Your dog scratches themselves in public. Your cheeks burn bright red with embarrassment.
People immediately think it’s fleas.
You normally can’t read minds. But at that moment, you hear them thinking, “Poor dog! Can’t their owner do something about it?”
And you can’t blame them. The first thing that came into your mind was fleas as well.
But there could be more to it than those pesky bloodsuckers.
Keep reading to learn:
- Why dogs scratch themselves.
- If they’re sick or just being weird.
- When to check in with a veterinarian.
- 5 very effective home remedies for itches.
- And much more…
Why do dogs scratch themselves?
Dogs scratch themselves because there are underlying medical reasons causing pruritus or itching. They may be suffering from parasites, fungal infections, genetic disorders, hormonal imbalances, or allergies. Anxiety could cause them to scratch too. But they might also be doing it out of boredom.
7 reasons why dogs scratch themselves
Fleas, ticks, and mites are the primary suspects whenever dogs have an itch. And most of the time, a jury of owners and vets do find them guilty.
But everyone deserves a fair trial.
So let’s take a look at each of them.
These tiny insects are a huge annoyance to dogs. They look at man’s best friend and see a walking pantry.
Most dog owners have had trouble with fleas (I say “most” although I suspect it’s “all”). Yet we tend to associate them with a negative image – mangy mongrels scouring the garbage dumps.
A house may be spick and span. But people will think differently if its furry resident has fleas.
“Where do fleas come from anyway?”
The answer may surprise you.
Ctenocephalides felis is the scientific name for this species of nuisance. Its common name? The cat flea.
But this isn’t the reason for the age-old dog vs. cat hostility. Dogs don’t chase after cats to exact revenge for the flea bites they suffer.
Dog fleas are uncommon. Cat fleas, however, are everywhere.
Aside from dogs, they infest a wide range of other animals including:
- Cats (of course).
- Domestic rabbits.
It’s no wonder then that fleas make it into dogs’ homes. They come riding on the backs (and according to AKC, the necks, ears, abdomens, and tails) of all these animals.
They arrive in numbers, and the poor dogs don’t even know what
hit bit them. There’s only one thing they can do – scratch.
Other indicators that a dog has become a food source for fleas include:
- Hair loss.
- Red skin (caused by irritation).
- Biting and chewing at the skin.
Fur parents need to be aware of these. Because if flea problems persist, medical complications can arise. Such as:
- Flea allergy dermatitis.
It’s alright for dog owners to blush when their dogs scratch themselves. But they need to get over it and look for a solution right away.
Hint: They’ll find effective ones if they keep reading.
People often interchange fleas and ticks. But they aren’t synonyms.
They don’t even belong to the same class of animals.
Ticks are arachnids while fleas are insects. In this sense, they have more in common with spiders than with fleas.
But the two parasites are both out for dogs’ blood. That much they have in common. Ticks have a very different method of getting it, though.
They attach themselves to dogs and feed for days. It’s interesting to note that their bites don’t typically itch.
Before you scream injustice, bear with me.
After a tick has finished feeding, they detach themselves from the dog. The puncture they made on the skin can become infected. This is where the itch comes in.
On top of that, PetMD identifies the following side effects:
- Blood loss anemia.
- Damage to the lymphatic, immune, and nervous systems.
And what’s more, ticks are carriers of some very serious diseases for dogs:
- Lyme disease.
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Causing itch may not be their gravest offense. But they do cause it. And this still makes them criminals as far as dogs are concerned.
Mites complete this trio of culprits. And these organisms cause itch beyond a reasonable doubt.
They are responsible for mange in dogs. The two major kinds of this disease are:
- Sarcoptic mange (also known as scabies).
- Demodectic mange (also known as red mange or demodex).
There are different kinds of mange because different kinds of mites cause them.
Itch isn’t typically a symptom of demodectic mange caused by Demodex canis. But sarcoptic mange caused by Sarcoptes scabiei results in severe itching. And I mean extreme!
Other symptoms include:
- Hair loss.
- Redness and rash.
- Thick yellow crusts.
- Emaciation (extreme cases).
- Bacteria and yeast infections.
- Thickening of the skin (advanced cases).
- Lymph node inflammation (advanced cases).
If these are observed in a dog along with a maddening itch, mites are the offender.
