Vet Insights: “My Dog Is Itchy!”

“My Dog Is Itchy!”
By Dr. Julianne Porter

My dog is shaking his head, licking his paws, chewing his hind end, scratching all over, etc.

The most common complaint at the vet’s office tends to be an itchy pup! Thankfully, there is a logical approach to this unpleasant issue, although sometimes it is still tricky to treat.

First, you need to rule out parasites. This typically means fleas, mites or lice. Fun fact – most lice are species-specific (meaning you won’t get the lice from your dog, and vice versa). Mites are microscopic and trying to find fleas on your pet is like flying over a forest looking for deer. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. Also, most pets react to flea saliva, meaning the flea can bite and jump away and you are still left with an itch. This means that safe, effective parasite prevention is warranted.

Second, you need to pay attention to when this problem occurs. Is it only in the Spring? Only in the Fall? All year round? Seasonal itching can point to an allergy to certain pollen, grass, etc., whereas year-round means something consistent in your dog’s environment. Did your pup just go swimming? Did you buy new laundry detergent? There are tests that can be considered to determine your dog’s sensitivity to certain common allergens, and even allergy shots that can help, but they are not for every dog. This leads to considering a skin biopsy or using medications and shampoos that aim to reduce itch and inflammation.

If this problem seems to be year-round, we do worry about food as the culprit. Food sensitivities can occur at any age (whereas environmental allergies most often begin between 1 and 3 years of age). Unfortunately, there is no good diagnostic blood or skin test for food allergies – the gold standard is a food trial. This means 6-8 weeks of a prescription diet or a nutritionally balanced home-cooked diet. Over the counter foods, unfortunately, may contain common food allergens, despite label claims. If you are feeding a limited ingredient diet from the store and your pet is still having issues, you need to consider transitioning to a proper hypoallergenic diet. It is important to note that most food allergies are to the protein (beef, chicken, soy, etc.) and not to grain. Less than 1% of skin allergies are from grain, and the only cases of gluten allergies are due to a genetic link observed in Irish Setters.

Regardless of the underlying cause, many dogs will get secondary bacterial or fungal infections. If these infections are not treated, the issue can continue. Your veterinarian can determine if there is an infection and the best way to treat and resolve your pet’s discomfort.

If you have implemented parasite prevention, performed a food trial and treated all secondary infections and your dog is STILL itchy, you might be dealing with atopic dermatitis. This is a hypersensitivity reaction where something in the environment causes a reaction when exposed to your dog’s skin, resulting in inflammation and pruritus (itching). There are medications, both topical and systemic, that can help.

While this article is aimed at itchy dogs – cats can also become itchy for similar reasons and the same approach is considered for our feline friends.


Should you have any questions, comments or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact us by phone at 845-876-6008, or by e-mail at

Thank you for choosing us to be part of your pet’s healthcare team!

With warmest regards,
Your friends at Rhinebeck Animal Hospital

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