadly the cause of their itching is rarely easy to pinpoint as there are many reasons why dogs itch.
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An Itchy Dog Overview
Dogs have a lot more mast cells in their skin than humans, which are responsible for releasing histamines. Histamines have a number of functions within the body, one of which is as part of the immune system’s first line of defence, helping to usher out potential threats through bodily reaction such as itch, sneezing, running eyes or nose. Such symptoms are commonly referred to as inflammatory and allergic reactions.
In fact, the canine body has ten times more mast cells than we do! Sadly, this means dogs will feel itching much more intensely than we could ever imagine, making it even more important for us to get to the bottom of their itching, so they can find relief.
Dogs can be itchy for a wide variety of reasons, with some being more common than others. If you’re looking for support in finding out what ails your canine friend and how you can help them, keep reading. This article contains a number of potential causes for itching, suggestions for itch and allergy support for dogs, and how you can help your family member feel like themselves again.
3 Potential Reasons You Have an Itchy Dog
The most common complaint in dogs, after digestive issues, is skin allergies or irritations. Of course, it is quite reasonable to see your dog having a scratch now and again but what do you do when it gets more consistent? Why is your dog scratching so much and how do you stop it?
Scratching in dogs needs to be addressed as it typically indicates a more serious complaint. If left untreated it may progress to licking, biting or even chewing the area. This can lead to a loss of fur and flesh wounds which you must try and avoid.
There are various reasons your dog may have irritated skin. We take a look at the primary ones and how you can address them:
1. Dog Scratching: Skin condition
If your dog is shedding more than usual or has visibly dry, flaky skin then it is highly likely that your dog has a skin condition. Factors that contribute to this include weather, central heating, hormones or stress. By process of elimination, you can usually tell what might be causing the skin irritation. If the seasons have changed, the weather has got warmer or colder, or if you have just put the heating back on, these could all be contributing to the problem. Many skin conditions can be controlled by what you are feeding your dog. Feeding a raw diet which includes fats and oils is an excellent place to start. Many dog foods contain lots of processed, starchy foods. This can cause yeast infections and itchy skin.
2. Dog Scratching: Parasites
Parasites are a common cause of scratching in dogs, the most obvious offender being fleas. One of the first tell-tale signs of fleas is your dog having a good old scratch. At first, you may not notice anything out of the ordinary, but very soon the itching will intensify as the fleas grow in number. The way to tell if your dog has fleas is to examine the area between the hind legs. Turn your dog onto their back and have a look in the areas around the tops of the legs and belly. If fleas are present you will see them crawling around, or you will see brown flecks – this is flea excrement. There are many valid ways to treat fleas – some are more effective than others, but we recommend talking to your vet about the most suitable remedy for your dog.
To learn more about preventing fleas the natural way check out our expert guide.
3. Dog Scratching: Allergies
If your dog has an allergy, it could be caused by many things. Pollen and grass is sometimes a cause of allergies in dogs, but diet is often the most significant factor, especially in specific breeds. We recommend you try an elimination diet. This means removing all treats from the dogs diet and starting with one particular meat. Try chicken for two weeks without adding anything else. If the problem seems to be dissipating then, in the third week, you can start adding other foods. Gradually keep adding different varieties until you are confident the issue is resolved. If the problem returns suddenly then remove the last meal that you introduced. Many people find a raw diet is the key to a healthier, less itchy dog!
There are other contributing factors to itchy, flaky skin. If a dog is in pain, they will likely scratch the affected area. If you are in any doubt at all, then we recommend consulting your vet for a professional diagnosis.
Try giving your dog a raw dog food diet. Many people (and their dogs) find that the complete raw diet “Complete green tripe with raw chicken formula” is a good place to start. Alternatively, we offer pure 801010 food and raw dog food diet sample packs.
What is dog itching (pruritus)?
Dog itching is essentially just what it sounds like: when a dog is itchy for one reason or another. Dogs scratch themselves regularly at the best of times, but when it becomes more frequent than usual or if you notice licking, chewing, or frequent rubbing on the ground, your dog might be trying to tell you something.
Sadly, the very response that dogs instinctively use to relieve themselves can actually cause them to be even more uncomfortable. Scratching releases more histamines, and bacteria from their licking can lead to infection, while chewing and scratching can cause open wounds, inflammation, or further skin irritation. There are several known causes of dog itching, both internal and external. These causes can be difficult to decipher, causing humans to wonder why their dog is itching, and what they can do about it.
Reasons why dogs compulsively scratch, lick, or chew
First and foremost, always make sure to check for the presence of parasites if your dog is scratching, licking, or chewing on themselves frequently. Parasites like fleas, ticks, and mites are the most common causes of dog itching and are making your canine friend quite uncomfortable! These little critters are very small and can easily go undetected if you’re not actively searching for them, so it’s always best to do a thorough check.
