Why Is My Pet Always So Itchy?

by Kate Boatright, VMD
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Why Is My Pet Always So Itchy?
Does your dog or cat seem to scratch themselves incessantly? You don't have to let it go on forever. Read more to learn how you can manage itchy pets so everyone in the house can ge

Having an itchy pet is a nuisance, at a minimum. At worst, they’re a downright disruption to any attempt to work, sleep, or relax around your home. These feelings are compounded by worry for your furry friend’s comfort.

You’ll want to do whatever you can to get them feeling better quickly. Read on to learn about common causes of itchy skin in dogs and cats, how the different causes are diagnosed and treated, and how to prevent this discomfort from occurring.

Table of Contents

Why does my pet constantly scratch?

Excessive scratching, licking, and head shaking are indicators that your dog or cat is itchy. The cause of the itch is sometimes obvious, such as when your pet has fleas. Other times, the cause of the itch is invisible to the naked eye.

In addition to itching, you may notice the following changes in your pet’s skin, depending on the underlying cause of the itch:

  • Redness
  • Flaky skin
  • Crusting (which may resemble many small scabs or one large scab)
  • Pustules (which resemble pimples)
  • Papules, which are small red bumps on the surface of the skin
  • Areas of hair loss
  • Changes in color of the skin due to chronic inflammation
  • Changes in hair coat color, especially in lighter hair coats, due to staining from saliva

Common causes for itchiness in pets

Parasites

There are several parasites that can cause a pet to itch. The most well-known are fleas. These tiny blood-sucking insects live on the surface of the skin. While they are visible to the naked eye, some pets (especially our feline friends) groom themselves so efficiently that you may not see fleas on the surface of the skin.

In other words, just because you don’t see live fleas on your pet doesn’t mean your pet is flea-free. You can also look for “flea dirt,” which looks like dirt in the hair coat but turns red when it is made wet, as it is digested blood passed by the fleas.

There are also microscopic parasites called mites that cause itchy skin. Infection with mites is often called mange. There are several species of mites, and the most common in dogs and cats include Sarcoptes (scabies), Demodex, and Otodectes (known as ear mites). Each type of mite is highly contagious.

Allergies

Allergic dermatitis, as it is medically known, is the most common cause of itching (pruritus) in pets. Allergies develop when a pet’s immune system is sensitized to specific proteins. Some pets are unlucky enough to suffer from multiple types of allergy. The three most common allergens are fleas, environmental allergens such as dust mites and pollen, and food.

Diagnosis of environmental allergies (known as atopy) is performed through intradermal or blood testing. Based on the results, a customized allergy serum can be made for your pet to desensitize them. These serums can be given by injection or by mouth.

There are many misconceptions about food allergies in dogs and cats. They are the least common type of allergy and are usually in response to the protein (i.e. chicken or beef), not the grains in the food. Diagnosis of food allergies must be made through diet elimination trials, which requires feeding a specially formulated prescription diet for a minimum of a month, but usually 2-3 months.

itchy pet cat scratching chin

Skin Infections

On normal dog, cat, and even human skin, multiple species of bacteria and yeast live without causing any discomfort or disease. When the skin is scratched open during itching (or from an injury), excessive moisture is present, or the normal skin is altered by inflammation from allergies, these normal organisms can grow excessively and may enter into deeper layers of the skin, leading to an infection, which can exacerbate already itchy skin.

Infections can occur in a single area, such as in the ears, between the toes, or on the underside of the feet, or can occur in multiple areas or across the entire body. Once an infection is diagnosed through physical examination and skin cytology (microscopic examination of samples from the skin), your veterinarian will prescribe appropriate antibiotics or antifungal medications to treat the infection. These may include oral medications as well as topical medications including sprays, mousses, and shampoos.

When to see your vet for an itchy pet

If your pet is itchy and/or showing any of the above changes in their skin, you should call your primary veterinarian to schedule an appointment. While pets that are itching are uncomfortable, itchy skin is rarely an emergency.

