Table of Contents
What is Pruritus?
Pruritus is a medical term used to describe itchiness. Pruritus can negatively impact the quality of life of your companion pet if it becomes excessive. Itchiness can also open the door for secondary problems such as skin infections, hair loss, etc.
Causes of Itchiness in Dogs
There are many underlying pathologies causing itchiness in dogs, with some of the most common including:
- Allergies (Environmental and food)
- Parasites (fleas, ticks, and mites)
- Skin Infections
Atopy is an allergic response to different allergens in the environment. A dog can experience atopy against grass, pollens, mold, etc. Dogs who suffer from atopy may have seasonal allergies or may experience symptoms year-round!
Blood tests and dermal skin tests are diagnostics test available to identify allergens in dogs. Once the allergens are identified, a specific immunotherapy treatment can be initiated along with other supportive modalities. Immunotherapy is designed to help desensitize a dog’s immune system to allergens with repeated, low dose exposures to allergens.
Dogs tend to develop allergies to proteins found in meat. Dogs suffering from food allergies may often develop ear infections, and owners may report licking of the feet. Owners of dogs suffering from food allergies do not recognize a seasonal component, instead pruritus is year-round.
Food allergies are diagnosed through a strict feeding trial of at least 4-6 weeks. During this time, a patient is fed either a hydrolyzed diet or a novel protein diet.
A hydrolyzed diet is a diet in which the protein found in the food has been broken down so small, that the body can’t recognize it as a protein. When the body doesn’t recognize the “problem protein”, the immune system doesn’t create an immune response leading to itchiness.
Alternatively, an owner could potentially feed a dog food with a single meat protein source that they have not been previously exposed to. Examples may include venison, duck, or kangaroo. Care must be taken when choosing a novel protein diet as a lot of over-the-counter dog foods may have multiple protein sources OR may have been produced in an environment where other foods were processed. Prescription novel protein diets are available through your veterinarian and are less likely to have contamination with other protein sources.
During the feeding trial, no other treats (unless a prescription hydrolyzed treat) or people food may be given, as this may result in failure of the feeding trial. If the itchiness or secondary problems like ear infections improve while on the hypoallergenic diet, the results are supportive of a food allergy.
Immunotherapy (allergy shot) is beneficial in patients with severe allergies. For some, this one modality may bring relief, whereas other patients will require additional therapies.
Products like Apoquel (immunomodulator) or Cytopoint (canine antibody) may be helpful in reducing clinical signs of itch. It is important to note that these products do not cure allergies, but they help make clinical signs more manageable! Patients with severe inflammatory responses may benefit from steroids as well.
Historically antihistamines have been used and have provided food allergy and atopy dogs with minimal improvement.
There are a variety of prescriptions diets available to patients experiencing environmental or even food allergies. Your veterinarian will be able to help determine which diet may be most beneficial to your companion.
Fleas bite and feed off the host’s blood. Additionally, they scurry around within the fur, laying eggs, causing the host to scratch. With adequate flea control, this problem can often be avoided.
Tick bites are notoriously itchy. Preventatives can help quickly kill ticks and minimize the problems they cause.
If fleas or ticks are noted on your pet, it is imperative that appropriate treatment is initiated. Your veterinarian can help advise you on which products will suit your pet best.
Sarcoptic mange is a burrowing mite that can cause severe itchiness in dogs. Often dogs with sarcoptic mange (scabies) will have hair loss and thickened, dry skin. Diagnosing scabies can be difficult especially in mild conditions, as mites are not always readily identifiable on skin scrapings.
Sarcoptic mange can be successfully treated utilizing some forms of monthly preventatives like Nexgard or Simparica. Sarcoptic mange is zoonotic, meaning it can be transferred from your pet to you. If you suspect that your pet has sarcoptic mange, you should reach out to your veterinarian so they can discuss next steps and treatment.
Skin infections may be a primary or secondary condition. Some dogs develop skin infections secondary to allergens. Broken skin from chronic scratching causes skin to be more susceptible to infection. Alternatively, some skin infections can occur without allergens playing a role at all. It is important to correctly identify yeast infections from bacterial infections so that the appropriate treatment can be started. Some patients require systemic treatment (oral therapy), while less severe infections may require topical/local treatment.
Symptoms of Pruritus
Symptoms of itchy skin, regardless of the underlying cause, are similar. Dogs experiencing pruritus may exhibit:
- Pink/redness of the skin
- Noticeable skin odor
- Repeated scratching or licking
- Hair loss
- Thinning of the hair coat
- Rash or collarettes on the skin
- Dark, thickened skin
Prevention of Itchiness in Dogs
Preventing signs of pruritus is most easily done once the underlying cause has been identified. In a majority of cases, preventative measures mirror treatment options.
For dogs suffering from atopy, frequent bathing and rinsing of the feet and body can be helpful in physically removing allergens. Unscented baby wipes can be used to clean the bottoms of the feet after coming in from outdoors.
Dogs with food allergies should be on a strict diet avoiding OTC treats and people food that may cause a flare-up in clinical signs.
Monthly prevention is recommended for all patients to lessen the chances of parasites causing pruritus.
If your beloved pet is experiencing itchiness at home, schedule an appointment with your vet to discuss different interventions to alleviate your companion’s discomfort!