Itching is one of the most unpleasant sensations imaginable – and a cat’s or dog’s never-ending scratching, biting, and licking can seem nearly as aggravating. Watching your pet suffer with a chronic itch is an all-too-common experience facing pet parents these days. If your pet is constantly shaking their head, or scratching, rubbing, chewing or licking some area of skin, you can bet that there’s likely some agonizing itching going on. Left untreated, areas of itchy skin
become vulnerable to damage from your pet’s scratching or licking, to hot spots (areas of oozing, dry or inflamed skin), and even to secondary infections from bacteria. What may be causing the itch, and what can you do about it?
We’ve compiled a list of the top ten itch-causing factors and some suggestions on what you can do to help your pet escape from that irritating itch. Before your pet is tearing up their skin, pulling out their fur, or forced to wear a cone-shaped (Elizabethan) collar, consider these common causes of itchiness in pets and work with your vet to get your pet some relief:
1. Poor Quality Diet – We’re not talking about food allergies here (more on that shortly). A surprising factor underlying a vast number of allergic itch reactions is simply a poor quality diet that inadequately nourishes a cat or dog. As we always say, a good diet is the foundation of good health. Even the best medication won’t eliminate allergic skin reactions when your pet’s immune system is unable to function properly due to lack of nutrients. If you’re still feeding a grocery store, veterinarian prescribed or commercial chain pet store food, we urge you to read our article, “What You Need to Know About Your Pet’s Food,” check the label on your companion’s food package, and find a natural food for your cat or dog. A good daily multivitamin is a great way to enhance the nutrient levels your pet gets
each day as well.
2. Airborne Allergens – Most cases of itchy skin are caused by the same things that cause human allergies (dust, grasses, pollen, etc.). While humans sneeze and have other respiratory symptoms, pets usually develop atopic dermatitis, showing their allergic reaction through their skin. While this is a major cause of pets’ itching, airborne allergies are tough to diagnose, and other causes usually need to be ruled out first. Remember that just like humans, pets can be allergic to both natural allergens like pollen and chemical irritants like pesticide residue and household cleaning products. Often, these allergies can be controlled but not completely eliminated; allergy support products and essential fatty acid supplements can be of help to many pets with airborne allergies.
3. Food Allergies – While making up only about 10% of diagnosed allergies, food allergies are considered by many holistic vets to be the primary cause of about 30% of allergy cases in pets. This is due to how allergies activate your pet’s immune system. Pets sensitive to one food allergen (commonly grain-based proteins called glutens) can become hyper-reactive to other allergens like dust or pollen. Fortunately, food allergies can be resolved with diligent detective work, eliminating all common allergens from the diet (beef, chicken, eggs, corn, wheat, soy, and milk), then reintroducing one at a time to see which ones cause an allergic reaction. Strict avoidance of irritants can resolve most cases of pure food allergy. Grain-free and novel protein foods as well as raw food diets can do much to alleviate food-based allergies for many animal companions. Our articles, “All About Raw Food,” “Is Grain-Free Food Right for Your Companion?” and “The Role of Protein in Good Nutrition,” provide further details on this important topic.
4. Contact Dermatitis – Some cases of itchy skin in pets is caused by direct skin contact with irritating substances. Common causes of contact dermatitis include flea collars and topical flea and tick preparations, grooming products, and household cleaners that pets contact through their skin – especially through the pads of their feet. Consider natural insect control products and grooming products for your pet, use natural cleaners in your home, and remember that sensitive pets can be allergic to product ingredients generally considered safe. As with food allergies, removing suspect products from any contact with your pet’s skin can help determine what’s causing the itch.
5. Fleas, Mites and Insect Bites – The most common allergy that causes itchy skin in pets (usually around the base of the tail and hindquarters) is flea bite dermatitis, an allergic reaction to flea saliva that can be triggered by only one flea bite! This can be frustrating for pet parents because a single flea bite can cause a severe reaction, yet you may never see a full blown flea infestation. If you live in an area where fleas are present, always keep in mind that one flea can cause some furious itching in your pet. Your vet can help you determine what degree of flea protection you need to keep your pet safe and healthy, but remember that natural solutions for insect control are the safest way to go and are well worth a try if you live in an area known for flea problems. We also offer aids for flea & insect bites.
