Itchy Dogs Part I : The Environment
Welcome to the Dermapaw blog!
In this series, we will go over all of the most common causes and solutions for skin itching, skin licking and skin irritation in dogs. In this article, “Itchy Dogs Part I: The Environment”, we will be talking about outdoor allergens and irritants, as well as home remedies to try, what to avoid, and when you should go to the vet. We strongly believe that anxiety or boredom being the cause of skin licking is highly unlikely in most dogs, and that most cases of itchiness are caused by some sort of allergy or irritant. Also, when it comes to bacterial or fungal infections in the skin, it is usually going to be a secondary issue caused by the initial licking and/or scratching.
Just like humans, dogs and cats suffer from seasonal allergies. Here are some common outdoor elements to consider when trying to figure out why your dog or cat is itching.
This is a common outdoor irritant for dogs as well as people because it is in so many yards. You may see your dog eating grass from time to time, and there are a couple theories as to why that is. Some people think that it is an instinctual behavior to induce vomiting due to an upset stomach, and some people think it has to do with certain phytonutrients the grass can provide for them that they are craving.
One thing is for sure: dogs love to play in the grass! The only time grass causes a reaction in the skin that induces itching, licking, biting and hair loss is if your dog has an allergy to it from skin contact (just like how some people do), or if the grass has been sprayed with weed killer or pesticides that can cause extreme irritation to their skin on contact.
At-Home Remedies for Itchiness Caused by Grass
If your grass has been treated with weed killer or pesticides try to keep your dog from eating the grass, and as a good rule of thumb try to avoid letting them munch on unfamiliar lawns.
You also may want to wipe off your dog’s feet with a wet washcloth, or swish their feet in a baking soda solution in a plastic container (about two tablespoons per quart of water) and pat dry when they finish playing outside to prevent it from causing too much inflammation, whether it be from pesticides or from the grass itself. Baking soda absorbs allergens and irritants and can also raise the ph of their skin. Dog and cat skin both naturally has a higher ph level than humans. If you think your dog may be allergic to grass and want to be sure, there are vets that can do an allergy skin test on them to confirm it.
Pollen is another extremely common irritant that is much harder to pin down because there are so many different kinds of pollen out there. Generally, during the springtime the trees are pollinating, during the summertime the grass is pollinating, and during the fall weeds and flowering plants are pollinating. The main variables to look at are the season and location. Does your dog’s itching tend to come about during a certain season or seasons and calm down in the wintertime? Have you moved into a house surrounded by new and different plants and flowers?
In humans, pollen can make our noses run and eyes itch and water. In dogs, pollen usually causes skin inflammation and itching. Many times, the way your dog will cope with the skin irritation is by licking it. Sometimes, pollen can even cause digestion issues such as vomiting and diarrhea. It can also cause sinus drainage into their ear canal, causing them to paw at their ears or shake their head. Once they start to exhibit these particular symptoms with their ears, it is likely they are suffering from an ear infection, and at that point you should consult your vet for proper treatment.
At-Home Remedies for Itchiness Caused by Pollen
If you notice that your dog’s itching patterns follow season, location, or are paired with stomach issues, it is likely due to pollen. There’s not much you can do to avoid your dog being exposed to pollen, so you’ll just want to try to ease their itching as much as possible to avoid any kind of secondary infection.
You can wipe off your dog’s feet with a wet washcloth, or swish their feet in a baking soda solution in a plastic container (about two tablespoons per quart of water) and pat dry to prevent it from causing too much inflammation just like with grass to minimize the skin contact irritation. Again, baking soda absorbs allergens and can also raise the ph of their skin if it is imbalanced. Dogs’ skin naturally has a higher ph level than humans. It may not be as effective as when you do the baking soda swish for grass allergies, since pollen has the potential to be more of an internal reaction rather than just from skin contact. If you are already getting an allergy test with a vet, they most likely try testing for common pollens in your location as well.
Occasionally giving them the appropriate dosage of an antihistamine like Benadryl or Zyrtec could be an option as well if your dog simply cannot find relief. The dosage to consider when giving antihistamines to dogs is about 1mg per 2 pounds of body weight, given once per day. There is also a prescription drug that works a little differently than an antihistamine that you can get from your vet called “Apoquel” that seems to be effective for many dogs. The only problem with Apoquel is that it can be expensive for dog parents with a budget.
