Dr. Hannah Godfrey BVetMed MRCVS
Now that the weather is warming up, more dogs and cats will be affected by seasonal allergies, which can make the skin itchy, red, and sore, as well as making your furry companion a bit miserable. But a seasonal allergy is just one cause of itchy skin, so if your pet is itchy, what could it be? And how can you help?
Why is my dog or cat itchy?
Fleas, as well as other parasites that live in the coat or on the skin, can make your dog or cat itchy. If you have an itchy pet and the cause is fleas you might notice small, black specks, a bit like black dandruff in the fur. This is called ‘flea dirt’ and is actually digested blood passed as poo by the fleas.
The highest numbers of fleas, and therefore the most flea dirt, can usually be found low down on your cat or dog’s back, just above the tail base. If left untreated, your furry friend will scratch so much that they will damage the skin, leaving it sore and open to infection.
If you think your cat or dog might have fleas and your they aren’t up to date with flea treatment, our vets will advise on the best flea treatment for all the pets in your household. Spraying the house with a flea-killing spray may also help.
It can take a few months of strict treatment to clear the fleas altogether. If your dog or cat has fleas despite you using a flea product, speak to our team as there may be better treatment options available.
As if fleas themselves weren’t enough, pets can be allergic to flea saliva. That means even a single bite causes an extremely itchy allergic reaction. Cats are more commonly allergic to flea bites than dogs, and can develop red bumps or scabs on their skin—called ‘military dermatitis’—and bald patches from constant licking.
Applying flea treatments in the form of prescription-strength tablets or spot-ons is a very effective way of preventing fleas and flea allergic dermatitis. During a flare up, your pet may need extra medication to heal the skin.
Also known as atopic dermatitis or atopy, skin allergies are common in dogs and cats. The allergy can be to certain foods, plant pollens, parasites like fleas, or even house dust mites. Allergy tests are available, either a blood test or skin tests. However, knowing what your pet is allergic to doesn’t always help—airborne environmental allergens like pollens and house dust mites can never be avoided completely.
If you think your itchy dog or cat might have an allergy, you’ll want to know how best to help them. Whilst seeing a veterinarian will be necessary to make sure there is no other cause and to provide treatment where necessary, there are some things you can do at home to try to help.
Environmental allergies can be improved by using a clean, damp cloth to wash the paws after walks. This removes any pollen or other allergens that are on the fur or skin. Equally, using a hypoallergenic shampoo, and ensuring your groomer does too, may help reduce any reaction to shampoos and other chemicals used.
You may also want to talk to one of our vets about a hydrolyzed diet trial, where you feed a strict diet for 8 weeks, ensuring no treats or titbits are given. If the allergy is to a protein in their food, their symptoms will improve.
Your dog has anal glands on either side of their bottom, which hold scent material that allows them to mark their territory or release a foul-smelling scent when feeling threatened. If your dog’s anal sacs are full, it can make them very itchy.
Often it causes them to lick around their bottom, scoot along the floor, chew their paws, or scratch their ears. But it can also cause generalized itchiness, so if your dog is itchy, they may need to see a veterinarian to have their anal glands squeezed.
Dogs with allergies are more likely to have anal gland problems, so sometimes you’ll find yourself battling both problems!
Cats also have anal glands, but it’s much less common for them to have problems.
If your dog or cat has a rash or red skin that is itchy, and you’ve noticed a particular smell about them, there may be a skin infection caused by yeast or bacteria. This is more common in dogs. If your dog is prone to overgrowth of yeast, speak to your veterinarian about medicated shampoos that might help reduce the yeast on their skin.
A bacterial skin infection will vary in severity depending on how deep in the skin layers the bacteria are. Often you will notice yellow crusts or discharge on the skin, and affected dogs can be quite painful. Luckily, most skin infections will clear with a long course of antibiotics.
Like some of the other causes, skin infections and fungal overgrowths are more common in dogs with allergies, so you may well find yourself battling both problems.
Sometimes dogs get itchy ears, without the rest of the skin being affected. The most common causes are ear infections, ear mites, or allergies, and dogs with dangly, hairy ears and dogs who swim are most prone to flare-ups.
Keeping ears clean by using an ear cleaner solution will help to reduce the wax build-up and so prevent irritation or infection. It will also help if ears are cleaned straight away after swimming, to remove any water that may have entered their ear canals. For dogs with an underlying allergy, getting the allergy under control can help!
It’s not just dogs who get itchy ears—cats do too! If your cat has an ear infection or ear mites, you might notice baldness on the back of your cat’s ears from scratching and the inside of the ears may look quite dirty. Your veterinarian will be able to look down your cat’s ears and prescribe medication if needed.
Stress and overgrooming
Whilst not a cause of itchy skin, stress and overgrooming can cause signs in your cat that might make you think they are itchy. For example, you may notice bald patches or areas where the fur is thinner. You might also feel a rough, bristly texture to their coat where each hair has been chewed and broken off.
Although cats that overgroom due to stress are not itchy, if they continue to overgroom they can damage the skin, leading to infection which will cause itchiness. If your cat is suffering from stress, perhaps due to a new cat in the area, building work, or a new baby or pet in the household, there are things you can do to help.
Diffusers and calming medications can act as more natural remedies for stress. Our vets would be happy to advise which product would be most suitable for your furry friend.
Frequently asked questions…
Why is my dog so itchy all of a sudden?
Dogs can be itchy for multiple reasons including having fleas, suffering from food allergies or environmental allergies, or even having full anal glands. Check to see if you can spot any signs of fleas or flea dirt and apply a flea treatment to all pets in the household if they are due. However, if this doesn’t cause the itching to stop, arrange an appointment with your veterinarian.
How do I help a dog with itchy skin?
Firstly, make sure you see book an appointment to see a veterinarian to find out the possible cause of the itching and discuss any treatment or management options. However, a trial with a hypoallergenic diet, a bath with hypoallergenic shampoo, or even spraying with a diluted apple cider vinegar solution may help to calm or resolve the itching.
If you suspect your dog may have environmental allergies, wiping their paws with a damp cloth after a walk should remove any allergens that are on the skin and fur.
How can I help my cat with itchy ears?
Only designated ear cleaning solutions and prescribed drops are safe to apply inside your cat’s ears. Never try any home remedies inside your dog your cat’s ears since the inner ear is very sensitive and easily damaged. If you think your cat has itchy ears you should see your veterinarian, who can prescribe the right treatment once they have diagnosed the issue.
Can I use a pet wipe on my cat who is itchy?
Whilst pet wipes are usually safe to use as long as you avoid sensitive areas like the eyes, nose, mouth, and inner ear, if your cat doesn’t improve quickly it is better to ask your veterinarian to check them over. Pet wipes rarely contain ingredients that will help your cat’s itchiness.
Dogs and cats get itchy for lots of reasons. If the symptoms are mild, you could try bathing your dog in a hypoallergenic shampoo or soothing shampoo. However, these options are better avoided in cats, since your furry feline is unlikely to thank you for bathing them!
It’s always best to check that your pets are up to date with parasite treatments, but if itchiness persists it is always best to make an appointment to see one of our vets, who will be able to diagnose the problem and find a suitable treatment.