Help! Why is my dog scratching?
What does it mean when my dog scratches but has no fleas?
My dog is scratching like crazy! What can I do?
Why is my dog scratching and losing fur?
We hear questions like these a lot. If your dog is miserable with itching and scratching and you’re wondering how concerned you should be, read on.
We will answer your questions about why dogs scratch, what causes excessive dog scratching and if your dog's scratching could be an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). We will also discuss how to make your suffering scratcher feel better.
Why Is My Dog Scratching?
There are many reasons for excessive dog scratching. Of course, the short answer is that she itches.
But many things can cause a dog to itch, including:
Dry, flaky skin is widespread in dogs. It is often caused by dehydration, dry air, or a fatty acid deficiency.
But it can also be a sign that your dog has an underlying skin disorder, such as one of these conditions:
Following are the pests that may be causing your dog’s misery:
People don’t always notice fleas until they're dealing with an infestation. At that point, it’s a lot harder to get rid of them.
Of course, the best way to deal with fleas is to not deal with them at all. All dogs need flea and tick protection, and many vets recommend it year-round.
That can be expensive, especially if you have multiple pets. But most owners who have been through a flea infestation discover that prevention costs less than ridding your home of fleas once they’ve moved in.
Not to mention the distress that fleas cause to both dogs and humans.
Ticks are particularly nasty because of the diseases they can carry. The American Kennel Club (AKC) lists seven of the “most important” of these diseases that affect dogs.
And the CDC warns of 16 tick-borne diseases that can cause illness to humans. Some require a year or more of treatment.
When buying parasite protection, choose carefully. Some flea products kill ticks as well as fleas, and some do not. Read labels. You’re probably going to have to spend a little more to get both in one product.
Unlike ticks, mites are microscopic. You won’t see them in a close inspection of your dog’s skin. You will see evidence of them, however, depending on where they’re located on a dog’s body.
Mites cause a skin disorder called mange. There are several types of mange that affect dogs.
Three of the most common are:
- Sarcoptic mange. Also called canine scabies. Scabies is contagious from dog to dog. Look for red skin, intense itching, and hair loss on your dog’s face, ears, and legs.
- Demodectic mange. This is often called puppy mange because it happens most often in dogs that are less than one year old. The symptoms of demodectic mange are sores, scabbing, and bald spots. This form of mange is not contagious.
- Otodectic mange. You probably know this one as ear mites. Ear mites are contagious among dogs but don’t affect humans. Look for reddish-brown discharge in the ears that looks like coffee grounds.
If not treated early, dogs can do damage to their ears by the intensity of the scratching. Secondary infections are common because of the open sores the scratching creates.
Infections can cause scaly skin, odor, fluid discharge, and hair loss. Many types of infection can lead to skin problems in dogs.
- Yeast. If your dog is scratching her ears a lot, she could have a yeast infection. Look for discolored or irritated skin inside her ears. She may also have irritated skin on her paws.
- Ringworm. Ringworm is actually a fungus, not a worm. It’s a contagious condition that forms round, inflamed, scaly areas on your dog’s skin. It occurs mostly in young dogs.
- Folliculitis. Folliculitis is the inflammation of a hair follicle. It causes pimple-like bumps and scabs. Several things can cause folliculitis in dogs, but bacterial infection is the most common.
- Impetigo. Impetigo is crusted-over blisters filled with pus. Most of the time, impetigo affects the abdomen, but the blisters can spread to other areas of the dog’s body as well.
Alopecia is any condition that causes abnormal hair loss. Illness, stress, and poor nutrition can cause alopecia. Excessive scratching can create bald spots.
Seborrhea is the form of eczema commonly known as dandruff. Seborrhea can be a temporary reaction to an underlying skin disorder, but it lasts a lifetime with some dogs.
Seborrheic dermatitis can also be exacerbated by a poor-quality diet.
Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema. Between 10% and 15% of dogs have atopic dermatitis, according to Sarah Netherton, VetMed, University of Illinois.
