Excessive scratching, biting, licking, and chewing likely mean your pet has a skin problem. Pets experience itchiness for a variety of reasons, and our Premier Pet Hospital team wants to share information about pets’ common itchy skin instigators.

Itchy pet instigator #1: Fleas

Fleas can consume up to 15 times their body weight in blood every day, and when they feed on your pet, they inject a small amount of saliva into your furry pal’s skin. Pets affected by flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) are allergic to compounds in flea saliva, resulting in extreme itchiness, and one flea bite is enough to cause a reaction. Many pet owners are surprised to discover their pet has FAD because they never see fleas on their four-legged friend. An allergic pet’s constant licking, scratching, and biting either causes the flea to jump off their body, or their furry pal ingests the flea during the grooming process. However, when fleas infest your pet, they usually leave behind their feces (i.e. flea dirt), which appears as tiny black flecks. Finding flea dirt in your pet’s coat or bedding is a red flag that they have FAD. Another indication that your pet has FAD is their body areas affected by itchiness, hair loss, and skin lesions—lower back, tail base, inner hind limbs, and abdomen. To treat FAD effectively, remove all fleas from your pet and their environment by following these tips:

  • Bathing — Bathing your pet can help remove fleas and relieve their inflamed skin. You can also use a flea comb to get the pests out of your four-legged friend’s fur.
  • Flea prevention medication — All pets should receive year-round flea prevention medication to prevent FAD.
  • Environmental flea control — To remove fleas from your home, wash your pet’s bedding, vacuum your floors and upholstery, and use an appropriate pet-safe insecticide to treat all surfaces. You will likely have to repeat the process multiple times to eradicate all fleas at every life stage. If your pet spends time outdoors, you may also need to treat your yard. For heavy infestations, consider contacting a licensed commercial pest control company. 

Itchy pet instigator #2: Atopy

Pets with atopy (i.e., environmental allergies) have a defective skin barrier that allows allergens, such as pollen, molds, dust mites, and grasses, to penetrate their skin, leading to inflammation and itchiness. Depending on the allergen causing the reaction, your pet’s signs may be seasonal. Other indications that your pet has atopy are their age at the condition’s onset and the body areas affected. Atopy tends to begin early in a pet’s life, typically manifesting between 1 and 3 years of age. Areas affected include around their eyes and mouth, armpits, abdomen, under their tail, and on their limbs. Many atopic pets experience chronic or recurring skin and ear infections, which can complicate diagnosis and treatment. Once your pet is diagnosed with atopy, a veterinary dermatologist can perform allergy testing to help determine the allergens causing the reaction. Treatment typically involves a multimodal approach involving:

  • Flea control — Fleas can exacerbate itchiness and inflammation in atopic pets, and year-round flea prevention medication is important to keep your pet as itch-free as possible. 
  • Bathing — Bathing in lukewarm water helps remove allergens from your pet’s skin. However, if you bathe your pet too frequently, their skin can become too dry, causing their itching to worsen. Most pets should be bathed about once a week, and to remove allergens from your four-legged friend’s coat between baths, you can wipe off their fur with a wet cloth.
  • Steroids — Steroids are extremely helpful to control itchiness and inflammation, especially in an acute flare, but these medications have significant side effects. Our Premier Pet Hospital team prescribes steroids when necessary at their lowest effective dose to provide the best itch control for your pet without causing health problems.
  • Anti-itch medications — Numerous veterinary pharmaceuticals are available to help control your pet’s itchiness, and our team determines the best product for your pet.
  • Antihistamines — Although antihistamines aren’t typically effective for atopic pets, they can help when used in conjunction with other medications.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids — We may recommend omega-3 fatty acids to help improve your pet’s skin health and reduce inflammation.
  • Allergen-specific immunotherapy — Allergen-specific immunotherapy (i.e., allergy shots) is the treatment of choice for atopic pets. A veterinary dermatologist uses the information obtained from your pet’s allergy testing to create injections that provide gradually increasing allergen doses that help desensitize your four-legged friend to the causative agent. Approximately 70% of pets benefit from allergy shots, but the treatment takes about 6 to 12 months to take effect.

Itchy pet instigator #3: Food allergies

Pets’ food allergies typically involve a reaction to a protein or complex carbohydrate. Common instigators include beef, chicken, eggs, dairy, soy, and wheat gluten. Food allergies take time to develop, and most pets affected by a food allergy have been eating the problematic diet for years without experiencing problems. Indications that a food allergy is causing your pet’s itchiness include the age of onset and body areas affected. Affected pets are typically younger than 6 months of age or older than 6 years of age. Dogs typically experience itchiness and skin lesions on their face, feet, and anal region. Cats typically experience itchiness and skin lesions on their face and neck. Some pets also experience gastrointestinal (GI) signs. If our team suspects your pet has a food allergy, the only way to diagnose the condition is to place your furry pal on a diet trial, which involves:

  • Choosing the diet — The test diet should contain a novel protein that your pet has never eaten, or a hydrolyzed protein that has been broken down to such a degree that their body no longer recognizes it. 
  • Feeding the diet — The test diet should be fed for at least eight weeks to determine if a food allergy is causing your pet’s itchiness.
  • Avoiding interference — During the test diet, your pet shouldn’t receive treats, flavored medications, or table scraps that could interfere with the results. 
  • Reintroducing ingredients — If the test diet is successful, you can reintroduce ingredients from your pet’s previous diet one at a time to determine the reason for their reaction.
  • Avoiding the food — Once you identify the causative ingredient, eliminate the ingredient from your pet’s diet.

If your pet’s itchy skin is driving them crazy, contact our Premier Pet Hospital team, so we can determine the instigator and help relieve their itchiness.