Why is My Dog Itching and Scratching? (And How to Fix It)

by K Marie Alto September 08, 2021 8 min read

Why is My Dog Itching and Scratching? (And How to Fix It)

When a pet has a problem, they do the best they can to solve it in a way s/he thinks best. As a pet parent, part of your job is to watch their behavior to spot problems and help them out. After all, they can't just tell you when they have an issue, right?

One of the most common issues for dogs is constant scratching. It's so common because it has a variety of different causes, all with different solutions. We're not talking about the occasional ear or side scratch here; we're talking constant itching or scratching behavior that never gives you (or your pup) a moment of peace.

What's going on? Is it fleas? Is it something worse? Figuring out the problem is the first step to getting it solved. Since there are so many causes, we're going to discuss the most common, but be sure to talk with your vet so you choose the right treatment method for your pup.

Your Dog Has Allergies

Do you get itchy eyes, a watery nose, or sneezing fits in the spring or fall? That's allergies and your dog can experience them too.

Types Dog Allergies

There are four broad types of allergies your dog might have.

  • Environmental Dermatitis. This is like our seasonal pollen allergies in humans. Something in the air makes your dog itchy. You'll also likely notice watery eyes and sneezing, as well as skin issues.
  • Nutritional Dermatitis. Similar to human gluten/shellfish/nut allergies, in many instances, dogs can have nutritional allergies. You'll need to determine what they're eating that they're allergic to and remove it from their diet.
  • Contact Dermatitis. Some allergens aren't airborne; think poison ivy. Maybe your dog rolled in something or brushed against something, and it's irritating their skin.
  • Flea Allergic Dermatitis (FAD). Flea saliva can trigger a particular kind of allergy, even if your dog doesn't currently have fleas.  

Allergies can be remedied by removing the source of the allergen. If that's not possible – such as airborne pollen – you'll need to talk to your vet about antihistamines. A home air filter can help as well.

Keep in mind that food allergies need to be monitored and controlled. While they're not likely to be dangerous, they're unpleasant, and you'll want to make sure your dog's diet avoids whatever is causing the problem.

Your Dog Has Anxiety

Dogs that have anxiety can develop coping mechanisms, often of an unhealthy variety. In some cases, this can result in something akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder, where your dog compulsively licks, scratches, or chews, often on parts of themselves.

Dog Has Anxiety

You'll want to talk to your vet to find a way to deal with these behaviors and address the causes when possible.

Your Dog Has Fleas or Other Pests

Your first thought when you see your dog itching is probably, "oh no! Fleas!"

There are many causes for itching though, and most of them aren't related to little insects infesting your fur baby's coat.

Parasites Triggering Itching

There are several different kinds of parasites that can trigger itching.

  • Fleas, of course. Fleas are common and easily treated.
  • Mites. Various skin and hair mites can cause itching. Keep a close eye if your dog is always scratching their ears. Some mite infestations can also lead to Mange, which is curable but dangerous.
  • Lice. Similar to human head lice, dogs can get a form of lice (that thankfully doesn't jump to humans!) that makes them itchy. Anyone else scratching their head right now?? Treatment often involves a thorough medicated bath.
  • Ticks. Ticks are larger and usually more obvious than other forms of parasites, but fewer of them attack your pup at once. They can also leave itchy spots even after they detach, so check for welts.

Dealing with various parasites means identifying which one is causing the problem, and getting the appropriate medication to deal with it. You'll want a good pair of gloves, a warm bath, and some time spent inspecting your fur baby's coat.  

For fleas, well, you probably know what to look for; tiny jumping specks that can be easily spotted if you look closely at the root of the hair. Mites often cluster around the ears and can cause patchy fur, scaly skin, or redness. Lice need special comb for removal and tend to cluster in the hindquarters or neck fur. Ticks, of course, can end up as large lumps of engorged insects and need to be carefully removed to avoid infection or further irritation.

Once you have some idea of what pest you're dealing with, talk to your vet for an appropriate solution. Usually, a prescription for a simple medicated bath is all you need to have your dog as right as rain again.

Your Dog Has Contact Irritation

As cute as that little doggy sweater or bee costume is, it might be causing itching! Just like when you wear a sweater and it makes your skin itch, your fur baby might itch from an outfit you put them in. It's called contact dermatitis, and the solution is simple: stop putting that outfit on them.

Dog Contact Irritation

Some dogs have sensitive skin and won't tolerate clothing or even certain collars. Others just need natural fibers rather than synthetic, or vice versa. Get them the right fabric, and they'll have no trouble being your Instagram model!

Also, keep in mind that there's a difference between pawing at a new outfit because it's weird; the "why did you put this on me, mommy?" and something that causes a topical allergic reaction. Allergic reactions are stronger and last longer, even after the article of clothing has been removed. 

If the outfit is a poor fit, it might also cause irritation. This is the same as if you're wearing a too-tight piece of clothing and it rubs in one place enough to rub your skin raw. Make sure any clothing you get for your fur baby fits properly.  Our best advise is to avoid any type of unnecessary outfits altogether.

