Updated November 29, 2020
‘At A Glance (Details Below)’ Rapid Care Guide
How To Stop Itchy Dogs Scratching
- A cool rinse or bath with soap-free dog shampoo can give temporary relief
- Always use vet-quality external parasite control even if you can’t see fleas
- To identify the cause, see your vet quickly before secondary infections develop
Now dive deeper.
Does your dog have itchy skin or scratch a lot? If so, you’re not alone.
The good news is, there are a lot of simple things you can do at home to make your dog’s red and itchy skin more comfortable.
Just make sure you’re on the right track first…
Is My Dog’s Itching Caused By Allergy?
Many skin conditions of dogs cause signs of itchiness. Please get your dog checked before assuming the problem is an allergy. You need your vet to make sure that it’s OK to just treat the symptoms. Read more about what vets can do for itchy dogs here.
How To Soothe A Dog’s Itchy Skin.
So assuming your vet has diagnosed canine atopy (the common form of allergic dermatitis), and you have followed their advice, what else can you do for your dog?
Most of these methods have only mild effects but are very safe unless otherwise stated. By combining a few of these with your vet’s plan you can build the foundation of a successful itch management plan.
No two dogs respond the same way. You need to try many different strategies to see which ones will help your dog.
1. Flea Control
“He doesn’t have fleas” is something no vet will say about their own dog. The best we might say is “he’s up to date with his flea control” or “I don’t think it’s a flea problem”. Vets know that you can’t detect fleas in most animals that carry them, and in fact the more itchy a dog is, the faster the fleas are removed. Read here how vets were fooled by fleas prior to 1994.
Think of flea control as an insurance policy against fleas.
No dog who lives in a real world environment can avoid flea bites. Flea eggs, larvae and waiting adults contaminate any area where dogs and cats go, including private yards.
Dogs with itchy skin have already crossed the ‘itch threshold’ and any extra irritation will have a major effect. Protect your itchy dog from flea bites by using these quality flea controls. Note that none of them are available in the supermarket.
Bathing is the most misunderstood part of skincare. Everyone has heard that frequent bathing is bad for dogs’ skin. Instead, visit our guide to bathing dogs to see how the right shampoo allows you to bath a dog as often as you like. Then read about five examples of dermatitis that got better after bathing.
Good dog shampoos allow you to do two things:
- Prevent the buildup of surface irritants
- Soothe inflammation
For inflamed, red skin there are some important extra rules:
- Judge by results. Only use shampoos that make your dog less itchy.
- If it works, do it as often as you need, even every day in bad times.
- Use specialised shampoos (avoid antibacterials or insecticides).
- Follow label instructions closely, especially regarding contact time.
- Pre-dilute shampoos 5 to 10 times & start with the worst parts of the skin.
- Consider a post-bathing conditioner or moisturiser (see later)
Diet affects skin health in three ways:
- The constant state of renewal of the skin and coat means that any nutritional problems are often first seen there. Most dog foods supply all the known essential requirements but we still recommend buying a higher quality food if possible. Skin health is especially sensitive to the protein quality and the presence of essential fatty acids.
- Diets can become therapies by being fortified with treatments known to help the skin.
- Dogs can be allergic to a component of the diet. This is so rare that we don’t recommend you focus on this until later. We will work with you to design an elimination diet at the appropriate time.
4. Omega 3 and Essential Fatty Acids
The foods pictured earlier both contain additional levels of the fatty acids we know to reduce skin inflammation and itch. Many clients choose to use these integrated foods, but you can also add them to your dog’s existing diet.
Essential fatty acids include linolenic and linoleic acid. The easiest source for these is sunflower oil at a rate of one teaspoon per 1 cup of dry food.Omega 3 fatty acids are primarily derived from fish oil and krill oil. I use fish oil in dogs at a dose of one 1000mg capsule per 5kg of dog.
Some dogs do not tolerate extra oils in the diet and may experience vomiting, diarrhoea or poor appetite. Never give extra oils to dogs prone to pancreatitis.
Thick or matted coats make itchy skin worse. If your dog has a double coat with a thick undercoat, regular brushing will help remove old hair and help the skin breathe.
Matting of the hair in longhaired breeds always worsens skin problems. Read our guide to dog grooming for more advice.
Sadly, even though in theory they should help, most dogs do not respond to antihistamine use. We always trial a few different ones, and use them in conjunction with other remedies.
Some dogs do benefit. Visit this page for a list of antihistamines for dogs and their doses.
7. Spot Treatment
The advantage of using ‘topical’ or surface treatments is that you can control local flare ups as they happen. Here are some that we see helping dogs:
- Aloveen Conditioner
- Resisoothe Lotion
- Triderm Calming Gel
- Aloe Vera
- Colloidal Oatmeal
- Tea Tree Oil? Read why we don’t recommend using Tea Tree Oil on dogs.
- Sunscreen. Pink skin gets burnt on dogs just like people. Loki gets his pink nose dabbed every day.
- Insect Repellents. Only use these with veterinary advice , but they can help some problems.
- and of course, prescription ointments, lotions, creams and sprays containing hydrocortisone or other corticosteroids. Please don’t use these without veterinary advice as they can easily do more harm than good.
All of these should be lightly massaged into inflamed areas after bathing or gently wiping with a clean damp cloth to remove buildup.
Even a cool water bath or dip at the sea (followed by a rinse) can temporarily settle a distressed dog.
8. Barrier Care
The concept of good barrier function is gradually becoming accepted. Many products are available overseas but relatively few can be bought here in Australia.
The simplest way to improve the skin barrier is to lightly moisturise your dog’s coat after bathing. Best are probably Aloveen Conditioner, Resisoothe Lotion or Triderm Calming Gel. After your dog is towel-dried but still damp, rub a small amount on your hands and massage it through the coat. The skin and coat should feel soft, not greasy.
You may still find all of these leave too much residue in the coat if used according to their directions. Personally, I go ‘off-label’ and dilute them to apply using a spray bottle. As they contain no preservatives I make up a fresh mix each time and discard the remainder.
Other options include Alpha Keri oil and other similar human products. These need to be used very sparingly to avoid a greasy coat that leaves stains on clothing and furniture.
Lastly, simple as it is, don’t forget to keep your dog’s bed as clean as they are. Natural fibres such as wool, jute and cotton are hard to clean thoroughly and can themselves be allergenic.
We recommend any of the modern synthetic beds; they are generally hypoallergenic and wash and dry well.
Follow this link to read more about the common allergens of dogs like dust mites, pollens and plants.
Skin care in itchy dogs is an ongoing battle. A puppy with a skin allergy can be expected to worsen as he or she matures, even if you are treating their itch well. Then, just as you think you’re getting it controlled, something upsets the delicate balance you’ve made.
You’ll need to be light and nimble, and prepared to adapt as things change. And so will we.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.