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Posted on 06-24-2015

There are a multitude of potential reasons for your dog or cat to be itchy. When your pet is itching, you will usually notice scratching, licking certain areas of their body, rubbing their body on carpet, furniture or concrete outdoors, or you might see chewing or even areas where the fur is wet and the skin red and inflamed. You might or might not see bumps or scabs or areas where fur is missing.

With careful observation, you might notice something moving on your pet such as fleas or a particular type of mite known as “walking dander” (chyletiella).


The most common cause of itching for our dog and cat companions? Fleas.  We hate them and don’t think our pet could possibly have them, but in many cases, they do.  If your dog or cat is allergic to fleas, then the bite of one flea can cause, proportionally, a huge amount of discomfort. We always carefully assess your dog or cat for any sign of external parasites during routine physical examinations and particularly if they come in for itching or skin lesions.


The second most common cause of itching is an allergy. Dogs and cats suffer allergies just as humans do.  Inhalant allergies (pollen, dust, dust mites, molds etc.) are very common.  Typically, the symptoms will be generalized pruritis (itching), persistent licking/chewing of the feet or other areas of the body, and ear inflammation and chronic infections.  Dogs and cats can get eye and nasal discharge, and some experience sneezing and coughing as well.  Allergies to food are a far less common cause of these symptoms, but roughly 5-10% of dogs or cats with the above problems may have a food allergy.  Contact allergies (something your pet comes in contact with on their skin or paws) can cause similar symptoms as well.

What Causes Allergies?

All chronic allergies are based on the body recognizing protein substances as foreign and trying to rid itself of them. This is an overreaction on the part of the body’s immune system.  Mold, dander, bacteria, pollen, flea saliva along with a host of other substances are allergens made up of proteins which might cause a reaction in the body’s immune system.  Let’s talk about pollen allergies as an example because they are so common. In this case pollen is called an allergen. When a pet’s immune system is exposed to pollen for the first time, some pollen attaches to the linings of the nose and lungs as well as to the skin. The body’s immune system recognizes that pollen is not supposed to be there and, in response, produces antibodies against the pollen called immunoglobulins (both IgE and IgG). This process is called sensitization. The IgE attaches to cells in the body called mast cells. These cells then release histamines, bradykinins, and proteolytic enzymes, which cause the symptoms of allergy. In people large numbers of mast cells are located in the respiratory system. That is why our allergies usually have respiratory system symptoms. In dogs and cats, more mast cells are present in the skin. That is why dog and cat allergies usually cause signs associated with the skin and ears such as itching, hives and inflammation. This allergic disease is called atopy. Only 15% of pollen allergies in dogs and cats cause respiratory system signs, such as nasal stuffiness and sneezing.

Mange Mites:

Another consideration as a cause of pruritis (itching), particularly in young animals, would be mange mites such as demodex or sarcoptes mites.  We will talk more about these common skin parasites in another post.

Treatment Options:

There are many treatments for allergies and the problems that they cause, depending on the type and severity of the condition. Most itchy pets are dealing with one or several of these underlying allergies. For example, while flea allergies can be easily treated with a year-round monthly medication, others may require more complex care. Food allergies, for instance, can be treated with special diets, acupuncture and Chinese herbal combinations while environmental allergies can be controlled with a combination of antihistamines and essential fatty acids (which work synergistically to alleviate symptoms). Topical therapies like baths and sprays can give your pet a lot of relief too!

Unfortunately, the fun doesn’t end there for your pet.  Secondary infections due to yeast or bacteria can also exacerbate itch, and will usually require treatment. In addition, foxtails and grass awn can work their way into dogs’ or cats’ ears and nostrils, causing discomfort and even dangerous infections. A veterinarian can examine your pet to discover the root cause of itchy symptoms, and remove foxtails or take skin samples for a microscopic evaluation if needed.

Allergy season is in full swing, and can be a problem in sunny SoCal year round!  If your dog or cat is experiencing itchy or smelly skin or ears, we can definitely help. When it comes to allergies, of course, there is no immediate cure. However, we will work with you and your pet to determine a sustainable routine to manage symptoms and keep your pet as healthy and comfortable as possible. Give us a call for an appointment!

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