Dogs have several reasons to scratch

June 02, 2004

You notice your dog scratching energetically at his neck and you think to yourself, "Oh my goodness, Rover has fleas!" So you check him all over, looking for ticks as well, and find nothing: no flea dirt, no parasites. Puzzled, you give him a bath anyway and apply a flea and tick preventative.

That evening you notice Rover not only scratching, which you guess is from flea bites that leave itchy bumps like mosquito bites do, but you observe him rubbing his head on the floor and on the furniture. "Maybe he has an ear infection," you surmise, remembering what you have read about various symptoms and their causes. You check his ears: no redness, no greasy look, no smell.

You make a mental note to watch your dog carefully for the next few days.

The next unusual activity you notice is your dog lying down, licking and chewing on his front paws. Again, you think of some simple reason. Maybe he has a burr or grass awn stuck in his paw but he doesn't. So you give up guessing and take him to the veterinarian for an evaluation.


Rover has allergies! You are stunned. You didn't know that dogs could be allergic to anything except fleas and ticks. You discover that they can develop hypersensitivity to pollens: trees, grasses and weeds, mold spores, house dust, dust mites, and nearly anything a human can be allergic which includes specific foods.

The doctor tells you that canine allergy is one of the major causes of skin ailment in dogs, that there are four categories of allergies: inhalant like pollens, flea allergy dermatitis, contact and allergic contact dermatitis which can be triggered by irritating chemicals like acids, alkalis, insecticides, detergents, solvents, soaps, or by flea powders, poison ivy, plastic or rubber food dishes and dyes in indoor-outdoor carpets. (If your dog happens to be allergic to his food bowl, he will develop an itchy rash around his nose and mouth.) The fourth category is food allergens.

One of my dogs stretched out on a pile of wood ashes in the backyard and developed contact dermatitis. It took a while to discover the cause and the veterinarian checked her for ringworm and seborrhea while I watched to see if I could spot any other possible causes.

There are various treatments for allergic dermatitis. First, do your best to remove the allergen from the dog's environment. Soothe the dog's skin with a colloidal oatmeal based shampoo which reduces the itch. If the skin is dry use a humectant after the bath. The doctor will prescribe medicated lotion, ointment or sprays as needed. There are oral medications too: antihistamines, glucocorticoids and a new one, cyclosporine. The doctor may advise adding essential fatty acids to the dog's food. In extreme cases there is immunotherapy with allergy shots which entails testing the dog for specific allergies. This is an expensive undertaking.


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