Dogs with atopic dermatitis will have greasy or flaky skin. There may be a foul smell, and your dog may be rubbing her body on the carpet to ease the itch. She may also be chewing on her paws, armpits, or groin.
Some breeds are predisposed to atopic dermatitis. They include:
- Terrier breeds.
- Irish Setter.
- English Setter.
- Lhasa Apso.
- English Bulldog.
- Miniature Schnauzer.
- Labrador Retriever.
- Golden Retriever.
- Chinese Shar-Pei.
- Wirehaired Fox Terrier.
- Boston Terrier.
- Scottish Terrier.
- Shih Tzu.
- West Highland White Terrier.
Too little thyroid hormone or not enough cortisol can cause superficial infections that can cause bald spots with scratching. Your vet can order lab tests to check for these.
A hard lump on your dog’s skin could be a skin tumor. See your vet immediately if you see one. If the vet finds it suspicious, they will want to do a skin biopsy. If you catch this when it’s small, they can often perform the biopsy and remove the tumor in one procedure.
In most cases of excessive dog scratching, there is an underlying medical trigger that started the intense itching. But in some cases, the scratching behavior continues long after the source of the itch is gone.
This is when your vet may consider obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD in dogs is a condition where a dog is compelled to repeat a specific behavior (such as scratching) repeatedly. They can become so distracted by it that they are unable to stop that behavior on their own.
If this scratching goes on too long, the dog will continue the behavior long after the stimulus (itching) is gone. This is when a behavior becomes a compulsion, or OCD.
OCD symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe. In the mild stages, changes that you make at home may be enough to stop the compulsions.
In moderate to severe OCD, your vet will most likely recommend working with a behavioral therapist to resolve the problem.
If your dog is showing OCD-type symptoms, don’t ignore them. The longer you allow the compulsive behavior to go on, the harder it will be to treat.
Some dogs are so disabled by OCD symptoms that they have no quality of life. In many cases, the owners choose to euthanize them.
Diagnosing your dog as early as possible will give her the best chance of a full recovery.
Diagnosing Dog Scratching
Intense itching can make a dog miserable. If your dog is scratching and whining, or scratching and bleeding, she’s probably beyond miserable.
When you first notice your dog scratching more than usual, inspect her skin and coat. If you notice any changes, call the vet right away.
Diagnosing skin problems in a dog isn’t always easy, and the earlier you catch it, the better.
VetStreet likens the process to detective work. Vets consider a dog’s age and breed, the body parts that are affected, and any scratching triggers.
They will look for fleas, hot spots, and signs of infection. From there, it’s primarily a process of elimination.
Some diagnoses are relatively easy to make, but if your dog's problem is allergies, finding the specific culprit is often challenging.
Your vet may do blood tests, urinalysis, skin cultures, or biopsies. In some circumstances, it may take days for lab results to return. And the diagnosis may require more than one visit.
Sometimes, vets will need to trial a treatment protocol to rule a diagnosis out or to learn what will work in your dog’s situation.
The list of specific things that your dog could be allergic to is almost infinite. Allergies can be food-related (such as ingredients in her dog food) or environmental (like grass, pollen, or household chemicals).
There is something you can do, though, to speed up the process. The Merck Veterinary Manual offers a skin disease history checklist on their web site.
Filling this out and bringing it to your appointment will give your vet a better understanding of your dog’s symptoms and may speed up the process.
Treatment for Dog Scratching
Once your vet diagnoses the cause of your dog’s scratching, they will advise you about treatment.
They may recommend shampoos, dips, or topical treatments. For infections, they may prescribe antibiotics, antifungals, or drugs to kill parasites.
In some cases, vets prescribe immunosuppressants or steroids. There are also prescription medications available for severe cases.
If your dog’s diagnosis is allergies, your vet may recommend a food restriction trial. This is usually a course of eliminating and then adding back in specific foods to narrow down what your dog may be allergic to.
It is best to seek advice from your veterinarian before trying a food restriction plan to ensure it is done safely and successfully.