#2: Fungal infection
A dog may be scratching because of dermatophytosis or ringworm.
This falls under “fungal infection” and not “worm infestation.”
Ringworm is a very misleading name. This condition is, in fact, caused by the organism Microsporum canis – a fungus.
The Merck Manual describes dermatophytosis as “typically a superficial skin infection.” So if you want to check whether a dog has ringworms, examine its skin, not its poop.
The clinical signs include:
- Hair loss.
- Variable pruritus.
There may or may not be itching.
But if a dog has fits of scratching, owners should check if ringworm is the cause. Especially since it’s a zoonotic disease. This means it can be transmitted from animals to humans.
#3: Genetic disorder
A genetic disorder may cause a dog’s constant scratching.
A study on PLOS Genetics begins with a startling line:
“Nearly 700 inherited disorders and traits have been described in the domestic dog.”
It’s a significant number. But Chiari-like Malformation (CM) and Syringomyelia (SM) are the most distressing of these.
VCA simply describes CM as “a mismatch between the size of the brain, which is too big, and the space within the skull, which is too small.”
This abnormality causes overcrowding which obstructs the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).
The CSF is vital to the brain and spinal cord.
The blood supplies nutrients throughout the body. It also goes as far as the surface regions of the brain. But the CSF supplies the deeper structures within.
Obstruction of this flow leads to the development of fluid cavities in the spinal cord. These are what SM is all about.
Small and toy breed dogs are commonly affected. But most especially Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
In fact, according to Southeast Veterinary Neurology, all CKCS have CM. However, it affects them to varying degrees.
And 50% of this breed have SM.
Several symptoms can occur if a dog has CM, SM, or both. They are:
- Rubbing at face.
- Limb weakness.
- Poor coordination.
- Change in behavior (less playful, more withdrawn).
- Scratching at the ears, neck, and/or the back of the head.
- Phantom scratching, or scratching without making contact.
- Sensitive when touched around the back of the neck and/or shoulders.
- Pain or discomfort when active, excited, or simply wearing a collar.
- Yelping or crying in pain when running, jumping, or even passing stool.
But of all those listed above, scratching is reported as the most telling one. Especially phantom scratching.
Owners with small and toy breeds should be aware of this disease. Especially if their dog is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Their scratching could be an indicator of it.
#4: Hormonal imbalance
The Merck Manual provides a comprehensive guide to hormonal disorders in dogs. Among these are hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease.
This type of hormonal imbalance is common in dogs. But some breeds are more predisposed to this condition. They are:
- Irish Setters.
- Great Danes.
- Cocker Spaniels.
- Golden Retrievers.
- Doberman Pinschers.
- Miniature Schnauzers.
- Old English Sheepdogs.
Now that we’re acquainted with the patients, let’s get to know the disease.
The thyroid gland handles the production of certain hormones. These are liothyronine (T3) and levothyroxine (T4). They function in the metabolism of the body.
In hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland becomes impaired. And it produces a lower amount of T3 and T4.
This condition results in several clinical signs:
- Mental dullness.
- Poor hair growth.
- Intolerance to cold.
- Hair loss (alopecia).
- Seizures (uncommon).
- Infertility (uncommon).
- Generalized weakness.
- Excessive hair shedding.
- Dry or lusterless haircoat.
- Unexplained weight gain.
- Tilting of head to one side (uncommon).
And, of course among these, the skin is affected.
Dogs with hypothyroidism are prone to recurring skin infections and excessive scaling. These result in itching.
The etiology or origin of this disease is not known. It may be congenital which means the dog was born with it. But it could also be the result of iodine deficiency or cancer.
In this disease, it’s the adrenal glands that are involved. These glands function in the production of important substances including the hormone cortisol.
Cushing’s disease is also known as hypercortisolism and hyperadrenocorticism. In medicine, the prefix hyper means above normal or excessive.
As the names suggest, the adrenal glands produce an excess of cortisol. This results in complications. The following symptoms are observed:
- Thin skin.
- Sudden blindness.
- Drinking more water.
- Increased urination.
- Increased appetite.
- Urinary incontinence.
- Seborrhea or oily skin.
- Pot-belly appearance.
- Recurrent skin infections.
- Hair loss or poor regrowth.
- Recurrent urinary infections.