During your visit, a veterinary nurse will start by asking you a series of questions about your pet’s itching, including how long your pet has been itching, how often they itch, and how severe the itch is. Additionally, you may be asked about your pet’s diet, previous episodes of itching and skin disease, any current medications or supplements you may be using, and other health concerns. This information will help your veterinarian to diagnose the cause of your pet’s itching.

Your veterinarian will then perform a physical examination to evaluate your pet’s overall health. They will look carefully at the skin and ears to check for signs of inflammation, infection, and parasites. They may collect several samples from the skin to examine under the microscope to diagnose infection or microscopic parasites. Based on these results, they will make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment.

In cases of chronic skin diseases, your veterinarian may recommend additional testing such as blood testing to assess organ function and allergy tests. They may also recommend referral to a veterinary dermatologist.

How do you treat pets with itchy skin?

Treatment of itchy skin for pets involves:

  1. Treating the underlying cause of the itch (i.e. parasites, allergy, or infection), as discussed above.
  2. Improving patient comfort by treating the ongoing inflammation and irritation.

Your veterinarian will discuss recommendations for flea or mite treatment for all animals in your house due to the contagious nature of these parasites. In some cases, treatment of the environment and continued use of preventatives are needed to completely clear and prevent recurrence of the infection.

If there are parasites or infection present on your dog or cat’s skin, treating the itch without treating the underlying problem is often unsuccessful, which is why it is important to have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian.

Your veterinarian may also prescribe topical treatment for your pet which may contain antifungal, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory medications, as well as ingredients to help soothe and strengthen the skin.

Historically, itchy pets were almost always prescribed a steroid, such as prednisone or prednisolone. However, due to the large number of side effects seen with steroids, especially with chronic use in allergic pets, newer medications have been developed to help treat the itch and inflammation caused by allergies and other skin diseases. These medications are available as daily oral medications (Apoquel®) or a monthly injection (Cytopoint®) administered by your veterinarian.

itchy pet dog scratching chin

How to prevent pets from constantly scratching

There are several things you can do routinely to prevent your pet from itching. First, keep your pet on a year-round flea and tick control recommended by your veterinarian. Many of these products can prevent some types of mites as well.

For pets who suffer from allergies, it is important to follow the treatment plan developed by your veterinarian. Allergies can be managed with appropriate treatment, but stopping this treatment will often lead to your pet worsening again. Additionally, regular bathing can help to reduce allergen loads on the skin and improve itch levels.

Can pet insurance help with skin?

Itchy skin is a nuisance and often requires repeated veterinary visits for diagnosis and management. Each individual visit may cost several hundred dollars, depending on the number of tests and treatments required. Repeated visits can add up over time, especially if your pet suffers from allergies, which are a lifelong problem.

Pet insurance policies will reimburse up to 90% of the costs associated with veterinary visits. Investing in a pet insurance policy when your pet is young, before he or she develops allergies or experiences other causes of itchy skin, can help to give you peace of mind when it comes to the financial side of caring for your pet’s skin.


Key Takeaways

  • Itchy skin is a common problem that can be very uncomfortable for your pet and a nuisance for you.
  • There are many causes of itchy skin including parasites, allergies, and infections.
  • Your veterinarian will use your pet’s medical history, examination findings, and diagnostic tests to diagnose the cause of your pet’s itch.
  • Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the itch, but there are specific treatments for itch available.
  • Purchasing a pet insurance policy can help to ease your mind if your pet is itching and needs repeated veterinary visits.

Kate Boatright, VMD

About the author

Kate Boatright, VMD

Associate Veterinarian, Freelance Speaker and Author - Penn-Ohio Veterinary Services and KMB Veterinary Media LLC

Dr. Kate Boatright, VMD, works as a small animal general practitioner, freelance speaker, and author in western Pennsylvania. Since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with her veterinary degree in 2013, she has worked throughout Pennsylvania as both a general practice and emergency veterinarian. Both in the clinic and outside of it, Dr. Boatright enjoys building relationships with her clients and educating pet owners on how they can keep their pets as healthy as possible. She loves being a veterinarian and educating students and colleagues on wellness, communication, and the unique challenges facing recent graduates. Outside of the clinic, she is active in many veterinary organizations, enjoys running, watching movies, and playing games with her husband, son, and cats.

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