For fleas and ticks, this is easy enough to do at home by parting your dog’s fur in multiple places and having a good look at their skin. Using flea combs and checking for flea dirt around the base of the tail is also advised. Mites are much harder to find as they’re microscopic, so your vet can always help; they’re trained to look for signs of parasitic infestations and will be able to do further tests and possible skin scrape to determine if parasites are the cause of your dog’s itching. Your vet can also help you find a solution to parasite issues through various medications, allowing you to get your friend the relief they deserve.
Allergies are even more common in dogs than they are in humans, and given a dog’s tendency to spend lots of time outdoors in natural surroundings, this makes sense. Environmental allergies  are often to blame for itchy dogs, and can occur either seasonally or year-round, depending on the specific allergy. The most common environmental allergens for dogs are grasses, pollen, mould, and dust. They’ll usually present as itchy paws and/or underside, weepy eyes or runny nose, and sneezing.
There are other allergies that can cause itching, like medications (topical or oral), or shampoos with ingredients that irritate dogs’ skin. If your dog began itching around the same time as you introduced something new to their daily routine, this could very well be the cause of their sudden discomfort and should probably be eliminated.
Intolerance or sensitivities to food can present symptoms similar to those experienced with environmental allergies (including itch). Such symptoms stem from the body’s reaction to certain molecules in food. An inflammatory response is triggered by the immune system to combat and protect the body from what it determines to be a threat.
Food intolerances or sensitivities commonly affect the digestive system resulting in gastrointestinal conditions such as diarrhoea, constipation, IBS, excessive bloat and flatulence etc. However, symptoms can manifest in many ways, triggering reactions on the skin, and causing dogs to lick, scratch, or chew themselves in an attempt to find relief. Recurring ear infections can also be a telltale sign a dog is reacting to something in the diet. Because the symptoms of food intolerances or sensitivities are usually not immediate, they can be difficult to diagnose.
Food intolerances or sensitivities are commonly referred to as ‘food allergies’. This is a little misleading and factually incorrect definition. True food allergies, which are rare, can be triggered by a tiny amount of the food, and the reaction is usually immediate, serious, and sometimes even fatal. With food intolerances or sensitivities, the symptoms can be dose-related, so you may not see a reaction unless your dog eats the offending food type over a period of time.
Such reactions can also occur because of how the food was grown or the diet the animal was reared on. In other words, your dog could be reacting to chicken because that chicken was fed corn or grain.
High-starch foods, like kibble, can also be a factor in food intolerances. Gluten, grains, soy and dairy are the foods that most commonly cause intolerances in dogs; unfortunately, ingredients found in many commercial dog foods. Closely followed by chicken and beef, particularly cooked and highly processed forms of these meats.
In fact, itchy skin is a big reason so many dog owners switch their dogs to raw diets because they contain none of the irritating ingredients, are subjected to zero cooking or processing and, as such, have been shown to help dogs’ digestion, among many other benefits.
Dogs are masters at hiding their pain, and with good reason. In the wild, an injured dog would make an easy target for other dogs or larger predators, so their instinct is to hide their pain for survival’s sake. While this is helpful for wild dogs, unfortunately it makes things harder for domestic dogs and their humans!
A trapped nerve or pain and tension in the neck area can cause deferred pain, so scratching around that area or licking paws can be a sign of this. This can make diagnosing your dog even more tricky; dog owners who have had their pets for years and know them well can still have a hard time discerning if they’re in pain, especially if there’s been no obvious injury.
Another instinct that dogs have when they’re in pain is to lick the area in question. This is likely an attempt to “clean” the pain away, and it makes sense; but can also be the cause of infection when done repeatedly and for long periods of time. This then causes itching, causing them to lick the area more, and round and round the cycle goes until their humans intervene. If a dog is licking, chewing, or scratching the same area repeatedly, it’s a good idea to visit the vet and rule out pain or injury.
Yeast (or candida) is a living organism that thrives in moist conditions. These can come about through various causes such as: hot humid weather, gut imbalance, not drying off properly after a bath or swim, or when an area of the body doesn’t get frequent exposure to the air (like between the rolls on a Shar Pei, for example). Antibiotics and other medications, as well as starchy foods, can also cause yeast overgrowth . The presence of overactive yeast in the body can manifest in quite unpleasant ways, and one of these includes a red, itchy, flaky rash that may have a cheesy or “musty” smell.
All dogs are capable of acquiring yeast infections, though some breeds are more predisposed than others. Those with adorable rolls like the aforementioned Shar Pei or bull dogs, floppy ears, or ears that have lots of hair in them are all more susceptible to yeast overgrowth due to lack of airflow. Diet can also be a factor in yeast overgrowth, with grains and certain fruits and vegetables being the main culprits due to the sugar and starches which yeast thrives on.
