by Jean Hofve, DVM, Veterinary Advisor to Only Natural Pet
Itching—and the scratching, biting, and licking that goes with it—is one of
the most common health problems in dogs and cats. Frequent head-shaking,
scratching, rubbing, chewing, or licking some area of skin (including ears)
means there’s a problem with itching, technically called “pruritis.” Left
untreated, itchy skin can be damaged by the pet's scratching, rubbing, or
licking, which may lead to “hot spots” (areas of oozing, dry or inflamed skin),
as well as secondary infections. Finding out what is causing the itch, and
resolving that cause, is essential to your pet’s quality of life.
In very general terms, itchy-skin problems in pets fall into just a few main
categories: poor nutrition, infections, parasites, and allergies are the major
players; but endocrine diseases, primary skin disorders, neoplasia (cancer),
autoimmune, pyschogenic (mental-neurological) causes, and drug reactions may
also occur. Sometimes more than one factor may be contributing to the problem.
Here’s a list of the top ten itch-causing factors, as well as some
suggestions on what you can do to help eliminate that irritating itch. Before
your pet damages the skin, starts pulling out clumps of fur, or is forced to
wear a cone-shaped (Elizabethan) collar, consider these common causes of
itchiness in dogs and cats, and work with your veterinarian to get your pet some
1. Nutrition – This doesn’t include food allergies; but diets containing
lower-quality nutrients are at the root of many an itchy pet. We know that good
nutrition is the foundation of health, and the corollary is also true: cheap
ingredients (such as corn and by-products) make for expensive vet bills.
Unfortunately, even vets tend to be poorly educated on nutrition, and often
recommend grocery store or “prescription”-type diets. Be sure to read this
“What You Need to Know About Your Pet's Food,” become a label-reader,
and choose only good-quality
natural foods for your cat or dog. Also consider
supplements, such as
Omega-3 fatty acids,
that will enhance your pet’s digestive and immune systems, and help avoid
nutritional deficiencies that can cause so much misery.
2. Infection – Skin infection (pyoderma) is surprisingly common in pets. The
major infectious culprits are ringworm (not actually a worm, but a fungus that
is highly contagious to other pets as well as humans), Malassezia (yeast), and
bacteria. Ringworm is especially common in kittens and cats, while yeast and
bacterial infections are more typical in dogs. The ears are lined with skin, so
itchy ears in both dogs and cats are an extension of the same types of
infections. Your veterinarian will need to make the correct diagnosis in order
to properly treat the infection.
However, one thing that vets don’t talk about much is why infection occurs.
In holistic terms, infections are always secondary; the skin is unhealthy for
some reason (often nutrition-related), and then invaders like bacteria, yeast,
and fungus can get a foothold. Keeping the skin healthy via good nutrition (with
wholesome meat proteins and plenty of essential fatty acids) is the best
prevention. Please see our articles,
“Chronic Ear Infections,” and
Itching & Infections - Could It Be Yeast Overgrowth/Candida?“ for more details.
Minor skin infections and hot spots may respond well to
natural topical products
3. Fleas – These nasty bugs deserve a special place in the itch-causing
chronicles. Bites from fleas are itchy all by themselves, but many pets develop
a specific allergy to flea bites. This is most commonly seen as hair loss or
rash at the base of the spine and tail, not to mention that the dog or cat will
constantly be chewing at the area. Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is an intensely
itchy allergic reaction to flea saliva that can be triggered by a single flea bite!
You may never see a flea or flea dirt on your pet (though daily flea-combing is
never a bad idea!), and many people are quite confused as to how their flea-less
pet can have such a severe reaction. If you live in an area where fleas are
present (which includes most of the U.S. at least part of the year), always keep
in mind that just one flea can cause intense itching for your pet that can last
for weeks. There are prescription veterinary flea-prevention products available,
natural flea & tick control products are safer, and definitely worth a try
before resorting to toxic pesticides. For more information, please read our
“The Natural Approach to Flea Control.” We also offer
aids for flea &
4. Other Insects and Arachnids – Just like they often do in humans, mosquito
bites can cause severe itching in sensitive pets, and in many areas of the
country, can transmit heartworms, Lyme, and other diseases, so keep a
insect repellent handy during bug season to help your pet stay bite-free.
Lice are an uncommon cause of itching in pets. Fortunately they are highly
species-specific; a dog cannot get cat lice, and vice versa. Lice are visible to
the naked eye, but don’t jump like fleas. Good hygiene, grooming, and clean
bedding are usually enough to prevent lice infestations.
Ticks and mites are not insects, but members of the 8-legged arachnid family
(along with spiders and scorpions). Ticks, while not usually itchy, can carry
many diseases, and are well worth avoiding. Many flea repellents are also
effective against ticks.
There are half a dozen species of mites that can infest pets, from the highly
contagious and severely itchy scabies (sarcoptic mange) to the mild-mannered
demodex that inhabits normal skin, but in immune-compromised animals can cause
itching and hair loss over the entire body. Mites are diagnosed through skin
scrapings taken by your vet, although a negative sample may not guarantee there
are no mites. Scabies in particular hides deep in the skin and is notoriously
hard to find. If more than one animal in your home is itchy (including human
animals), it may be smart to treat everyone for mites.