Your Dog Has Dry Skin

Dry skin is very common, and unfortunately can be difficult to diagnose. It might be due to a nutritional deficiency, such as low fatty acids. On the other hand, it might just be because the air is dry. If your dog is itching the most in winter weather, s/he might have seasonal dry skin.  

Dog Scratching Self

Another common cause of dry skin is the soap or shampoo you use when you're giving them a bath. Just like some soaps dry out our skin, some shampoos can dry out your fur baby's skin, leaving them itchy once they dry.

If dry skin is caused by dry air, you can try adding a room or house humidifier. These can be effective, but they have their own problems (they can get moldy or leave residue on surfaces in your home, for example), so they aren't always ideal.  To avoid the residue left on surfaces, make sure to always use distilled water.

Conversely, if dry skin is caused by a specific soap or shampoo, switch it out. There are plenty of pet shampoos out there, many of which include moisturizers to help avoid exactly this problem. You'll want to avoid certain ingredients in your pet shampoos, including ammonium laureth sulfate, parabens, lanolin, phthalates, formaldehyde, polyethylene glycol, isopropyl alcohol, and any sulfate. Here's a more detailed guide.

Your Dog is Dirty

We get it, life gets busy, and you may have put off that bath for your pup longer than you had planned.  Unfortunately, one of the most common causes of itching is just dirt. Dirty skin and fur itch, and can cause minor infestations of bacteria and fungi that also itch.  

Dirty Dog

Some dogs are very averse to bath time and fight it every step of the way. Others don't mind it, and still, others love wet playtime. You can likely train your fur baby away from aversive behaviors and get them to love bath time with a little work, using techniques similar to those we recommend for nail trimming.

You'll want to make sure to give your dog a bath at least once a month, though some experts recommend as often as once a week. And, of course, give them a bath any time they stink (skunks are not your friends), get excessively dirty, or roll in something they shouldn't.  

Different dog breeds have different bathing schedules as well. Some can last longer without needing one, while others need them more often. Here are some guidelines you can follow.

Your Dog Has an Infection

Dogs can get a bunch of different skin infections, and it's not necessarily your fault if they do. Sometimes they just happen. Some bacterial infections cause itching, as do fungal infections like ringworm. Yeast is another common one. There are many different kinds of yeasts, and some of them can infest the skin and cause itching and other problems.

Dog Skin Infection

Signs of infection, other than itching, include patchy skin, redness, bald patches, and swelling. If you suspect your fur baby may have some kind of infection, be sure to talk to your vet to get the appropriate medical treatment right away. The sooner you solve it, the sooner you can relieve the itching and get your dog back to their playful self.

Your Dog Has Hormonal Problems

Hormonal problems often look like allergies, but if they persist after treating allergies, it may actually be a hormonal issue. The two main culprits are the thyroid and the adrenal gland. Thyroid issues can lead to itchiness, while the adrenal gland puts out cortisol, the stress hormone, which causes itchiness in excess. Hormonal issues are less common than the other culprits, but if every other treatment has failed, you might want to ask your vet about getting a blood test done to check for hormonal problems.

Dog Hormonal Problems

Treating hormonal problems depends on the severity of the problem, as well as the source. Often, it may be as simple as a daily hormonal supplement or even a dietary adjustment. Sometimes it's harder to treat and might require more medical intervention.

Your Dog Has a Genetic Disorder

Some breeds of dogs have genetic issues that cause itching.

Dog Genetic Disorder

For example, according to Homes Alive:

"One of the most common examples is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Up to 70% of Cavaliers show signs of a condition called syringomyelia by age six, which affects the spinal cord. It can cause continuous itching due to damage to nerve fibers, ranging from a mild skin-crawling to more severe burning."

Typically, if you have a purebred pupper of a particular pedigree, you'll probably know what genetic issues they'll be at risk of developing throughout their lifetime. If you're unsure of your dog's breed, you might need to do some research and possibly even a genetic test.  

Your Dog is In Pain

Sometimes the behavior you assume is itching isn't actually itching at all, but pain. For example, if your fur baby is chewing at their paw, they may have a sharp stone or thorn stuck in a pad and causing irritation.

Sleeping Dog

Older dogs may also react with scratching/biting when they have an internal pain. This is a very common symptom of arthritis and hip dysplasia. Any issue with the bones is something your dog won't know how to deal with and pawing at it is the one way they try to deal with the affected areas.

There are a lot of things you can do to relieve pain, depending on the cause. For younger dogs, finding the cause, or protecting them while they heal is all you need. For older dogs, it may be time to look into more comfortable beds and other adjustments to help with their aging joints.

You're Using the Wrong Kind of Brush

There are a lot of different kinds of dog brushes out there. One, called a slicker brush, looks like it would be great for helping your doggo out during shedding season, but the sharper spines and stiff bristles can scratch your dog's skin, leading to irritation as it heals. Instead, consider getting a softer de-matter brush. These brushes are much gentler on the skin and won't scratch it. In fact, they can even help spread out the natural skin oils in your dog's coat, keeping them more protected from environmental problems.

Dog Getting Brushed

Have you had to diagnose a particularly implacable case of the itchies? Does your pup scratch constantly, leaving you at your wit's end? Hopefully, our guide can help you figure out what's wrong and deal with it appropriately.

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 19K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).


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