Photograph: Thomas Hawk
One of the most common reasons for humans to take their canine companions to the vet is the relentless itching, chewing, scratching and licking which is medically known as pruritis. I can well understand this as I too am an itchy canine. Mum and I have spent many years trying to find the source of my itching, and of course to find a sustainable and effective treatment for it. In this article I will be discussing some of the remedies and treatments we have come across.
If you have a persistent itchy problem I am sure you will be aware that this topic can cause much heated debate. I would encourage you to do further research of your own and take advice from your vet, after all what works for me may not work for you.
On one of my many visits to my own vet to discuss my red, itchy and weeping skin my vet happened to mention that the biggest cause of itching in dogs is in fact fleas. Yes, fleas. It may seem so obvious as to not even be worth a mention, but before you do anything else, ensure your dog does not have fleas.
These little blood suckers are hard to find! They are skilled at hiding and even a good inspection of your dog’s coat may not reveal any, but you can still have a flea problem. Most fleas live in the environment and not on the dog. A thorough de-fleaing may be a good idea if you even suspect you have these horrible little visitors. It is essential to treat the environment as well as the dog. So once Fido has had his flea treatment; please remember to also treat all your carpets, dog beds and soft furnishings too.
Image: Kate Masback
If your dog has flea allergy, or has developed sensitivity to flea bites, he may continue to itch for many weeks after you have rid your home of the actual fleas. In this case a topical remedy to soothe the itching will help.
There are of course other causes of itching besides fleas. I shall list some of the other commonly cited ones below.
* Mange, this is caused by mites living in your dog’s skin. It is much easier to pin down as it creates a red inflamed scaly rash and can lead to bleeding crusty sores and secondary infections. A vet can help diagnose and treat this condition.
* Dry Skin, sometimes caused by low humidity or dietary deficiencies.
* Atopic Allergies, caused by breathed in allergens such as pollen, dust mites or cleaning products used in the home.
* Contact Allergies, this may seem an obvious one, but in fact contact allergies can be quite rare. This type of allergy is caused by things such as grass, washing powder and chemicals in furniture such as fire retardants.
* Food Allergies, according to some vets true food allergies are rare and are certainly not as common as generally assumed. Beef, soya and wheat are often cited as allergens.
* Lactose Intolerance, over 90% of adult dogs develop lactose intolerance.
* Boredom, some dogs will relieve their boredom and frustration with excessive paw licking or chewing. Enriching their lives and increasing exercise can help with this problem.
Photograph: somurtkan köpek
So there we have the main culprits. Whilst it is disheartening to know that identifying the cause can be a long frustrating process there are things you can try to help ease the itch in the mean time. But before we progress on to that I would first like to mention allergy testing. Testing can be expensive and my own vet did not recommend it for me as he considers it not to be sufficiently reliable. The results can often be unclear and can also be skewed by certain factors such as what your dog has eaten in the past 24 hours. There are two kinds of test, a blood test and a skin test where a small scrape is made on the dog’s skin and potential allergens are added to the wound.
Sadly there may be many causes of itching and its resultant distress, but the good news is that there are also many ways to try and combat the problem. Listed below are some of the more common methods. I have tried many of these remedies myself over the years with varying levels of success.
* Shampoo, this is a quick and easy remedy. There is a mind boggling array of shampoos out there. Commonly held to be effective is oatmeal shampoo. Oatmeal is a natural soothing agent and can help with low level itching if applied once or twice weekly. Humectants shampoos can also help if dry skin is an issue. When bathing your dog please use lukewarm water as hot water can dry skin, as can hot dryers. If you use a groomer it is worth asking them to use a cooler setting on their dryer.
Source: Clipart Library
* Supplements, dietary supplements abound and are available for all manner of minor ailments. Most itchy skin supplements will contain fish oils, flax seed oil, vitamin e, and evening primrose oil. Various commercial supplements are available, in either liquid or capsule form. I personally find the liquid easier to take. Also, each of these ingredients can be taken separately of course or rubbed into the skin directly. I sometimes use evening primrose oil as massage oil on my itchy places.