As dog and/or cat owners, most of us are quite familiar with fleas and ticks, but it can be much more of an issue for some than for others, particularly with fleas when it comes to severe skin itching. Fleas are generally far more irritating to a dog or cat’s skin than ticks, although neither are welcome! Depending on where you live, some climates may be far more hospitable for these parasites. For instance in more humid, warm climates fleas and ticks are far more abundant and it’s important to stay on top of monthly preventative treatment. Fleas are always going to be itchy for dogs and cats, but some dogs are actually allergic to the flea’s bite, and their skin can become much more inflamed than how a typical dog or cat’s skin will react.
If you think your dog or cat has fleas, spread their fur apart in areas like right above their tail, inner thighs and stomach and search for little black dots. These areas of the body are a flea’s favorite. If you see a black “pepper” looking substance on the skin, this is actually the flea’s poop and is what dog or cat professionals like groomers and vets look for when searching for a flea infestation. You may even see a flea run by, but it is more likely that you will just see the droppings.
If your dog or cat acquired some pesky fleas, they could have got them from a variety of places. Other animals, outdoor shrubbery, or the fleas may have even made a home somewhere in your home.
At-Home Remedies for Itchiness Caused by Fleas
If you think you may have fleas inside your house, there are a few environmental solutions. You’ll want to wash all of your dog or cat’s bedding of course, but in addition you can try a safe, non-chemical pest control called “Diatomaceous Earth”, which kills pests by essentially just drying them out. Dogs and cats can walk on it and even sniff it and taste it - it is completely safe. You can also do chemical treatments like sprays and foggers if it is really severe - but that is something you’ll want to try last, as it can be a stinky, harsh way to combat them.
If your dog or cat does indeed have fleas, you are going to want to rid them from their skin and coat as soon as possible. There are lots of flea and tick shampoos on the market, so you’ll want to go for something effective yet gentle, especially if your dog or cat has sensitive skin or allergies. Ideally, you will search for an essential oil based flea and tick shampoo, with ingredients like “neem” and “eucalyptus”. You can also use Dermapaw shampoo if your dog or cat’s skin is especially sensitive.
Lather your dog or cat’s body really well in the tub and let the lathered shampoo sit for about 10-15 minutes. Remember to avoid their eyes when it comes to flea and tick shampoo and only use hypoallergenic shampoo like Dermapaw on their face. This flea bath will allow the essential oils to kill the fleas, but also assures to rid their coat of them because the shampoo will suffocate the fleas. When you rinse, you may notice the water is brown or red. This is blood, but there is no need to be alarmed (unless your dog or cat has a blood coagulation condition - in which case give your vet a call before doing anything) as this is normal. The flea bath should do the trick by getting any of the adult fleas as well as the eggs and larvae off of the skin without exposing them to too many harsh chemicals.
After the shampooing and rinsing, immediately give them a preventative flea and/or flea and tick treatment, which come in either oral or topical treatments. This will prevent an infestation from happening again, and also acts as a backup to rid them of any eggs that may hatch later on that were left behind. Flea “dips” aren’t really a standard treatment for dogs anymore, as it is essentially dipping your dog into a toxic pesticide.
If your dog or cat had an allergic reaction to a flea infestation, be patient as it may take quite a while for the itching to stop even if the fleas are gone. Putting Dermapaw on the clean skin that is irritated or giving them a nice Dermapaw bath about once a week is a great way to soothe the skin during that in-between time period.
Also, an appropriate dose of an antihistamine such as Benedryl or Zyrtec may also provide relief and help them get some sleep. The dosage to consider when giving antihistamines to dogs is about 1mg per 2 pounds of body weight, given once per day.
Things to Avoid
The problem with using steroids is that they aren’t really a long term solution, the effectiveness decreases over time, and there are troubling physical and mental side effects associated with long-term use. It can make them feel jittery, uncomfortable and scared, and that’s no fun for them.
Giving steroids should be viewed as a “last resort” treatment option, and in those cases it can be the only thing that provides relief for the short term, and that’s okay. It is just a good idea to look at your other, less severe but potentially just as (or more) effective options first. If you end up deciding to use the steroid option for your dog or cat, from what we’ve seen, the injection steroids tend to be more effective than the oral pills.
