Itchy skin is one of the most common reasons pet owners seek veterinary care for their four-legged friends. Itchiness can cause an affected pet significant problems. Our Companion Veterinary Clinic team sees numerous itchy dogs and cats every day, and we answer your frequently asked questions about this condition.

Question: What causes itchiness in pets?

Answer: Numerous conditions can cause a pet’s itchiness. Some of the most common pet itchiness causes include:

  • Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) — Many pets are allergic to flea saliva, and a single flea bite can cause a significant allergic reaction. 
  • Atopy — Atopy is caused by environmental allergens such as pollen, dust mites, grasses, and mold spores. Affected pets have a dysfunctional skin barrier that allows allergens to penetrate, resulting in an inflammatory response.
  • Food allergy — Some pets develop an allergy to their food’s ingredients. The most common triggering ingredients are chicken, dairy, beef, eggs, wheat, and soy. Pets typically have been eating the diet for several months or years before signs manifest. 
  • Contact allergy — Pets can become oversensitive to allergens, such as carpet, fabric, flea collar chemicals, and lawn pesticides, that contact their skin. 
  • Mites — Sarcoptic mites are highly contagious, and these parasites burrow through the skin, causing itchiness.

Q: How do I know what is causing my pet’s itchiness?

A: Determining the reason for a pet’s itchiness can be difficult. Your veterinarian will solve the puzzle by considering these factors:

  • Flea dirt — Many pets groom away fleas, but when our Companion Veterinary Clinic team finds flea dirt in your four-legged friend’s coat, we know that fleas are likely contributing to your pet’s itchiness.
  • Affected areas — The body areas affected can help us determine the cause of your pet’s itchiness. Affected body areas often include:
      • Pets affected by FAD typically have itchiness, skin lesions, and hair loss on their lower back, inner thighs, and at their tail head.
      • Pets affected by atopy typically have itchiness, skin lesions, and hair loss around their eyes and mouth, under the tail, in the armpits, and on their abdomen and feet. Chronic ear infections are also common.
      • Dogs affected by food allergies typically have itchiness, skin lesions, and hair loss on their face, feet, and anal area. Affected cats experience signs around their head and neck. These pets may also experience ear infections and  gastrointestinal (GI) signs.
      • Pets affected by sarcoptic mites typically have itchiness, skin lesions, and hair loss along their ear margins, elbows, ankles, and armpits.
  • Age of onset — In some cases the age at which a pet’s signs manifest can help determine the cause of their itchiness. Atopy typically begins between the ages of 1 and 3 years, while food allergies usually manifest when a pet is 5 years of age or older.
  • Seasonality — If your pet’s signs occur seasonally, atopy is likely the cause.

Q: Can allergy testing help diagnose my pet’s itchiness?

A: Allergy testing does not help distinguish among various itchiness causes. Once they diagnose your pet with atopy, your veterinarian will perform allergy testing to determine the environmental allergens triggering your pet’s response. Two tests are helpful:

  • Blood test — Blood is drawn to perform a radioallergosorbent test (RAST).
  • Intradermal skin testing — Intradermal skin testing involves injecting small amounts of allergen under the skin to watch for a reaction. Your primary veterinarian will refer your pet to a dermatologist who can perform intradermal skin testing.

Q: What other diagnostics help determine the cause of my pet’s itchiness?

A: Many diagnostics are available to help veterinary professionals pinpoint the reason a pet has been scratching incessantly. Other diagnostics that help our Companion Veterinary Clinic team determine the cause for your pet’s itchiness include:

  • Physical examination — We thoroughly examine your pet, looking for flea dirt and noting where lesions are located on their body.
  • Blood work — We may perform a complete blood count (CBC) and biochemistry profile to rule out underlying conditions.
  • Skin scrape — Performing a skin scrape allows our team to evaluate your pet’s skin cells under a microscope, looking for bacteria, fungi, mites, and skin pathology.
  • Hypoallergenic diet trial — If we suspect your pet has a food allergy, we will likely recommend a hypoallergenic diet trial to determine the ingredient triggering your pet’s response.

Q: How is skin itchiness treated in pets?

A: Your pet’s prescribed treatment protocol depends on the cause of their itchiness. Potential treatments include:

  • Flea control — To provide effective treatment for a pet affected by FAD, all fleas must be removed from their body and environment. Keep in mind that fleas exacerbate other itchy conditions, so you must ensure your pet receives year-round flea control.
  • Steroids — Our veterinarians may prescribe steroids to control a pet’s inflammation and alleviate their itching, especially during severe, acute flares. We will taper these medications to their lowest effective dose once your pet’s signs are under control.
  • Anti-itch medications — Several effective anti-itch medications are available, and our veterinarians will prescribe the best product for your pet.
  • Hyposensitization therapy — Hyposensitization therapy (i.e., allergy shots) is the best treatment for atopic pets. This treatment uses the information obtained from your pet’s allergy testing to create a unique serum your veterinarian will administer to your four-legged friend as a series of injections. The serum’s allergen level will gradually be increased to help desensitize your pet to the compound.
  • Bathing — Bathing removes allergens from your pet’s skin and coat, but avoid washing them too often because this can dry out their skin, making them itch more. Between baths, use a wet cloth to wipe your pet’s coat.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids — Omega-3 fatty acids promote skin health and reduce inflammation. 

Contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Companion Veterinary Clinic if your pet is itchy. We can determine the reason for their scratching and devise an effective treatment plan to provide them relief.