If you have a dog, chances are that at some stage you’ve had to witness what may seem like a training session for a scratching marathon. And while the sound of your dog constantly licking or scratching itself might drive you to distraction… imagine how your dog feels needing to scratch that itch!
Compulsive scratching, licking, and chewing is a common issue in dogs and can have many causes. Possible causes can range from parasites to allergies to injury, and what might start with the odd scratch can quickly escalate into licking, chewing and scratching so severe that your dog may end up with broken skin, hot spots and rough and discoloured skin.
Common causes of excessive scratching and itching in dogs
There are many, many reasons why dogs lick or scratch, but broadly these fall into 8 common categories, but remember there are many more possible causes of skin disorders that may fall outside these categories
Fleas, ticks, and mite infestations are extremely common in dogs and are among the most common causes of compulsive dog licking, chewing, or scratching behaviours. Although we may be able to see fleas and ticks, mites are not visible to the naked eye, so you shouldn’t assume that your dog isn’t suffering from parasites just because you can’t see them.
Flea saliva is allergenic, so a single flea can cause flea allergy dermatitis that makes your dog itchy at the bite site. Fleas often go unseen until there is a large infestation, but a telltale sign is the presence of flea “dirt” on the skin, which will appear like black pepper flakes.
Tick bites create inflammation at the point of entry that can get worse the longer the tick stays attached and releases its saliva into the skin. Additionally, secondary bacterial infection can occur with tick bites that will lead to further irritation and itching.
Mites like mange are microscopic insects that burrow deep into the layers of your dog’s skin to feed and live. Mite infestations not only cause inflammation as they chew their way through the skin, they can also lead to secondary infections which will further the irritation for your dog.
Allergies routinely manifest with itchy skin in dogs and are commonly caused by environmental triggers such as mold or pollen. Seasonal allergies tend to be most prevalent during spring, summer and autumn and can have a variety of triggers, from blooming plants and flowers to grasses, weeds or even trees.
Nutritional allergies could also be a factor. Some dogs may be allergic to certain proteins (beef, dairy, chicken, etc.) and/or grains (wheat, corn, rice, etc.), with symptoms exhibiting in a number of ways, including skin inflammation and itching. Sometimes specific Nutrient deficiencies can also be a problem, such as with Zinc Responsive skin conditions or Vitamin A responsive skin conditions.
Dogs may also develop a skin irritation called contact dermatitis when they encounter substances like pesticides or soap.
3) Dry skin.
Dry skin can be uncomfortable (as you may have experienced yourself) and your dog may scratch or lick at his skin or fur in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort. A variety of factors, including winter weather and fatty acid deficiencies, can cause dry skin in dogs.
4) Hormonal imbalances.
If your dog is not producing enough thyroid hormone or is producing too much cortisol, superficial skin infections can occur. These can result in bald spots which your dog may scratch or lick in an attempt to alleviate the irritation. Neutering can even lead to a form of hormonal alopecia !
Your dog may be licking or chewing excessively because something is making him physically uncomfortable. For example, a thorn or sharp stone stuck in his foot pad could cause him to bite his paw repeatedly. Similarly, compulsive chewing or licking can also be a response to orthopedic problems, including arthritis and hip dysplasia.
6) Boredom or anxiety.
In the same way that anxious people might bite their nails or twirl their hair, dogs can also have physical responses to anxiety. In fact, some dogs develop a condition akin to human obsessive-compulsive disorder which can manifest itself in scratching, licking, or chewing behaviors that can cause severe damage. The are many Psychoscomatic conditions in dogs such as lick granulomas and Psychcogenic Alopecia (simply tearing ones hair out)
7) Autoimmune Disease.
This is where the body attacks itself and is a disorder that appears to be becoming more and more common in a world that is laden with chemicals. However, other trigger factors such as pollen or parasites mentioned above can also cause autoimmune disease. If diagnosed, the best approach is to keep everything in your pet’s environment and diet as natural and chemical-free as possible.
The healing process can actually be very itchy – we’re sure you’re familiar with how itchy a scab can be!
What should you do?
Be sure to check with your veterinarian as soon as you notice a problem, so they can help figure out the cause of the excessive itching, scratching or licking and determine the best treatment plan for your dog. But there are many steps that you can take at home to help keep your dog healthy and his or her skin in excellent shape.
Minimise your dog’s exposure by limiting his access to locations where a heavy burden of fleas or ticks may exist — wooded areas, dog parks, daycare, kennels, etc. It is also important to utilise flea and tick preventatives and as each pet’s needs differ, consult your veterinarian to determine the best option for your dog and the environment you live in. It’s important to treat all relevant pets in the house at one time, even those who do not appear to be affected, as fleas can be spread between any cats and dogs in one house.
Regular brushing and bathing (preferably using plain water), air filtration systems and limiting the exposure to allergenic environments are some means by which you can also help prevent or minimise the risk your dog will suffer from allergic dermatitis. For nutritional related allergies, diagnosis in dogs can be difficult and should be done with the supervision of a veterinarian. He or she will typically put the dog on an elimination diet to try and determine what, if any, common ingredients may be causing the dog’s allergies. Remember, allergies can be caused by almost anything, including preservatives in food, so sometimes a fresh diet will be needed to eliminate those.
If your dog’s allergies have resulted in broken skin or if a long-term or chronic condition exists, HomeoPet’s Skin and Coat medicine can help to boost your pet’s in-built healing system, which may be struggling to restore the body’s natural balance while under siege. This natural medicine helps to detoxify the skin from the inside, leaving the coat thick and shiny.
For dry skin issues, feeding moist food is preferable to dry and you may find it beneficial to add fresh oils or other oil-based supplements to your dog’s meal.
While it may seem counter intuitive, oily skin is often best treated by feeding good fresh oils which remain liquid at room temperature. Old or rancid oils in food can stress the liver and result in greasy skin.
If you find your dog’s licking or chewing is as a result of a foreign body, speedy removal is essential to relieve the distress and to help prevent infection. Intervention by your veterinarian may be required to remove the foreign object as it is essential that it is fully removed with no piece remaining lodged in your dog’s skin.
For anxious dogs, compulsive biting, chewing, or licking can develop in response to fear, stress, or inadequate stimulation and it’s important to try to alleviate the cause of your dog’s distress. Be sure your dog receives enough exercise and attention and is not left alone for long periods of time. It can be helpful to offer your dog toys or bones which can help to relieve stress and act as a replacement for inappropriate chewing or licking behaviors. HomeoPet’s Anxiety is a highly effective natural medicine for relief of general anxiety in pets and by relieving the stress you can help to alleviate unwanted behavior such as compulsive licking and chewing.
In conclusion, it’s important to recognize that any dog with skin problems or whose skin and coat are not in optimal health needs attention, because that dog surely does not feel well. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the cause of his or her skin issues, but you may need to be patient as there are so many possible causes of skin irritation that it can take some time to get to the bottom of the issue. However, feeding and grooming your dog well, giving him a natural, healthy lifestyle and providing a little extra support with HomeoPet’s effective, natural remedies when required can go a long way to ensure that your dog’s skin and coat remain in excellent condition.