To learn more about yeast infections, read our guide on how to help yeast imbalance in dogs.
Certain health conditions can also be to blame for a dog’s itching, especially those that disrupt the balance of the endocrine system. This is because the hormones released through the endocrine system are also responsible for skin and coat health, among other important functions. It makes sense, then, that dogs with compromised endocrine systems would also suffer from skin issues like itching.
Cushing’s disease, hypothyroidism, and diabetes are the most common endocrine disorders found in dogs. If your dog is experiencing any other strange symptoms aside from their itching (and a parasite infestation has been ruled out), it’s a good idea to have their vet do an endocrinology panel. This will either identify an endocrine disorder or rule it out, but either way your dog will be closer to getting the help they need.
What can I do to help my itchy dog?
Visit the vet
As stated earlier, dog itching is commonly caused by parasites, allergies, or certain health conditions. For this reason, visiting your vet is a good first step in figuring out exactly what ails your canine pal, and will help to either identify or rule out any potential health issues that might be causing them to feel so uncomfortable.
They may also recommend things like itch powder for dogs, medicated shampoo, or something similar if the cause can’t immediately be identified, allowing your dog a little relief in the meantime.
Change their diet
Food intolerances are a common culprit when it comes to skin irritation, especially if your dog is on a high carbohydrate, kibble based diet. Many dry foods contain the common ingredients that are known to cause intolerances (gluten, grains, soy, etc.), so a diet change could be the key to helping your itchy dog feel better.
Starting them on a species appropriate, raw food diet is a great idea; these diets contain no fillers or unnecessary ingredients and can help your dog feel better in various ways.
While some dog owners wonder if raw dog food can cause itching or report their dog being itchy on raw food, this is more likely due to a certain protein intolerance than the actual raw diet itself. In this case, an elimination diet would help pinpoint the pesky protein that is causing the issue.
Find out more about whether raw dog food is good for dogs.
Certain natural topical remedies and supplements for itchy skin can be helpful for your dog as well. It’s important to make sure they’re safe for canines, though, as many natural substances that are helpful to humans can be toxic to dogs.
Some safe options include: Calendula, which has powerful anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, baking soda, which acts as an acid neutralizer and soothes inflammation, and aloe vera (fresh from the leaf) for its regenerative properties. Natural dietary supplements can also help, as they work to resolve allergies and intolerances at the root: your dog’s gut. ProDog Protect is an excellent example of this, as is ProDog’s Colostrum supplement. An itchy dog shampoo made from natural ingredients like this one can also help to bring some much-needed relief.
Part of the problem with dog itching is their licking, chewing, and scratching, as this inflames the area further and can lead to infection. Stopping them from doing this might not stop the itch entirely (or at all), but you can help them to at least not make matters worse while you figure out the issue causing their itching.
Keeping them calm as much as possible, staying away from any known environmental allergens, and the use of inflatable collars or protective vests can all help to ensure things won’t get worse before they get better.
What is the best food for itchy dogs?
We believe a healthy raw dog food diet is the best food to feed an itchy dog, our vet expert explains why:
Figuring out why your dogs itch can often feel like solving a tricky puzzle, with the potential root cause being one of many possibilities or even a combination of triggers.
Dogs rely on us for many things, and helping them when they’re itchy and uncomfortable is no different. It’s important to dig deeper than the all-to-common superficial ‘skin condition diagnosis’. Seeing your canine friend in such discomfort can be frustrating and distressing when you can’t figure out what’s causing their itchiness. Taking the time to discover the root cause rather than simply treating the symptoms will be satisfying for you and your dog.
Removing common triggers such as parasites and known high-risk foods to begin with can be all that is needed for some dogs. Switching to a raw diet can be extremely helpful for dogs that itch due to food intolerance or sensitivity, and can also help with many other ailments. To find out how a raw diet can help your dog, check out our benefits of raw feeding guide .
- Emma Hakanen, Jenni Lehtimäki, Elina Salmela, Katriina Tiira, Johanna Anturaniemi, Anna Hielm-Björkman, Lasse Ruokolainen & Hannes Lohi (2018). Urban environment predisposes dogs and their owners to allergic symptoms. Scientific Reports 8, article number 1585
- Brady, C. (May 2016). Allergies in Dogs – Part 3 What Are Dogs Allergic To. Dogs First.IE. Accessed October 2022. https://dogsfirst.ie/what-are-dogs-allergic-to/
- Puotinen, CJ. (Jan 2007). Yeast Infections in Dogs. Accessed October 2022. https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/health/yeast-infections-in-dogs/
Image credit: Rachel Claire@Pexels