We all have an itch from time to time, and dogs are no exception, but when the scratch becomes frequent or distressing then it may be time to take a closer look.
Most importantly, until proven otherwise, the cause IS fleas. It is the most common reason for dogs to itch and must not be ruled out without further thought or investigation.
But I can’t see any fleas?
Fleas hide well, move fast, and are hard to find, especially in black/dark coated animals. Only in heavy infestations do you see fleas easily. If you only start treatment once you see a flea, it’s too late. One flea can lay 40-50 eggs. These eggs can develop into adults within 12 days.
Instead, we often look for evidence of fleas. If you part the fur and can see black specks the size of dandruff, it could be flea faeces. Dampen some cotton wool or use a flea comb to wipe up some of these black specks. If a red tinge bleeds out from damp white cotton wool, it contains blood and is flea faeces. It tells you fleas are around. In white dogs the fleas and dirt are easier to find. The best place to look is around the neck and base of the tail.
But I have used flea treatments. Could it still be fleas?
For flea treatment to be effective, there are two important factors: it needs to be an effective product and applied regularly.
Many flea treatments require the flea to bite before being killed. If your dog is allergic to flea bite saliva, one bite may be enough to set off a response (flea allergic dermatitis). You do not need to see many fleas for your dog’s itch to be caused by them.
95% of the lifecycle of the flea is in the environment, in the form of eggs, larvae and pupae, leaving just 5% in the form of adults. Treating the home must not be forgotten.
There is a dizzying array of flea products for pets on the market. They contain different active ingredients, some more effective than others. You can purchase flea treatment from pet shops, online or through your vet. Get advice on flea products only from a vet. Some pet shop products may not be effective and can even be harmful, and some online products may not be genuine.
Treatment must be regular. Any break in protection allows fleas to live on your pet and get into your home.
There are many different effective veterinary treatments. If you walk your dog where there are ticks, you may want a product that prevents both fleas AND ticks. If your dog eats snails, you may want a product that prevents both fleas AND lungworm (can be transmitted via eating of snails and slugs). Have a chat with one of our vets so you can pick a bespoke treatment that fits your pet’s lifestyle and needs.
I still don’t think its fleas. What else could it be?
If the itch is just in one area, look at this area. Is there a scratch, a matt or maybe even a tick attached that may be irritating the dog? If your pet is scratching only at the ears, it maybe that a vet needs to examine the ears in more detail.
There are many types of mites.
Other dogs, or foxes, can be sources of the sarcoptic mange mite. These mites can cause intense itching, and progress to scabs often on the ears, chest, elbows and hocks.
A predominantly rabbit mite (cheyletiella) can affect dogs, although this is uncommon. If your dog is allowed off the lead, they may meet wild rabbits, or other dogs, with this mite. It can appear like ‘walking ‘dandruff’ and although not often itchy, it can be.
Both these mites can cause skin issues for people, so watch out for any skin issues within the household.
Another type of mite is the demodex mite. It rarely causes itching and is not infectious to other animals or humans. If the skin gets infected with bacteria secondary to this mite, they may itch intensely.
As these mites are not visible with the naked eye, our vets will need to do tests to see if they are there.
If you have used a new shampoo, or washing powder on your dogs bed, they may be having an allergic reaction to it. Have you changed anything recently?
If everything else has been ruled out, then your dog may have a Cutaneous Adverse Food Reaction where they have an allergic reaction to certain foods, or Canine Atopic Disease where they react to environmental allergens like pollen, house dust mites etc. Commonly they may have a mixture of the two. Signs can be local but more commonly generalised, affecting the face and tummy. Food allergies are more likely if your dog is young (<1 year), and it will not be seasonal. Only one third of dogs will have gastrointestinal signs like vomiting or diarrhoea. Flea allergy dermatitis is also common and mentioned previously, with lesions typically affecting the rump, up the back and around the neck.
We may discuss starting an elimination food trial if they suspect an adverse food reaction.
Treatment of allergic skin diseases can be frustrating. They are managed but rarely cured.
Infections with yeasts, or bacteria, usually occur because of an underlying allergic skin disease. It may be the first sign of this problem. Bacterial infections can appear locally, often in hot sweaty areas of the body like the ears, feet and groin. They can appear in circular scaly patches, pimples or oozing sores. Yeast infections tend to be more greasy, and generalised. Although these infections need treating, and cause intense itch, the underlying cause must not be ignored.
In summary, common things occur commonly. If your dog is itching, it is a good idea to make sure all animals and the house are up to date with a safe and effective, recommended flea treatment. If the itch does not settle then a vet visit will be required.