Prevent itchy skin in dogs

October 28th, 2014
Ella + Friends Photography

Whether you have a French Bulldog or an Australian Kelpie, itching and skin irritation can plague your pet. Lauren McKellar finds out more on cause and treatment and how to prevent itchy skin in dogs.

It’s a fact: one of the most common reasons dog owners take their pets to the vet is when they’re facing one of nature’s most frustrating problems. Whether your pooch is doing it behind the ear, across the chest, or even on its behind, itching and scratching can cause irritation, inflammation, infection and even hair loss if not treated correctly.

So why exactly do our pets get itchy and how can we prevent this? Dogs Life spoke to Dr Liisa Ahlstrom, Bayer’s Technical Services Veterinarian, to find out more.

“While there are many reasons for itchiness in dogs, the most common are external parasites, or ‘ectoparasites’, allergic skin diseases and skin infections,” Dr Ahlstrom says.

Ectoparasites include all those nasties we hear so much about, including fleas, ticks, lice and mites. These beings need a “host” to survive, and will live, feed and reproduce on the surface area of your dog’s skin, causing irritation and extreme itchiness.

While fleas are probably the most common of this group, lice and mites are still serious problems for some dogs, in particular those with allergies or more sensitive skin.

It doesn’t stop there; ticks, mosquitoes, sand flies and other biting insects can cause irritation and itchiness in your pet and potentially result in prolonged discomfort.

Sadly, ectoparasites can often lead to other problems in your dog. What starts out as a simple flea-related scratch can turn into something more serious, depending on your dog’s genetic make-up.

“Dogs with flea allergy dermatitis are allergic to the saliva injected when fleas bite, with just a few fleas able to cause intense and long-lasting itchiness,” Dr Ahlstrom says. “That is typically located on the back near the base of the tail, the back of the thighs, tummy and flank.”

Infections of the skin by bacteria or fungi can also be very itchy, and often occur alongside allergic skin disease and infestations with ectoparasites.

The nitty-gritty

As pet owners, we all hear a lot about fleas and ticks, two of the most common parasites in the ectoparasite group. Lice and mites, however, are not spoken about quite as frequently – but sure can pack an irritating punch.

“Lice are wingless insects that are about 1.5-1.7 mm in length, so they’re large enough to be seen with the naked eye on close inspection,” Dr Ahlstrom says. “They’re host-specific, so the lice on a dog can be transmitted to other dogs, but won’t infect humans or other animal species.”

The way lice irritate its host is by chewing or piercing the skin with its mouthpart which makes the pet itchy, causing them to scratch and further damage their skin.

Mites are arachnids and are more closely related to spiders than to fleas. They’re very small (0.2-0.4 mm long) and unlike lice are not visible to the naked eye.

“There are many different species of mites, but those found most commonly infesting cats and dogs are Sarcoptic mites, Demodectic mites and ear mites,” Dr Ahlstrom says.

Luckily for us, most of the mites that infest pets are host-specific and don’t pose a risk for other species of animals or people. An exception is the Sarcoptic mite, as it can be transferred through close contact to other animal species, including humans. These mites do not tend to stay on humans for extended periods of time, however, preferring to return to their favoured host, the dog.

Mites cause irritation in a slightly different fashion to their lice counterparts.

“Sarcoptic mites cause intense itchiness by digging burrows in the outer layers of the skin of their host for mating and egg laying. They prefer less haired regions of the body for their burrow-digging, so signs of infection with this mite are initially seen in places like the edges of ears, abdomen, arm pits, groin, elbows and hocks,” Dr Ahlstrom says. “Symptoms of infection with Sarcoptic mites include scratching, hair loss, skin thickening and wrinkling and secondary skin infections are a common consequence.”

Ear mites can also cause itchiness, but are surface skin-dwellers. They can cause ear infections, or inadvertent damage when your dog scratches too hard at the delicate ear area.

Finally, Demodectic or “hair follicle” mites are a normal, microscopic inhabitant of the skin of many mammals from a very young age and are tolerated without a problem in most hosts.

“Demodectic mites only become a problem for animals whose genetics or immune system enable the mite population to expand, leading to the development of disease, known as Demodectic mange,” Dr Ahlstrom says. While Demodectic mange may not itself be itchy, severe cases are often accompanied by secondary infections, which can cause a scratching reaction.

Avoiding ectoparasites

With such potentially irritating effects, it’s only natural that pet owners should try to avoid ectoparasites. Sadly, these hardy creatures are found throughout Australia, with no real location-specific area less prone than others due to the creatures’ hardy nature.

Of course, the easiest way to try and keep your pet itch-free is by keeping it free of ectoparasites.

“Regularly apply a parasiticide product such as Advantage,” Dr Ahlstrom says. By using a preventative product such as this, you can help keep your pet free of ectoparasites, minimising the irritation risk.

Of course, it is important to be vigilant and monitor your dog’s behaviour and condition to ensure it remains happy and healthy.

“Be observant and take notice of your pet’s skin and their behaviour. If you’re familiar with how their skin normally looks, you’ll have a better chance of recognising when something’s wrong,” Dr Ahlstrom says. “And take notice if your pet starts to show signs of itchiness like licking or biting at their paws or body, scratching their ears or shaking their head.”


If you have a dog that seems to be suffering from skin irritation, there are several things you can do. Firstly, examine your dog’s coat and skin to see if you can see any parasites such as fleas, lice or ticks.

“If you do see parasites, talk to your vet clinic or pet store for advice on parasite protection,” Dr Ahlstrom says.

“If you don’t see any parasites, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not there. For example, you won’t find mites by examining the skin and coat as they are tiny and typically hiding in hair follicles, burrows within the skin or in the ear canal. And healthy fleas are very fast and quickly move away through the hairs as fast as you can part the coat to examine the skin.”

If this is the case, and you can’t see any visible symptoms, it is advised that you take your pet to your local veterinarian, in particular if any skin areas look reddened and inflamed, or moist. These are symptoms of infection, and a more complex treatment than just your over-the-counter flea and parasite protection may need to be arranged.

Fast scratch facts

  • The most common causes of itching in pets are ectoparasites, allergic skin disease and skin infection
  • Ectoparasites include fleas, lice, mites and ticks
  • There is no one area in Australia ‘safe’ from ectoparasites
  • Preventative treatment is largely available over-the-counter from your local pet store or veterinarian
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