For more information, please read our article,
“Ask the Vet: Natural
Treatment for Demodectic Mange.”
5. Airborne Allergies (Atopy) – Many animals are allergic to the same things
that cause human allergies (dust, grasses, pollen, etc.). While humans' allergies
tend to affect the upper respiratory system with sneezing and watery discharges,
dogs’ and cats’ responses are more likely to involve dermatitis, or skin
inflammation. While this is a major cause of pets' itching, these allergies are
tough to diagnose, and other causes usually need to be ruled out first. Blood
and skin tests can sometimes be helpful for dogs; less so for cats. Like humans,
pets can also be allergic to chemical irritants like pesticide residue and
household cleaning products. Allergies can be difficult to control, and almost
impossible to eliminate. However, hypoallergenic diets,
allergy support products
essential fatty acid supplements can be helpful.
6. Food Allergies – Food allergies are not quite as common as most people
think, and they are actually more common in cats than dogs. Fortunately, food
allergies can be resolved with diligent detective work, eliminating all common
allergens from the diet (beef, chicken, eggs, corn, wheat, soy, and milk), then
reintroducing one at a time to see which ones cause an allergic reaction. Strict
avoidance of irritants can resolve most cases of pure food allergy.
novel protein foods as well as raw food diets can do much to alleviate
food-based allergies for many animal companions. Our articles,
“All About Raw
“Is Grain-Free Food Right for Your Companion?“ and
“The Role of Protein
in Good Nutrition,” provide further details on this important topic.
7. Genetic Factors & Breed Predisposition – Some breeds and lines of cats and
dogs are more prone to sensitive skin, or are more likely to develop allergic
itching due to skin folds and ear shapes. Siamese and Persian cats often have
immune system issues; and many breeds of dogs are more prone to allergies that
cause itching skin. Dogs with many skin folds, especially around the muzzle
(Shar Peis, Boxers, Bulldogs, Pugs), floppy ears (Spaniels, Hounds, and
Retrievers), or internally hairy ears (Poodles, Schnauzers), often become itchy
from yeast or bacterial infections in those warm, moist environments.
Temperament also plays a role; if yours is a sensitive breed, please check out
Anxiety and Stress articles in our Holistic Healthcare Library for tips on
reducing your pet's stress, and consider a
holistic anxiety remedy to help ease
your pet's emotional reactivity.
8. Vaccine Reactions – Although not usually recognized by
vaccine reactions can include dermatitis and itching. This occurs in both cats
and dogs, and can result after just one vaccine. Please read our article,
Truth About Pet Vaccinations,” for more details on this important health issue.
The homeopathic remedy,
Thuja can be helpful for pets that may have vaccine-related issues, particularly skin issues occurring after vaccination.
9. Glandular/Hormonal Imbalances – Several glandular imbalances can cause
skin problems that contribute to itching in some pets. Glands within the skin
itself can malfunction and cause skin itching, odor, and discharge. Systemic
conditions related to major endocrine glands, such as the thyroid and adrenal
glands, may also occur.
Hypothyroidism (decreased thyroid function) occurs naturally in dogs, and
rarely in cats, usually after treatment for overactive thyroid
(hyperthyroidism). There is some evidence to suggest that autoimmune
hypothyroidism (about half of cases) may be related to vaccination.
Hypothyroidism can cause the skin to become greasy, foul smelling, and in some
cases itchy; the hair often becomes very thin and brittle, starting at the tail.
Cushing's Disease (hyperadrenocorticism) is a condition of adrenal gland
over activity that may stem from an adrenal tumor, or from the pituitary gland.
Skin problems are common in Cushing’s disease, including thin skin, hair loss,
and sometimes itching. Endocrine diseases are serious problems that require
veterinary treatment, so always have your pet examined when unusual skin issues
or other symptoms arise. Our article,
“Thyroid Disorders in Cats and Dogs,”
provides additional information.
10. Detoxification – The skin is the largest organ of elimination. Many
irritants, residues, and compounds can be excreted through the skin. This is
part of why pets develop skin symptoms from allergies that, in people, cause
respiratory discharges. A temporary bout of itchiness or rash, especially after
a change in diet, or after holistic treatment such as homeopathy, it may be part
of the healing process. This shouldn’t last long (usually 2-3 weeks), depending
on your pet’s history and initial state of health. We carry an excellent
homeopathic detoxification aid, Newton Homeopathics Detoxifier, which can help pets eliminate toxins as part of an overall health program. Of course, please
work closely with your veterinarian during any detox process. Please see our articles,
“Fifteen Steps to Detox Your Pet,” and “When Is It Time to See the
Vet?” for more information.
While this “Top Ten” is not an exhaustive list, it will give you a place to
start with the most common causes of itchy skin. We encourage you to review our
other articles on Allergies and Itching in our Holistic Healthcare Library that
may be helpful, including:
Ask the Vet: Seasonal Allergies & Itching
Itchy Skin and Allergies
Alleviating Your Pet's Itchy Skin
Ask the Vet: Food Allergies & Diarrhea
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The articles and information in the Holistic Healthcare Library are presented for
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Instead, the content offers the reader information and opinions written by our staff,
guest authors, and/or veterinarians concerning animal health issues and animal care