- Firm, irregular plaques on skin (called calcinosis cutis).
As can be seen, Cushing’s disease affects the skin in a number of ways. Therefore, a dog with this condition will certainly be scratching.
Someone scratches, sneezes, or coughs and we say it’s allergies. But what exactly are they?
Allergens are foreign substances that can be eaten or inhaled. They’re typically harmless. But in some people or animals, their immune system overreacts. This response is what’s known as an allergy.
Allergies in dogs may occur at particular times of the year. Or they could be there all year round. But they worsen during certain months.
In most of these cases, the allergen is pollen. These can come from trees (mostly in spring), and grass, weeds, and flowers (during warmer months).
A dog goes outdoors when the air is thick with pollen. It’s virtually impossible for them not to inhale some.
Respiratory signs are a possibility. But skin itchiness and rashes are commonly the results of this allergic reaction.
You’ve probably guessed it.
Nutritional allergies are caused by food. Or more specifically, the ingredients in a dog’s food. And to zero in even further, it’s usually a protein molecule.
Carbohydrates can also be a cause of allergies. Some fruits and vegetables are potential allergens too.
Some of the common triggers of nutritional allergies are:
These cause either an instant or delayed reaction. For example, symptoms may begin to manifest minutes or hours after a meal. Or they may take a few days.
Warning: When feeding a kind of food to a dog for the first time, give it in small amounts. So if they turn out to be allergic, the reaction will be manageable.
The VetDerm Clinic chalks up 10% to 20% of dog allergy cases to food allergies. And the list of signs is a long one:
- Hair loss.
- Dryness of skin.
- Any self-grooming.
- Increased dandruff.
- Redness of eyes.
- Oily skin and hair coat.
- Repeated skin infection.
- Swelling of eyes or face.
- Redness of skin and ears.
- Hot spots (eczema) of skin.
- Sneezing and/or reverse sneezing.
- Watery eyes or other eye discharge
- Repeated ear infection and inflammation.
- Increased frequency of bowel movements.
- Gastrointestinal problems such as soft stool, diarrhea, vomiting, and gas.
- Itching; including licking, scratching, biting, and rubbing of the skin of the face, paws, back, limbs, bum, and ears.
Nutritional allergies manifest in several skin problems. A dog that is plagued by this will be sure to scratch.
You might also want to check out: Top 10 Reasons Why Dogs Act Like Something Is Biting Them
Most dog owners know that their pooches can suffer from separation anxiety.
Oh, you didn’t know? Well, I’m always happy to help you learn something new.
And there’s more!
It isn’t just separation anxiety. Dogs can feel anxiety in general. Even with their owner right there by their side.
There can be a range of reasons and signs. But one of these is, you guessed it, scratching.
First of all, don’t be alarmed. Anxiety doesn’t drive dogs to scratch with the intent of self-harm.
Humans and dogs share a lot of similarities. Feeling anxious, for example. And they may also express this anxiety in similar ways.
An anxious dog scratches. Just like an anxious human bites their nails, twirls their hair, or taps their feet.
So this is the scenario:
All medical conditions have been ruled out. And a dog still manifests tell-tale signs of anxiety.
We can conclude that scratching is also another one of them
“The Kong is empty. Mom’s still busy. I think I’ll scratch.”
It seems highly improbable. But that’s a thought that could go through a dog’s mind.
I doubt dog owners do it too. But dogs scratch when they’re bored. It’s a behavioral issue. It may even develop into a habit.
There’s no actual itch. But a bored dog will scratch, usually their ears, and bite their feet.
It’s the opposite of what we’ve mostly talked about so far. A condition affecting the skin results in itching and scratching.
But in this case, a dog is scratching without an itch. This causes irritation and damage to their skin.
Dogs can be weird, huh?
What is the best itch relief for dogs? 5 home remedies that work
#1: Homemade shampoos
DIY guides are a common feature of the internet age.
This kind of content is widely available online. And there’s something for everyone – even dog owners looking for a way to end their pet’s itch and misery.
The good people over at AKC have provided recipes for a variety of homemade shampoos.
There’s a basic homemade shampoo, shampoos for dry skin, and shampoo to repel and kill fleas.
They make use of dog-friendly natural ingredients. And they’re guaranteed to bring relief from itching.
Warning: For the dog’s safety, owners should always follow certified sources.