For environmental allergies, your vet may recommend an immunotherapy protocol. Immunotherapy is a series of allergy shots that contain a diluted allergen. The strength of the allergen gradually increases with each shot.
This result is that the dog will build an immunity to that allergen.
A 2016 study evaluated a variation of immunotherapy called RESPIT that uses allergens that are custom-mixed for each dog’s geographic region. The study concluded that RESPIT is safe and effective in treating environmental allergies.
A complete immunotherapy program can take up to 6 months, but it is the best option for long-term control of dog allergies.
Making Your Dog Comfortable at Home
Whichever treatment you and your vet decide on, there is a lot you can do at home to make your itchy dog more comfortable.
VetStreet makes the following suggestions:
Get Rid of Fleas
If you or vet discover fleas, ask the vet for product recommendations. You will need to treat your dog, your home, and your yard.
Wash all pets' bedding at least once a week. Vacuum any areas where pets sleep. Use a spray outdoors in the areas where your pet play.
Give Your Dog Regular Baths
Vets and breeders of certain breeds tell owners not to bathe their dogs too often, that it’s not good for their skin.
Itchy dogs, however, should have a bath every week with a gentle, vet-recommended shampoo. This will wash allergens away from your dog’s skin.
Use cool water and an oatmeal shampoo to give your dog some itch relief. If her itching and scratching are severe, ask your vet if she needs a prescription shampoo with an antibiotic.
Buy Your Dog Some Clothes
Clothes can do two things for your dog. A soft cotton shirt that fits snugly will keep your dog’s skin protected from contact allergens. It will also prevent her from licking or chewing an irritated area.
Try a Different Food
If your vet thinks your dog may have food allergies, talk to them about switching your dog’s food. They may suggest a specialty or homemade diet to eliminate known allergens.
Benadryl is an antihistamine that can relieve itching. Dr. Vogelsang cautions, though, that you need to ask your vet about the proper dosing for your dog.
She adds that you should never give Benadryl to dogs with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or glaucoma.
Keep in mind, too, that while Benadryl may help your dog’s itching, it will not do anything to resolve the problem that is causing the itching. You still need to call your vet as early as possible to prevent complications (including infections and OCD).
If your dog’s scratching compulsion rises to the level of OCD, early intervention is essential.
Your dog’s quality of life is at risk if you allow a compulsive behavior to go on too long.
Presumably, at this point, your vet will have ruled out or treated medical conditions that your dog may be reacting to.
Keep in mind, though, that your dog may have both medical and psychological conditions. In most cases, a medical problem may have caused the itching.
Other times, your dog may have caused secondary injuries with her excessive scratching. Either way, your vet will need to treat the medical condition first.
The next step is to find out if there is an underlying psychological trigger that is causing your dog’s need to scratch.
Several factors could be involved, and your vet will want to examine them all.
These factors include:
Scientists believe there are no breeds more susceptible to OCD than others. However, the specific compulsive behaviors can be more prevalent in some breeds with OCD than in others.
More often than not, anxiety is an underlying factor in OCD behaviors. Your dog may be scratching and crying. Of course, pain and severe itching may be causing the distress.
Even if it was an itch that caused the scratching to begin with, dogs with anxiety are at higher risk of the behavior developing into a compulsion.
Dogs with compulsions will often have scratching with crying, even if they’re not in pain (as with tail chasing, for example). They appear to be crying from anxiety because they can’t stop the behavior on their own.
Animal psychologists increasingly agree that the environment of the individual plays a significant role in obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Early weaning, excessive physical restraint, social conflict, and an often-disrupted environment seem to be linked to OCD behaviors. Improper nutrition can also play a role.
Conditioning also plays a major role in the development of OCD. Your dog’s scratching compulsion probably began with a reasonable response to a trigger (in this case, an itch).
As your dog scratches an itch, she learns that scratching provides relief. She begins to associate scratching with feeling better. She’s reacting to the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain reliever.
