Having a pet that scratches all the time can be very frustrating. It is a very common condition that has several different causes. It is important to understand that often the condition is lifelong and can’t be cured but needs to be managed.
Fleas, ticks and mites
This usually causes itchiness on the back near the tail and in some cases may cause hair loss. Some animals can be very sensitive to fleas and one flea bite may cause a severe reaction. Don’t wait until you see fleas before you treat. Only 5% of the flea population consists of the visible adults, so even if you don’t see fleas, there might be several present on your pet and in the house.
Demodectic mange usually causes hair loss and isn’t itchy, but the condition can become itchy later, especially when secondary infection is present. This is usually more common in puppies and kittens, although adult dogs can also be affected.
Sarcoptic mange is usually extremely itchy and can be spread to humans. This is also more common in young animals.
Dandruff (Seborrheic Dermatitis) is caused by too little or too much oil production in the skin or a mite called Cheyletiella. The skin seems flaky and dry or very oily and becomes itchy.
Superficial infection (Dermatitis)
Infection is usually secondary, but needs to be treated first to find the primary cause. Infection can be caused by bacteria or fungi. The skin might be very red, thickened, have circular, scabby lesions or pimples and smell bad.
Deep infection (Pyoderma)
Some breeds (Bull Terriers, Bulldogs, German Shepherds) can be very prone to deep pyoderma, but often this condition occurs secondary to allergies or immune mediated diseases. This can make the primary condition more difficult to manage. The skin will be thickened, red, have a discharge, are covered by scabs and smells bad. The skin is often painful and itchy.
Allergies to food or environmental allergens
This condition is very common and can affect any breed. Most allergic animals have a hypersensitive reaction to something in the environment, only a small percentage (<10%) are allergic to food. Animals are usually allergic to more than one thing, this can include pollen, house dust mites and grass. It is fairly difficult to test for allergies in animals and often tests are inconclusive. Allergies require life-long management, luckily there are many products available to help reduce the itchiness.
Immune mediated diseases
Pemphigus foliaceus, Systemic or Discoid Lupus Erythematosis, Bullous Pemphigoid.
These diseases are less common and usually diagnosed via a skin biopsy. They are not primarily itchy, but rather causes hair loss and other lesions.
- Preventative flea and tick treatment will eliminate ticks, fleas and mites if the correct product is used frequently. Use products that kill adults, larva and eggs, otherwise it will be ineffective. Treat all the pets in the household. If you have an allergic pet don’t skip treatments as this will cause a build-up of eggs and pupa in the environment.
- Insect repellants will help to reduce any other insect bites that can cause skin irritation. Daily application of Sitronella or Lavender oil on the coat during summer months will repel biting insects.
- Wipe your pet with a damp cloth once or twice daily to reduce the amount of allergens on the coat.
- Good quality food and skin specific diets or supplements goes a long way to reduce itchiness. A pet uses a third of it’s food to maintain healthy skin. It thus makes sense to give your pet the best chance of a healthy skin by providing a good quality diet. Premium diets provide the correct balance of essential amino acids and fatty acids necessary for healthy skin. It might not remove the itchiness completely, but will reduce the frequency and severity.
- Topical treatments like shampoos and ointments are an important part of the management of itchy skin. Antibacterial and antifungal shampoo can be used to eliminate secondary infection. Soothing shampoos that contain specific ingredients like oatmeal, skin lipid complex or triclosan combat dry or oily skin to help maintain the natural barrier of the skin, this reduces allergic reactions. Speak to your vet to find the right shampoo for your pet.
- Antibiotics can be used to treat severe bacterial infection. Often a long course (2-4weeks) is needed to clear the skin of all infection. Remember to use probiotics during and after treatment to replace the good bacteria in the gut. Some animals with severe pyoderma might need prolonged antibiotic treatment.
- Cortisone is extremely effective to treat itchiness, but unfortunately has many side effects, especially when used long term. Vets try to use it as little as possible and careful dosing is required to minimise negative side effects. Follow your vet’s instructions carefully when using cortisone to control your pet’s condition.
- Immunosuppressive, immune-modulating or monoclonal antibody therapy is safer to use and successfully controls itchiness in most pets. These treatments should be used in conjunction with the above mentioned management tools to ensure the best outcome. Speak to your vet to find the best treatment protocol for your pet.