#2: Aloe vera
It’s a proven remedy for many skin-related issues. And it’s even used as first aid for burns.
Aloe vera’s soothing gel moisturizes and cools the skin.
It has antibacterial, antiviral, and antiseptic properties. So apart from just relieving itch, it can directly address some of the causes.
It’s also been shown to promote healing. This means a shorter timeline back to healthy skin.
#3: Coconut oil
Coconut oil boasts antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Not attractive enough?
Well, there’s also the added bonus of making hair look shinier and healthier. That applies to both the owner’s hair and their dog’s coat.
That’s why this ingredient can be found in a number of dog shampoos.
But in its natural form, it’s a very effective moisturizer. And it can be extra soothing when refrigerated.
Applying it directly to a dog’s skin can bring sure relief from that itch.
And the coat’s extra shine won’t hurt either.
#4: Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 supplements are hugely popular among humans. Some of their important benefits include fighting inflammation and improving skin health.
According to The Kennel Club, the same is true for dogs.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid. This means the body (the owner’s and the dog’s) cannot produce it. So it has to be obtained from dietary sources or supplements.
Salmon, sardines, and anchovies are a rich source of this. But preparing a meal will take time. And the desired effects aren’t instant either.
Veterinary dermatologist Dr. Andrew Rosenberg suggests something faster.
The oil from soft gel capsules can be applied directly to the spot. This will ease the itch and help dry skin.
#5: Fish and sweet potato diet
A fish and sweet potato diet are helpful. Especially for itches caused by nutritional allergies.
We mentioned it earlier in the article. Protein is usually the main factor behind food allergies in dogs.
Chicken, beef, and turkey are sources of protein commonly used in dog food. Switching to fish will solve this problem.
And there are also the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids described above.
Again, carbohydrates can also cause allergies. Certain dogs are sensitive to wheat and gluten. Sweet potatoes are an alternate source of carbs that don’t have these allergens.
This doesn’t bring instantaneous relief from itching like the previous remedies.
A diet adjustment might take a few days to show results. But meanwhile, these can help with the itch:
People also ask:
Why do dogs kick when you scratch them?
Dogs kick when you scratch them because of something called a ‘scratch reflex’. They do it when there’s a need to protect themselves from parasites.
There aren’t many things dogs love more than a belly rub. So they often get on their backs and present their undersides to you for rubbing or scratching (in this case, the two words mean the same action).
Dog owners know when they’re doing it right. It’s hard to miss the sign. Their dog starts kicking involuntarily.
“Oh! My dog does this too! Why exactly?
I’m glad you asked. It’s due to the scratch reflex. And you may not want to hear this but it’s for the dog’s protection.
“Protection? From me?”
From irritants. Well, yes. I guess you count.
What happens is that certain nerves under the skin are engaged by rubbing or scratching. This makes them send a message to the spinal cord instructing the dog’s leg to kick.
This message doesn’t go through the brain first. That’s why it’s an involuntary action. The dog doesn’t know they’re going to kick. They don’t intend to.
It’s the same way with the patellar reflex or knee-jerk reflex in humans. If a certain area under your kneecap is tapped, you make an involuntary kicking movement.
Doctors use the patellar reflex as a medical test. Veterinarians, too, can use the scratch reflex to determine if there’s nerve damage in dogs.
C.S. Sherrington’s 1906 study suggests that this reflex is a reaction against a parasitic attack.
He wasn’t convinced that it gets rid of the parasite, though. But he suspected that it also “causes some reflex in the parasite which inhibits the insect from biting further.”
As old as this study is, Sherrington’s theories are still recognized today.
Why do dogs scratch and bite themselves?
Dogs may relieve an itch by scratching and/or biting themselves.
It’s absolutely not normal for a human to bite at an itchy spot. But for their dogs, it is.
Primates know how to make “tools.” They can fashion something to serve a particular need. In the case of an itch, they have backscratchers.
Humans can get proper store-bought ones. While their wild counterparts can improvise. They use branches or twigs.
There are also topical ointments that can bring relief – that’s for humans only, of course. Not the other primates.
Dogs do not have the same capabilities or cosmetics. And sometimes an itch is too intense.
It gets too much for the legs alone to handle. So they use the only other thing at their disposal – teeth.