Over time, she becomes conditioned to the idea that scratching feels good and she continues it long after the initial stimulus (the itch) is gone.
She may use begin to use scratching as a coping mechanism anytime she feels anxious. She may gradually lose control over her need to scratch.
Scratching has now become a compulsion—an OCD.
Treating OCD can be challenging. We highly recommend that you work with your vet or a behavioral therapist for the best results for your dog.
There are degrees of OCD—mild, moderate, and severe. Mild cases are often treatable by owners at home, but you should do it with your vet’s support to get the best results for your dog.
For moderate to severe OCD, your vet will more than likely refer you to a certified behavioral therapist.
The behaviorist will work with you to develop a plan of treatment based on positive reinforcement. They will likely use desensitization, a technique that gradually trains a dog to be less sensitive to a trigger.
Another technique they will likely use is counterconditioning. This is a positive reinforcement method that teaches a dog to replace the negative emotion it feels toward a trigger with a positive one.
In addition, the behaviorist may ask you to do the following at home:
Identify and Remove the Source of the Conflict
Anxiety-based obsessive-compulsive disorder is usually triggered by a specific event or occurrence. If you notice that your dog scratches uncontrollably in similar circumstances each time, change those circumstances or remove that trigger if possible.
Interrupt the scratching episode by introducing some other activity (such as a game of tug-of-war or fetch).
Be careful not to use treats or your dog’s favorite toy or game here. She may see that as a reward and be motivated to repeat the scratching.
Punishment is never a good idea for dogs, and it’s a particularly poor idea for dogs with OCD. It only increases any underlying anxiety and makes the compulsions worse.
Encourage Daily Exercise
Exercise is perhaps the most critical factor contributing to a dog’s well-being.
Increase your dog’s exercise, and she’s likely to be happier, healthier, and less likely to indulge in compulsive behaviors. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: A tired dog is a happy dog.
Provide Mental Stimulation
In addition to exercising their bodies, dogs also need activities that exercise their minds. Consider increasing your dog’s mental stimulation by providing interactive toys, food puzzles, training sessions, or dog sporting activities.
For more detailed information about obsessive-compulsive disorder and where to find help, please see Dog Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (Causes & Treatment).
A Final Word
If your dog is scratching excessively, you must get it checked out right away. Without treatment, the effects of the scratching will likely get worse before they get better.
In the case of compulsive scratching, early intervention is even more important so your dog doesn’t develop a full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Most importantly, whatever the cause, if your dog is experiencing intense itching, that poor dog is miserable. She’s depending on you to stop the suffering.
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- Beers, Hannah. University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. Allergy shots may bring relief to itchy dogs. November 27, 2017.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Tick-borne diseases of the United States. Reviewed September 12, 2019.
- Dryden, Michael W, DVM, PhD, DACVM. Kansas State University. Mite infestation (mange, acariasis, scabies) in dogs.
- Klein, Jerry, CVO. American Kennel Club (AKC). AKC’s chief veterinary officer weighs in on tick-borne diseases.
- Moriell, Karen A., DVM, DACVD. Merck Veterinary Manual. Diagnosis of skin disorders in dogs.
- Moriell, Karen A., DVM, DACVD. Merck Veterinary Manual. Canine atopic dermatitis.
- Netherton, Sarah. University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. Dogs’ itchiness may indicate atopic dermatitis. October 28, 2013.
- Pfeiffer, Mary Beth. Scientific American. It’s time to get serious about tick-borne diseases. August 20, 2019.
- Plant, J. D., & Neradilek, M. B. (2017). Effectiveness of regionally-specific immunotherapy for the management of canine atopic dermatitis. BMC veterinary research, 13(1), 4. doi:10.1186/s12917-016-0917-z
- Scutti, Susan. CNN Health. Exploding tick populations—and illnesses they bring—worries government.
- Vogelsang, Jessica, DVM. Pet MD. Can I give my dog Benadryl, and if so, how much?
- Web MD. Skin problems in dogs. Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM. October 22, 2018.