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How can I help my itchy dog?

Michelle Ferrera, DVM

Usually when I see a dog that is scratching itself, I first check for mite infestation, and bacterial or fungal infection. If these are not present, then the pet is likely allergic, which means that its immune system is overreacting to a normal substance in the environment. This medical condition cannot be cured, but is typically managed with medication and environmental management.

When I see allergic dogs, they are often allergic in one or more of three categories - fleas, environment (pollens, mites, molds) or dietary meat/plant proteins (like beef, chicken, soy, wheat etc..). Blood allergy testing can be conducted at your veterinarian’s office, and intradermal skin testing can be performed at a veterinary dermatologists office. Allergy testing can help you identify your pets environmental allergens, and you may even administer hyposensitization injections to attempt to make your pet less reactive. Food allergy testing involves conducting a food trial by using a special unique protein diet that your pet has never eaten and therefore is unlikely to cause a reaction. Your veterinarian can advise you on how to conduct a food trial.

Dog owners can help their allergic dogs by using monthly flea control. A single flea can cause uncontrollable scratching in an allergic pet, usually in the rump region. Dogs that have environmental triggers usually have itchy face, feet, armpits and groin. These pets can sometimes be helped with over the counter antihistamines. Ask your veterinarian for appropriate dosages. The omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil supplements can also be helpful for itchy dogs. Your veterinarian can also help you with dosing. Oatmeal baths in tepid water can help temporarily soothe an itchy dog too. Don’t use hot water as it causes blood vessel dilation, and makes the itch worse. If your pet is allergic to dust mites, washing your pets bed in very hot water (over 120 degrees) can kill the mites that feed on shed skin cells. This water temperature can also cause skin scalding in a child’s bath, so use caution. Invest in a high quality air conditioner filter to help remove pollens from the air in your home, and change it monthly. Avoid grain mite contamination of dry food by buying smaller bags that are used more quickly, or storing food in a chest freezer and thawing it before feeding, or feeding canned food. Not sanitizing food storage containers before refilling results in grain mite contamination. Finally, use unscented baby wipes to wipe your dog down after a trip outside. Dogs absorb allergens by inhalation, licking them off their bodies, and skin absorption. Giving the face, feet and body a quick wipe when coming indoors can help limit the amount of allergen they absorb.

If you have a pet that is suffering from allergies, you will no doubt need your veterinarian’s help. However, there are steps you can take to keep your dog more comfortable in between veterinary visits.