If your pet’s constant scratching is making you want to tear your hair out, it’s about time you got to the bottom of it. Itchy cats and dogs make up the majority of patients at vet surgeries, and here are the most common reasons why some pets just won’t stop scratching!
Fleas are the usual suspects when a cat or dog is constantly itchy, outweighing other parasites by around 20 to 1. They cause itchiness due to their bites or by an allergic reaction to their saliva.
You should be able to tell if your pet has fleas by combing through their coat with a fine-toothed comb. Smearing a little petroleum jelly on to the comb beforehand will help as the fleas will stick to it. Another clue that your pet might have fleas is if you spot black specks on their fur or bedding – these are flea faeces.
In order to eradicate a flea infestation, you need to break the lifecycle of the parasite so they can no longer reproduce. You will have to treat all dogs and cats in your home at the same time, whether you’ve seen fleas on them or not, to be sure you’ve got them all. If not, your pets will just end up passing them back and forth to each other.
Fleas can be killed by a variety of different chemical-based products but it’s much better to avoid them in the first place by routinely using parasite prevention. Spot-on treatments, flea collars, and sprays can all stop fleas in their tracks before an infestation can take hold.
Flea allergy dermatitis can affect both dogs and cats, and can develop at any point in a pet’s life. Signs that your pet could be suffering from a flea bite allergy is if they develop intense itching and a rash (small red or pink raised bumps that look like pimples), hair loss or skin infection.
For dogs, signs are usually spotted near the back legs, bottom, and stomach, whereas cats tend to show signs on their neck and face first.
Treatments for flea allergy dermatitis include: Soothing shampoos to reduce skin irritation, steroids to help break the scratching cycle, and antibiotics if scratching has caused a skin infection. To ensure that future allergic reactions are avoided, it is recommended that regular preventative flea treatment is used.
Mites found on foxes can cause sarcoptic mange in cats and dogs, producing intense itchiness. It’s incredibly contagious but seems to affect dogs more than cats. It is also more commonly found in urban areas as city foxes carry more mites than their rural relatives.
The mites are invisible to the naked eye and can only be properly diagnosed by a vet after inspecting a skin scraping under a microscope. The first signs of sarcoptic mange are likely to be itchiness at the ears and elbows, followed by patchy hair loss, small red bumps on the skin and skin sores that have a crusty appearance. Once identified, sarcoptic mange can be successfully treated with medicated shampoos, although antibiotics may be required if the skin has become infected.
Atopic dermatitis is an allergic skin condition that affects both cats and dogs, and is usually triggered by environmental factors such as dust mites and pollen, or a food allergy. Atopic dermatitis causes red, inflamed, itchy skin. Affected animals will usually rub, bite, or scratch at their feet, ears, armpits or groin.
While its exact cause is not fully understood, there does seem to be a genetic link with affected animals having an exaggerated immune response and defective skin barrier. Breeds of dog that are prone to allergies include the West Highland White Terrier, Labrador, German Shepherd Dog, Pug and Boxer, while in cats it’s more commonly seen in the Abyssinian and Devon Rex.
If atopic dermatitis is suspected, your vet will try to help you get to the bottom of what is causing the allergy and may suggest a change of diet to see if that helps, as well as steroids to calm the itch.
Scratching can be a sign of a bacterial or fungal infection, although this is more common in dogs than cats. Excessive scratching, rubbing or licking of the feet and face are common signs of an animal with a skin infection, as well as red, weeping wounds, painful spots and scabs and hair loss.
Ear infections are common in dogs, particularly those with long floppy ears like the Basset Hound and Cocker Spaniel. Tell-tale signs of an ear infection – in addition to persistent scratching – are head shaking, dark discharge from the ear, and redness or swelling of the ear canal.
Ear infections are usually successfully treated with a medicated ear cleanser or drops, although sometimes a course of antibiotics is required.
There could be a psychological cause to your pet’s excessive scratching or licking, which is worth considering if all medical reasons have been ticked off by your vet.
Cats use grooming as a calming mechanism and, if they are overly anxious, will ‘over groom’ causing their skin to develop sore or bald patches. If your pet has suddenly started doing this, it could be that changes in circumstance – such as moving house or a new pet moving in – is causing some anxiety.
Dogs too can show physical responses to stress, which can manifest in compulsive scratching or licking, causing themselves damage. It can end up as a vicious cycle as the scratching can cause sore skin or an infection, which then becomes very itchy.
Top tips to stop the itch
- Protect your pet from pests with regular flea and tick prevention.
- Wash your pet’s bedding regularly.
- Avoid using carpet and fabric fresheners as they can irritate a pet’s skin if they come into contact with them.
- Invest in a good vacuum cleaner – where there’s dust, there are mites!
- If your dog has been out walking in long grass or areas of high pollen, give them a wipe over with a damp cloth when you get home to get rid of any allergens on their coat.
- Don’t ignore itching. Your pet is likely to become very uncomfortable and miserable if they spend much of their day scratching, so get to the bottom of it ASAP!