Dogs itch for many reasons, and sometimes for no reason. But when a dog is incessantly licking, scratching, biting, and chewing to the point of wounding itself, then scratching can be a symptom of an underlying pathology.
The medical term for scratching related to excessive itching is “pruritus.” This is the second most common reason people take their dogs to the vet (gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, top the list). The causes of pruritus can be quite complex, but dogs itch for two main reasons. The first has to do with the condition of the skin itself: Is it infected? Is it too oily? Is it too dry? Of these three, dry skin is a frequent occurrence. The second major cause of pruritus is allergies.
If you live in a region with low humidity, it’s more likely your dog will have dry skin, which is fairly easy to recognize. When you part your dog’s hair, you’ll see flakes of dandruff in the undercoat, and the skin itself may be cracked and tough. The slightest stimulation of the skin — your gentlest touch — can provoke your dog to scratch violently.
Dry skin can be influenced not only by environmental factors, but also by diet. Some commercial pet foods process out the good oils that contribute to healthy skin and a lustrous haircoat. Dry dog foods have an even more dehydrating effect, and they also increase thirst — but increased water intake only partially compensates for the drying nature of these diets. If you must feed dry dog food, consider adding digestive enzymes to your dog’s meals because enzymes improve the release of nutrients. Beneficial probiotic bacteria also assist in the digestive process. A healthy digestive system absorbs fluids more readily from food, thus improving hydration and increasing the moisture levels of the skin and haircoat.
If your dog is suffering from allergies, its skin may be dry and greasy, and you’ll notice frequent scratching, licking, or chewing. Veterinarians are seeing significantly more cases of allergic dogs than they have in the past; many veterinarians believe that we’re experiencing an allergy epidemic. While the reasons for this epidemic are uncertain, some of the causes put forth include aggressive vaccination protocols, poor breeding practices, and the feeding of processed pet foods.
Whatever the cause, providing your dog allergy relief may prove difficult. In the worst cases, afflicted dogs require strong pharmaceuticals just to get some relief. Though allergies are rarely cured, early identification and intervention can keep them under control, and in some cases, can substantially diminish them.
Clinical research has shown that one important way to reduce the likelihood that dogs will develop allergies is to give them high-potency cultures of beneficial probiotic bacteria, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bifidus, when they’re very young. Probiotics are relatively inexpensive, absolutely safe to use, and can save both dog and owner tons of grief — and visits to the vet — later in life.
Regardless of age, many dogs’ allergies are controlled by improving the quality of their diet, such as giving them high-potency acidophilus cultures, high doses of fish oils, and freshly milled flax seed. In some cases, you may want to give them antihistamines, too. It can take up to three months for this regimen to take effect.
Soothing Your Dog’s Dry Skin
Here are various ways to help improve your dog’s dry skin:
• When your dog needs a bath, try using plain water and a good, non-drying solvent. If you must use shampoo, use a moisturizing type with humectants, and follow up with a moisturizing conditioner. Avoid blow dryers.
• If you have your dog groomed, ask the groomer to turn down the blow dryer’s heat.
• Feed moist dog food.
• Add digestive enzymes to every meal (probiotic bacteria, 2 to 10 billion CFUs per day).
• Provide fresh, filtered drinking water.
• Add fresh oils and other supplements to meals: Flax seed oil (1⁄2 teaspoon of oil per 15 pounds of body weight, twice daily) or freshly milled flax seeds (11⁄2 teaspoons per 15 pounds of weight, twice daily); EPA/DHA from fish oil or algae (5 to 20 milligrams of EPA per pound of body weight, once daily); lecithin granules (1⁄4 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon per meal); nutritional yeast (1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon per meal) or hypoallergenic B complex (10 to 50 milligrams, twice daily); kelp powder (1⁄4 to 1 teaspoon with each meal); spirulina (500 to 1,000 milligrams, twice daily with meals); alfalfa, nettles, or horsetail (dried or powdered, 1⁄4 to 1 teaspoon of individual herb or a mixture).