As a pet parent, you might find yourself frequently asking, "Why is my dog so itchy?" It’s a common concern, and understanding the reasons behind it can help you manage your dog's discomfort effectively. As an integrative veterinarian, I often see cases of itching that stem from various causes. Let’s explore how much itching is normal, common causes of itching, and effective management strategies, especially focusing on diet and holistic care.

How Much Itching Is Normal?

Occasional itching is normal for dogs, just as it is for humans. However, persistent, excessive scratching, licking, or biting at the skin indicates a problem. If your dog is itching so frequently that it disrupts their daily activities or causes hair loss, redness, or wounds, it's time to investigate further.

Common Causes of Itching

The most prevalent cause of itching in dogs is allergies. According to a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine, allergies are a leading cause of skin issues in dogs. Allergies can be categorized into four main types: atopy (inhaled allergies), food allergies, contact allergies, and flea allergies.

  1. Atopy (Inhaled Allergies): These are reactions to airborne substances like pollen, dust mites, or mold. Atopic dermatitis affects around 10-15% of dogs. Dogs with atopy often show signs of itching around the face, feet, and underarms.
  2. Food Allergies: Unlike atopy, food allergies can cause year-round symptoms. Common culprits include proteins like beef, chicken, and dairy. Studies suggest that food allergies account for about 10% of all allergies in dogs.
  3. Contact Allergies: These are less common and occur when a dog’s skin reacts to substances it touches, such as certain shampoos, chemicals, or fabrics. The incidence of contact allergies is relatively low but can still cause significant discomfort.
  4. Flea Allergies: Flea allergy dermatitis is an intense allergic reaction to flea saliva. It’s one of the most common skin conditions in dogs and can cause severe itching even from a single flea bite.

Allergy Testing

Diagnosing the specific cause of your dog's allergies often requires thorough testing. Working alongside a veterinarian is essential, as allergies are complex and often require ongoing management rather than a cure.

  1. Intradermal Skin Testing: Often considered the gold standard, this test involves injecting small amounts of potential allergens into the skin and observing reactions. This type of allergy testing involves referral to a veterinary dermatologist.
  2. Blood Testing for IgE: Measures the level of IgE antibodies to specific allergens in the blood, providing an indication of allergic sensitivities. Controversial in food allergies more more reliable for environmental allergies
  3. Saliva Testing: Though less common and somewhat controversial, some believe it can provide insights into food sensitivities (IgM) which would be considered more than a food intolerance rather than a true allergy.
  4. Food Allergy Trials: Involves feeding a novel or hydrolysed protein diet for 8-12 weeks to identify food allergies through the process of elimination.

The Role of Diet in Reducing Allergies

Managing a dog’s allergies and itchiness requires a multi-faceted approach, focusing on reducing inflammation and supporting the skin and immune system. One crucial aspect is diet, which forms the foundation of overall health.

Inflammation in the body, often triggered by a leaky gut, plays a significant role in chronic itching. The gut houses approximately 70% of the immune system, and when the gut barrier is compromised, it can lead to systemic inflammation and skin issues. Processed diets, high in carbohydrates, can exacerbate this problem by increasing sugar levels and promoting inflammation.

A raw or whole food diet can significantly reduce inflammation and improve gut health. The DogRisk research group found that dogs fed a whole food diet as puppies had a much lower risk of developing atopy in adulthood. Whole foods provide essential nutrients without the additives and fillers that can contribute to a leaky gut and inflammation.

When managing a diet for a patient with allergies, I always recommend starting with a single protein diet, avoiding chicken and beef. Even if I'm not conducting a food allergy trial, these proteins are common triggers of immune responses, especially when a leaky gut is involved. It's crucial to maintain a minimal, low-allergen diet to help reduce inflammation in the body. Instead, I commonly use proteins such as turkey, kangaroo, duck, salmon, goat, and pork for allergy patients.

