Why Dogs Itch and What to Do
Surprisingly, 10-20% of dogs itch. If there are nine million dogs in the UK, that makes a staggering one to two million dogs scratching, licking or biting their skin each year. This seems a bit overwhelming until you realise that there are, for most dogs, only three causes: parasites, allergies and infection.
If you have an itchy dog, it’s essential to find out why. Mild itch is a distraction at worst, but severe itch is lifechanging for the dog and the owner, alike. Get along to the vets to get them to begin an ‘itch work-up’. For most dogs, it’s just a question of one or two simple treatments and the itch stops. For the unlucky minority, it requires some effort to diagnose and time and money to treat. Starting early saves distress to the patient and damage to your purse or wallet.
Parasites are Most Common Cause of Itch in Dogs
External parasites like fleas and mange are the most common cause of itch in dogs. Luckily, they’re easy to treat, especially if you nip the problem in the bud. In some cases, feeding proprietary herb mixes designed to make the dog less attractive to fleas, combined with sprays containing essential oil blends, is sufficient. If you’re avoiding pharmaceuticals or not, make sure you treat your home as well. Food grade diatomaceous earth or bicarbonate of soda sprinkled onto soft furnishings and cracks and crevices can help reduce flea infestations in the house. If you’re not making progress quickly, see your vet to get a flea/tick collar, tablet or spot-on preparation.
Allergies in Dogs
Allergies, or more accurately, ‘sensitivities’ make dogs itch. There are four types. Tree and grass pollen sensitivity make dogs itch at certain times of the year, rarely in winter. Indoor allergens like house dust or house dust mite commonly make dogs itch, often all year round as exposure is not very seasonal. Food sensitivities, where dogs itch, but only if they eat certain foods, crop up quite frequently. Finally, sometimes we vets see itching due to contact sensitivity. In people, this manifests as a mild rash where, for example, certain items of jewellery, touch the skin. In the vet sphere, we see these reactions to collar buckles, manmade fibres or washing powders used for bedding. Actually, almost anything can cause a localised irritation. Dogs can show one or all of these sensitivities together at the same time.
Treatment depends on the type of sensitivity, but in my experience, a well-planned raw diet can help with all but contact sensitivity. There are a variety of dog supplements available. Read on for supplements that can help. If your dog is distressed with itching and scratching or licking, please do see your vet.
Infection Can Cause Itching in Dogs
Infection comes in three common varieties: bacterial, yeast or fungal. Infection is usually, but not exclusively, secondary to damage to the skin. That damage is often due to external parasites or sensitivities. I hope you can now begin to see how these separate causes of skin irritation can overlap and make diagnosis tricky.
What Does Bacterial Infection Look Like?
Bacterial infection usually looks like red or crusty rings about the size of a large coin. A musky ‘old socks’ smell with greying of the skin is the most obvious giveaway for yeast. Fungal infections can present with just a round-ish patch that appears and grows but can show as slight greying and crusting. Vets have a neat trick for finding some fungal infections. They shine an ultra-violet light on the skin, illuminating fluorescent flecks of hair and scurf. Sadly, not all skin fungi glow; otherwise, diagnosis would be simple.
Treatment of Itch
Your vet will be able to go through the various options. There are many, depending on precisely what’s going on. If the problem is not causing the dog to damage themselves, many people will look for supplements to help the skin combat sensitivities and reduce irritation. Fleas and infections usually need topical or whole-body treatments to kill the invaders.
Supplements to Help Combat Skin Sensitivities
The Western diet for humans and domestic animals is over-rich in Omega-6 fatty acids. We could all benefit from boosting our intake of Omega-3 fatty acids. They appear in many foods, but most abundantly in fish, krill and flax oils. They are anti-inflammatory, so very helpful for sick and healthy animals alike. They really benefit skin and joint health and help make healthy hormones.
Quercetin is the most remarkable and abundant molecule you’ve never heard of. It is found in a variety of foods including apples, berries, Brassica vegetables, capers, grapes, onions, shallots, tea, and tomatoes, as well as many seeds, nuts, flowers, barks, and leaves. Quercetin is found in medicinal botanicals, including Ginkgo Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Hypericum Perforatum, and Elderberry. For such a shy nutrient, it really has a lot of potential benefits to overall health and disease resistance, including anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antioxidant capabilities.
A friend of mine reports she’s just started to eat high quercetin foods for the last month. For the first time in a decade, she’s able to eat strawberries and apples which previously brought her out in hives and itch. This new and exciting supplement is one to keep an eye on.
Beta-glucans are sugars found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae, lichens, and plants, such as oats and barley.
Beta-glucans are taken by mouth in humans for diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS, high blood pressure, and canker sores. Beta-glucans are also taken by mouth to support the immune system. People whose body defences have been weakened can benefit. Conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome; physical and emotional stress, or treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy deplete immune function, so they may profit from their use.
Pre- and Pro-biotics
Gut health is key to the function of every cell in the body. Within the gut are the microbes making up the microbiome. In the last 20 years or so, we have learned just how important they are in maintaining the integrity of the one-cell-thick gut lining. If the gut bugs are disrupted by stress, antibiotics, inflammation or ultra-processed food, for example, this delicate lining can develop holes and start leaking. Some people call this Leaky Gut Syndrome. Food molecules, bacteria and bacterial toxins can move through these cracks, into the blood, disrupting immunity which can cause inflammation and itching in the skin.
Probiotics are specially chosen bacteria taken by mouth to seed the microbiome with friendly bugs. Prebiotics are foods, like chicory root, sea kelp, herbs and indigestible sugars like fructo- and oligosaccharides. They don’t feed our dogs or us because we can’t break them down, they feed our bugs, maintaining the lining of the gut, thereby protecting the skin. Mother Nature has really played a blinder here. It pays to keep her happy, for the sake of the skin, if nothing else!
If your dog is itching, you need to address it promptly. Yes, it may cost you some money, but the longer you leave the problem, the more likely it is to worsen.
Raw food and optimal gut health help all body systems; the immune, nervous, digestive and skin systems require nutrients and the continual elimination of waste products. Omega-3 supplementation, Quercetin and Beta-glucans could help with general health and reduce irritation in your itchy dog.