Itchy Animals - Causes & Treatment

One of the most common issues pet owners bring in their animals to see us, particularly dogs, is because of itching, scratching and ear infections. The cause of the itching can be very different, but the outcome – an unhappy and sometimes self traumatised animal – is often the same for all. 

We typically get clues to the cause of the itching from the distribution of the itch, and the vet will ask about the location, nature and duration of the itching as part of the history.

Common Causes

1. Parasites/biting insects 

Fleas can cause really severe itching in some animals with Flea Allergy Dermatitis. Whereas other animals can have substantial flea burdens and seem largely unbothered by them. 

Sarcoptic Mange – known as “scabies” in people – is an intensely itchy condition that can lead to self trauma very quickly. 

Mosquito and other biting/stinging insect allergies can also lead to annoying itching for you pet.

2. Food Allergy Dermatitis 

Food Allergy can cause itchy skin in some animals. When we suspect this, we usually recommend a Food Elimination Trial to rule this out.

3. Contact Allergy

This is when something your pet comes into direct contact with causes an allergic reaction; This tends to be on the ventral abdomen from carpet, grass and other surfaces your animals skin comes into contact with.

4. Atopic Dermatitis

This is essentially inhaled pollens/ allergens – people exhibit this as hay fever but dogs tend to be “face rubbers and foot chewers”. These dogs are often prone to ear infections and tend to flap and scratch around their heads a lot and chew their feet.


Causes 1 to 3 above are *fairly* easy to manage – treat or avoid parasites, use repellents and change the diet and then the allergy and itching is avoided. 

Atopic Dermatitis is much more complex to treat, as avoiding inhaled allergens is not possible. 

In the past, Vets had very few options available for animals that were itchy; Corticosteroids and antihistamines were really the only options. Antihistamines can be hit and miss with animals – some do really well where others have no change. Corticosteroids have numerous short and long term side effects that can be very unwelcome.

Many dogs can be managed with using shampoos, conditioners, creams and ear cleansers to both treat and prevent the secondary infections that arise. These can be effective at stopping the self trauma from the itch-scratch cycle. Some dogs respond well to adding Omega-3 fatty acids to their diet. We are happy to talk to you about the supplements available.

Luckily now we have 2 new treatment options registered for dogs; Cytopoint which is a monthly injection and Apoquel which is a daily tablet. These are very targeted treatments for skin disease with relatively few side effects in the vast majority of animals.

In refractive cases, there is always the option of referral to a dermatologist. Please chat to your vet about the options available for your pet.