Supplements and Medications to Reduce Itching

As an integrative vet alongside a diet change, part of managing allergies is supporting gut and skin function. Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in maintaining skin health. They help strengthen the skin barrier, reduce inflammation, and alleviate itching. Supplementing with omega-3s can be beneficial for dogs suffering from allergies and skin issues. Fish oil and green-lipped mussel supplements are a common and effective source of these essential fats.

In addition to omega-3s, other supplements can aid in managing allergies:

  • Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA): A natural anti-inflammatory and analgesic compound that helps reduce itching and inflammation.
  • Quercetin: A bioflavonoid with natural antihistamine properties, helping to reduce allergic reactions.
  • Probiotics: These beneficial bacteria support gut health, which is crucial for a robust immune system and reducing allergic reactions. Oftentimes I will utilise them alongside other herbs to help heal a leaky gut such as slippery elm, green tea and medicinal mushrooms.
  • Faecal Transplants: Though more experimental, fecal transplants can help restore healthy gut flora, potentially reducing allergy symptoms.

Pharmaceutical drugs are often used to manage severe itching and allergies:

  • Apoquel: An immune modulator that quickly reduces itching but is not ideal for long-term use due to potential side effects.
  • Cytopoint: An injectable treatment that targets and neutralises a specific itch-inducing cytokine, providing relief for 4-8 weeks (sometimes more).
  • Steroids: Effective for short-term relief and cost-effective, but long-term use can weaken the skin barrier and cause significant side effects such as weight gain, increased thirst, and susceptibility to infections.
  • Allergy Vaccines (Immunotherapy): Custom-made vaccines that gradually desensitise the dog to specific allergens. Only utilised if allergy testing is performed.
  • Antihistamines: Often used as an adjunct treatment to reduce mild itching and allergic reactions.  

Topical Management

Topical treatments can provide immediate relief for itchy skin while addressing internal causes is crucial. Natural, hypoallergenic shampoos and conditioners can soothe irritated skin. Ingredients like oatmeal, aloe vera, and chamomile have calming properties. While steroids are commonly used for their potent anti-inflammatory effects, they are not ideal for long-term use due to their potential to weaken the skin barrier and cause other adverse effects.

Conclusion

Persistent itching in dogs is often a sign of underlying allergies or health issues. By understanding the common causes of itching—particularly allergies—and focusing on a holistic approach to management, pet parents can significantly improve their dogs' quality of life. Transitioning to a whole food diet, supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids and other supportive supplements, and using gentle topical treatments can collectively address the problem.

As an integrative veterinarian, my first step in treating itchy dogs is always to evaluate their diet. By reducing inflammation through a whole food diet, we can tackle the root cause of many skin issues. Remember, a healthy gut leads to a healthy pet, and managing diet is a crucial component of this balance.

About the Author - Dr. Nicole Rous

Dr. Nicole Rous completed her degree with Honours from the University of Sydney in 2008. She initially worked in the UK before returning to small animal practice in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Nicole has a keen interest in animal reproduction and has been granted Membership with the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists in this specialty. She is also passionate about complementary therapies such as massage and enjoys discussing ways to enhance pets' overall well-being and quality of life.

In August 2021, Dr. Nicole joined the Mont Albert Veterinary Surgery team as a director and continues to provide exceptional care to her patients. She is dedicated to utilising her knowledge and experience to assist pets in living longer, healthier, and happier lives.

Dr. Nicole's commitment to providing natural and holistic health practices for pets inspired her to establish Shy Tiger, a company that offers natural pet products made from premium ingredients sourced primarily from Australian farms and producers. Her expertise in natural health practices and dedication to providing excellent care to her patients make her a reliable partner for pet owners in Melbourne and beyond.

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References:

1. "Prevalence of Allergies in Dogs," Journal of Veterinary Medicine.
2. "Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs," Veterinary Dermatology.
3. "Food Allergies in Dogs: Diagnosis and Management," Veterinary Allergy.
4. "Diet and Atopy in Dogs," DogRisk Research Group.

By focusing on these key aspects, pet parents can better understand and manage their dogs' itching, leading to happier, healthier pets.