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Dog scratching: causes and treatments

By Ashley Murphy Content Writer

Updated on the

Having a little scratch now and again is perfectly normal for a dog. But if your dog is constantly scratching then there could be a problem.

Why does my dog keep scratching?

Excessive scratching is known in the medical community as pruritus and it's the 2nd most common reason why owners take their dogs to vet (gastrointestinal issues are the first.) As Bark Magazine points out, the reasons for a dog constantly scratching can be quite complex. However, there are two main causes: skin issues and allergies.

Dry skin is a common problem. Without enough moisture,  your dog's skin becomes irritable and itchy. You’ll also notice dandruff in their coat, and if you part their fur the skin will appear hard and even cracked in some places. Your dog will also become extra sensitive and the slightest touch may provoke excessive scratching. The wrong kinds of food can also contribute to dry skin. A lot of processed dog lacks all of the oils that help keep their skin and coat healthy, and dried pet food can also dehydrate your dog.

Skin allergies are another big concern, and the problem seems to be getting worse. Although experts are yet to agree, it's argued that increased vaccination, poor diets, and excessive breeding practices have all affected dog's natural immune systems. Whatever the reason, allergies are notoriously difficult to treat, and in some cases appears to be incurable - although they can be managed with the right medication and care.

Other causes might be fleas or parasites. Most dogs will scratch if they have fleas, but, for those with a flea allergy, it only takes one or two fleas to make things very uncomfortable. Apart from the scratching, look out for hair loss, red bumps, and pay close attention to the back area just above the tail - fleas like this part of your dog the most. Scabies mites will also make your dog scratch.  To see if your dog has them use the “pineal-pedal reflex.” This is when you rub the tip of your dog's ear and look out for a reflexive rear leg itch. If your dog has scabies, this will happen 80% of the time.

But remember to be careful: scabies is very contagious and can be passed from dogs to humans. The last parasite to look out for is the Demodex mite. These things are about 0.3-0.4mm, usually white, and shaped like tiny maggots. They're especially prevalent in dogs with weaker immune systems, so puppies and older dogs are most at risk. Most cases begin with hair loss on the muzzle and legs. Luckily for us, Demodex mites can’t be transmitted between dogs and owners.

So what can I do if my dog keeps scratching?

Dana Scott is the founder and CEO of Dogs Naturally Magazine. She’s especially keen in educating people about natural health care for dogs. She makes a strong argument that the best prevention against allergies and itching starts with your dog's diet.

The microbiome is a large collection of healthy bacteria that live inside your dog's stomach and digestive system. It plays a vital part in maintaining your dog's immune system, so if something is wrong in the gut then your dog is far more likely to develop allergies. Anti-biotics, vaccines, and stress can all upset the microbiome’s delicate balance, but diet appears to be the key to maintaining gut health. Processed foods and a high-carb diet will upset the guts natural balance; grains will ferment an excess of fungus and yeast, while dairy products, colorings, and chlorinated water will disrupt the microbiome.

Dana recommends an organic diet based on fresh meats and vegetables.  She also suggests introducing probiotics into your dogs. These rebuild the healthy bacteria in the gut, but try and avoid dairy-based products that contain Lactobacillus Casei, Lactobacillus Reuteri, and Lactobacillus Bulgaricus.

Medication can help dogs that keep scratching

When it comes to treating allergies and skin conditions, vets traditionally stick to antihistamines and corticosteroids. Both will treat the underlying condition, as well as easing the symptoms that cause excessive scratching. They may also prescribe antibiotics to fight off any infections. Almost all dogs will respond to this type of treatment, but be aware of any potential side effects, i.e. reduced immunity, weight gain, and bloating.

Speak to your vet about any concerns and let them know if your dog has already been on this type of medication; long-term use can increase the likelihood of any side-effects. They may suggest a lower dose, and you can combine the medication with special shampoos or anti-itch sprays. Try for more information on these type of products.

Remember that not all scratching is a sign of dry skin, allergies, or infections. But always be on the look for excessive scratching or any changes in your dog's behaviour. In the meantime, focus on preventing any issues by improving and maintaining your dog's diet. Otherwise, you can choose from a wide range of natural remedies and always consult a vet for more advice.

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