Over-the-Counter Topical Medications (Hydrocortisone Cream, Tinactin, etc.)
It may seem like the logical solution to put hydrocortisone cream on your dog or cat’s itchy skin to provide them with relief, or to put an athlete’s foot cream on your their skin if you are convinced that the culprit is a fungus like ringworm (see “When to go to the Vet” below). The reason why these aren’t good solutions is because dogs and cats lick things that are on their skin.
Hydrocortisone cream is a steroid that is not meant to be ingested, and will cause stomach upset in the form of vomiting and diarrhea, and may even cause blood in the stool if enough has been ingested. Anti-fungal creams such as Tinactin (Tolnaftate) or Lotrimin (Clotrimazole) will also cause stomach upset such as vomiting and diarrhea if ingested. Stomach upset like this is dangerous and can cause the dog or cat to become dehydrated very quickly.
If your veterinarian specifically instructed you to use either of these over-the-counter creams or has prescribed your dog or cat with something similar, they will have you put a cone on your them and/or wrap the area up or both to prevent ingestion. We suggest that before you leap to putting your dog or cat in uncomfortable equipment, try the safer, less harsh options first.
Antihistamine treatment is another one of those “last resort” solutions for itchy dogs when it comes to seasonal or outdoor allergies and irritants. The reason for this is that antihistamines by nature tend to dry things out, which can be effective when treating runny noses and watery eyes, but harmful for skin that is prone to dryness and irritation. These drugs may also cause cottonmouth which causes them to drink and urinate excessively. Antihistamines like Benadryl or Zyrtec can be an effective short-term solution for some dogs or cats in extreme situations, but isn’t something we recommend going for first, or using as an everyday treatment. There is also a prescription drug that works differently than an antihistamine. Apoquel seems to be effective for many dogs. Just watch out for vomiting or diarrhea.
Spray on deterrents like bitter apple are alcohol based. If your dog has painful, sensitive, or raw skin, it will sting like crazy. It also overwhelms their sensitive olfactory system. Please don't use these. They don't work and are painful to dogs with skin issues.
There is also a somewhat common misconception that applying deterrents such as hot sauce, bleach, or vinegar. Please don’t do this to your dog or cat! Not only are these things harmful to their skin, they could get in their eyes. The reason vinegar has a great reputation as an anti-bacterial is because it's a strong acid that destroys just about everything, including your dog's skin. It also burns like crazy.
When to Go to the Vet
Secondary Infections (Fungal & Bacterial)
A fungal skin infection in dogs or cats can appear in many ways such as skin swelling, skin itching but most of all a funky smell. The most common fungal infection in dogs is a yeast (candida) overgrowth, which is where the smell comes in. The other most common fungal skin infection in dogs and also cats is ringworm (tinea), and is another issue altogether, and probably came about because your dog or cat came in contact with another animal who had it. Ringworm is highly contagious, so you will want to take care of that as soon as possible. There are other fungal skin infections that can appear in dogs and cats in the form of lesions, discharge, or discoloration but are much less common than yeast infections and even ringworm. No matter what the symptoms, if you suspect it is a fungal infection you will need to go to a vet for proper treatment.
A bacterial infection in dogs can be potentially dangerous and should be taken seriously. Bacterial infections appear in the form of redness, swelling, pain and being warm to the touch especially around wounds caused by itching. Many times you will also see white, green or yellow discharge or pus. If you see any of these symptoms and suspect that your dog or cat has given themselves a bacterial infection, a vet is going to be the only one able to provide them with proper antibiotics in order to fix it.We the Dermapaw team are a family-owned and operated company that has created a skincare line for dogs and cats designed to soothe, heal and stop itching in dog and cats’ skin due to a variety of causes. We are a group of animal-care professionals with a combined hands-on experience of about 20 years. We have put lots of energy and resources into research and development for over 10 years, and are always continuing to do so! Please be aware that none of this information should be taken as medical advice or replace a diagnosis from your veterinarian, and that none of these suggestions are guaranteed or should be viewed as a “cure”. Every dog or cat out there is different, and we are just speaking from experience. We hope you learn something and we hope to help your dog or cat, whether you try out our products or not!