Most mites are nearly invisible, and are commonly found in and around pets’ ears and head. Severe mite infestations known as mange can be diagnosed through skin scrapings taken by your vet. Even mosquito bites can cause severe itching in sensitive pets, so keep a natural insect repellent handy during bug season to help your pet stay bite-free. For more information, please read our articles, “The Natural Approach to Flea Control,” and “Ask the Vet: Natural Treatment for Demodectic Mange.”
6. Skin Infections – Three main types of skin infections can cause itching in pets. Bacterial infection, known as Pyoderma, is often a secondary problem created by a cat or dog scratching, licking or biting an already irritated area of skin. These skin infections can be painful as well as increasing the itch factor. Ringworm, a fungal infection, is not uncommon – and it’s contagious to humans! Ringworm commonly appears as areas of broken or crusty skin, with hair loss, usually around the head, face, or extremities. A vet can test your pet if ringworm is suspected. Another fungus problem is due to a yeast infection on the skin, known as Malessezia Dermatitis. This chronic itch problem commonly occurs on the paws or in the ears. Please see our articles, “Chronic Ear Infections,” for more details. Minor skin infections and hot spots may respond well to natural healing products we offer.
7. Genetic Factors & Breed Predisposition – Unfortunately, some breeds of cats and dogs are more prone to sensitive skin, or are more likely to develop allergic itching due to skin folds and ear shapes. Siamese cats, and many breeds of dogs including Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Boxers, Shih Tzus, and many Terrier breeds are more prone to allergies that cause itching skin. Dogs with skin folds and floppy ears are more likely to develop itching from yeast or bacterial infections due to the ideal environment their anatomical features offer to these opportunistic microbes. Another related factor is temperament, with sensitive, high-strung breeds being more prone to reactive health conditions like allergies. The mind-body connection operates in pets as well as humans! If yours is a sensitive breed, please check out our Anxiety and Stress articles in our Holistic Healthcare Library for tips on reducing your pet’s stress, and consider a holistic anxiety remedy to help ease your pet’s emotional reactivity.
8. Vaccine Reactions – Although still controversial and not uniformly acknowledged by all pet health professionals, incidences of over-vaccination, and even single dose vaccine reactions are becoming more recognized and well-documented in pets. Vaccines are designed to cause a reaction in the immune system, and for some pets, the protein base of the vaccine serum can cause pets to develop allergies. In other cases, multiple vaccines administered together can overwhelm the immune system, resulting in “vaccinosis,” a condition commonly known to trigger allergic symptoms like itchy skin. Please read our article, “The Truth About Pet Vaccinations,” for more details on this important health issue. The homeopathic remedy, Thuja can be helpful for pets that may have vaccine-related issues.
9. Glandular/Hormonal Imbalances – Several glandular imbalances can cause skin problems that contribute to itching in some pets. Two of the most common are related to thyroid and adrenal gland functioning. Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) is more common in dogs than in cats, but cases are found in both species. Hypothyroidism can cause the skin to become greasy, foul smelling, and in some cases very itchy. Cushing’s Disease (more correctly called Hyperadrenocorticism) is caused by adrenal gland overactivity, and commonly occurs in older dogs, where numerous skin problems that can cause itching may occur. These are serious health issues that require vet treatment, so always check with your vet when unusual skin issues or other symptoms arise. Our article, “Thyroid Disorders in Cats and Dogs,” provides additional information.
10. Detoxification Effects – The skin is an important organ of elimination, and one of the ways that pets may remove toxic residues from their systems is through their skin. If your pet has a temporary bout of itching, it may be a simple healing process as the body rids itself of residues its been storing up. This is a very common phenomenon when pets change from pharmaceutical to holistic remedies, or when their food is upgraded. Typically, a period of itchy skin, change in stool odor, consistency and volume, and/or runny nose can occur as part of a healing crisis when pets are going through a natural and healthy detoxification process. These periods generally don’t last long, and should resolved within 1-4 weeks, depending on the state of health your companion. We carry an excellent homeopathic detoxification aid, Newton Homeopathics Detoxifier, which may be of benefit to pets eliminating toxins in conjunction with changes in diet or medications. Please see our articles, “Sixteen Steps to Detox Your Pet,” and “When Is It Time to See the Vet?” for more information.
While our Top Ten Causes of Itching is not an exhaustive list, it does give you a place to start with the most common causes of itchy skin. We encourage you to review our other articles on Allergies and Itching in our Holistic Healthcare Library that may be helpful, including:
Ask the Vet: Seasonal Allergies & Itching
Itchy Skin and Allergies
Alleviating Your Pet’s Itchy Skin
Ask the Vet: Food Allergies & Diarrhea