Is your pet’s itching normal, or excessive?


Author: Dr. Clarissa G. Noureddine, DVM, MS, MS

I recently heard a groomer explaining about how she will often find skin or ear conditions on pets when they are in for grooming. While she always informs the owners and encourages them to seek veterinary care for the condition, she inevitably has some owners who feel their pet’s itchy skin is just “normal” for their dog. This brings up some interesting questions. An obvious one that comes to mind focuses on defining normal: What is a normal amount of itching for a pet? But if we start to think a little more carefully about the response of these pet owners, I also wonder whether there may be some hint of frustration or even a feeling of defeat related to the chronic, ongoing nature of skin allergies for some pets. To this point, I have met a number of pet owners over the years who are just about fed up with the battle of trying to give their itchy pet some relief. And somewhere along the way, some owners do ultimately decide that the itching and discomfort is just “normal” for their pet.
If you are the owner of a pet that has skin allergies, then this blog is for you. With all the understanding and treatment options we have for skin allergies, it is much easier (compared to even 10 or 15 years ago) to give our patients relief from this chronic discomfort. Importantly, it must be noted that skin allergies are definitely high on the list of health conditions that are best managed when there is a team approach between pet owners and the veterinary clinic. At Lawndale Veterinary Hospital, our doctors and staff understand this point well, and we do our best to develop an ongoing relationship with our pet owners and their fuzzy companions.

What is a normal versus abnormal amount of itching?
Let’s get the easy answers out of the way first. Here are some things that would indicate your pet’s itching is abnormal:

  • Red skin or ears
  • Hair loss
  • Any skin lesions (e.g., scabs, pustules, crusting, scaling, ulcerations, lumps, etc.)
  • Ear discharge
  • Shaking head repeatedly/ pawing at ear(s)
  • Scratching, licking, or chewing on the body to the point of causing self-trauma
  • Licking an area so much that saliva staining develops
  • Obvious parasites or flea feces “flea dirt” on the animal

Now, for the trickier answers:

  • Scratching without creating any secondary skin or coat changes: Some people think that if their pet is not developing skin lesions, then the scratching is “normal”. But this is not always the case. Some dogs do have skin allergies that cause discomfort and itching that doesn’t always progress to visual changes. Importantly, these dogs are uncomfortable, and their itching should be addressed.
  • Licking the feet: Sure, pets will occasionally groom or clean themselves. But sometimes, excessive foot licking/ chewing can indicate allergies, or even an infection in the feet and/or nail beds.
  • Flaking/ dandruff / dry skin: Some pets will have minor flaking that does not seem to cause them any problem. But dry skin can also be a sign that something needs to change about the diet or the shampoo, and dry skin can itself cause some itching.
  • Pigment changes: Some dogs can develop some new, but normal, hyperpigmentation as they get older. But hyperpigmentation can also indicate an area of concern in the skin that needs to be examined.

OK, my pet is itchy. What now?
One of the most important things to understand about itching is that it is best managed when we treat not only the itching, but also any underlying cause(s).

  • Does the pet have environmental allergies? Then what can we do to avoid the allergens? Or is allergy testing an option?
  • Is a food allergy contributing to the problem? We might need to consider a hypoallergenic diet for 6 to 8 weeks to find out.
  • Perhaps the pet has fleas and flea allergies. This is an easy one – we have SO many great flea control options that fleas can be treated and prevented.
  • Is a skin infection present? Then let’s diagnose the type of infection and then select the appropriate medication for treatment.

With respect to the itching, we have a growing list of choices. Not every choice will work for every patient. This goes back to the idea of teamwork – sometimes we have to work through our list of options with pet owners based on the response the animal is having to a particular therapy. If something doesn’t work, or only works partially, then we try something different. Sometimes we have to try multiple things at one time. It just depends on the level of severity and the patient’s response (and tolerance) to a particular treatment.

Back in the fall of October 2016, we did a three part blog series on allergies:

In the third blog of that series (Treatment and Management Options), we discussed many of the different treatments available for allergies:

  • Topical shampoos and sprays
  • Medicated wipes
  • Nutrition/ Supplements
  • Antihistamines
  • Corticosteroids
  • Atopica
  • Apoquel
  • Immunotherapy

In addition to the therapies listed above, we can also add a newer product called Cytopoint for dogs. Cytopoint is an injectable monoclonal antibody therapy that works to stop one of the main proteins that sends the itch signal to the brain. With less itch, the skin can have a chance to heal (and the dog is more comfortable!). According to the Cytopoint safety studies, this product has a wide margin of safety. A single injection into the subcutaneous tissues is administered at the veterinary office, and the relief from itching can last four to eight weeks.

Does your cat have allergies and itchy skin? Schedule an appointment so that you and your veterinarian can make sure you have the most effective plan in place for your dog or cat’s itching. What if you still aren’t sure your pet’s itching is really a problem? Then schedule an exam so our veterinarians can examine your pet for clues and talk to you about your pet’s level of itching and discomfort. Together we can develop a plan that will have everyone resting more easily!