* Coconut Oil, hailed by some as a wonder oil! Coconut oil can be used topically on the skin or taken internally as a dietary supplement.
Photograph: Your Organic Sources
I can personally attest to the power of a coconut oil massage. It is especially effective as a rub on dry skin. A word of warning though, if your dog has a wet skin condition with weeping or sticky skin, coconut oil is best avoided as the skin should be encouraged to dry out and coconut oil will prevent this. If giving coconut oil as a supplement it is best to start with a tiny amount and build up to about a tea spoon daily for a small dog.
* Essential Oils, there are many essential oils out there. They are best used with caution, especially on animals as some are toxic to pets. Almost all of them are best used diluted in a carrier oil and I would not recommend using them internally. They can be very effective at repelling fleas and ticks and providing antibacterial salves for irritated skin.
* Apple Cider Vinegar, often used diluted as a post shampoo rinse or as a solution for bathing irritated skin. ACV can be used diluted to gently clean ears too. It is sometimes used for bathing skin when a secondary yeast infection has occurred after extreme itching.
* Calendula Extract, can be applied topically for dry patches.
* Antihistamines, common antihistamines are Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) and Hayleve (Chlorphenamine). Both are human medicines which are safe for use in dogs. These have been used by vets for many years with mixed results. Some dogs report a drastic reduction in their itching, others a slight improvement. Side effects are minimal but can include drowsiness. They are also helpful if your dog is stung by a bee.
* Steroids, these are possibly the strongest available treatment. Steroids will almost certainly stop any itching dead in its tracks. Your dog’s itching will stop and he will have a new lease of life, however steroids cannot be used long term as they have a range of unpleasant life limiting side effects. They are best used for short periods when your dog’s itching has reached unbearable levels. The steroid will stop the itching, reduce inflammation and allow the skin to heal. Steroids commonly come in tablet form, but creams are also available.
* Apoquel, the latest ‘drug du jour’ for itching. Recently launched and hailed as a wonder drug by some. Like steroids, it seems to have an immediate effect in reducing or stopping itching and irritation. However, this drug works by suppressing the immune system. This of course can lead to all kinds of unpleasant consequences long term. There have also been instances of the drug losing its effectiveness with prolonged use.
* Diet and RAW, possibly one of the most contentious issues relating to canine health. The RAW or BARF (biologically appropriate raw food) diet has grown immensely in popularity in recent years. Supporters of the RAW diet will tell you that it has greatly improved their dog’s life and health. However, as with all things there are two sides to this. I hope here to briefly outline the pros and cons.
Photograph: East Bay Express
* This diet can be tailored to meet your dogs need
* You control exactly what is in your dog’s food.
* You control the quality.
* RAW is said to be ‘as nature intended’
* Removes a lot of unnecessary carbohydrates from your dog’s diet.
* Can help weight loss.
* Available as frozen commercially prepared options.
* Can be hard to get the nutritional balance just right. This can lead to deficiencies in your dog’s diet which may take many months or years to manifest themselves.
* Can be hard to digest and digestive enzymes may be required. Raw vegetables are hard to digest and you may need to lightly cook and serve ground.
* Can be time consuming to prepare.
* Inconvenient when travelling. Some hotels may not have appropriate storage facilities for frozen food. Difficult to refrigerate/keep frozen when travelling.
* Some boarding facilities charge extra to feed a RAW diet.
* Pathogens can be present in raw meats; whilst most dogs can cope with these they can pose a risk to immune-compromised dogs and also humans (people on immune-suppressant drugs, the elderly or very young). These bacteria can be spread through dog poo and whilst you may scoop the poop it is always possible traces can enter your home.
* Can take up a lot of freezer space if using the commercially produced option.
* Can be expensive.
So there you have a potted summary of the common causes of pruritis, I would hope that if you are reading this because you are an itchy canine you will find something that works for you in this article. I know from my own experience that it can be a long, frustrating road to find something that works but with a little research you can arm yourself with knowledge and knowledge is power, right?
Northern Editor (GB)
29th April 2017