Scratching is a common symptom in dogs, and a whole range of underlying causes can be responsible. If your dog is scratching, it is advisable to seek treatment as soon as possible, as self trauma can cause secondary injuries that may extend the duration, and cost, of treatment. So, if you have noticed your dog scratching, what should you do about it?
Firstly, ask yourself when was the last time I put anti-flea medication on him/her? Most spot-on flea products only provide protection for a month, so if it has been longer than this then you should re-apply the medication. Be aware that anti-flea products that are on sale in supermarkets and pet shops are general sales list products, and are not as effective as the products available from your veterinarian. However, Frontline® has recently been made available on general sale and so can be purchased without a prescription.
If flea treatment is up to date, with a reputable product, the next step is to rule out mites. Most anti-flea products do not kill mites. The most common type of mite infection in dogs is sarcoptic mange, also known as scabies. This mite causes an intensely itchy dermatitis that can also be transmitted to humans. It is often spread by foxes, so if you have many foxes in your area, this is one to be especially aware of. This is one you have to approach your veterinarian for. Scabies is diagnosed either by doing skin scrapes (using a scalpel blade to scrape debris from one of the affected areas, placing it on a microscope slide, staining it and examining it under a microscope) or via a blood test. Many vets though will choose to simply apply the appropriate drug and if the itchiness stops, a presumptive diagnosis is made. If your dog does have scabies, your vet might give a one off steroid injection to alleviate the itchiness in the short term until the anti-parasitic drug kicks in.
If external parasites have been ruled out, the next step is to rule out a bacterial infection, a yeast infection or ringworm. Of these, only ringworm is potentially transmissible to humans. Ringworm is not actually a worm, but a type of fungus. It is usually tested for by examining the affected area with an ultraviolet light, which causes a certain type of ringworm spore to glow green. If ringworm is diagnosed, your vet will dispense either oral or topical medication to cure it. Bacterial infections are treated with a 2-3 week course of antibiotics, whereas yeast infections are usually treated with a medicated shampoo.
If parasites, bacteria, yeasts and ringworm have all been ruled out then your pet probably has an allergy. This could be a food allergy, a contact allergy or an environmental (e.g. pollen) allergy. For further information on allergies in dogs, see my next article: “The Itchy Dog: is it an Allergy?”