CAC Blog

An Itch to Scratch: Getting to the Bottom of your Itchy Pet

By April 21, 2022 May 3rd, 2022 No Comments
By Dr. Brittany Hassell

Cats and dogs can scratch for a multitude of reasons, but we will go over some major signs and top causes of the itchy pet.

Flea Allergy Dermatitis

Flea allergies tend to make up the majority of itchy animals. While fleas are generally uncomfortable to your pet and they will scratch to try to remove them, many pets have an allergy to the flea saliva itself. Most pets are around 2-5 years old when FAD is noticed. The chart below shows the area where most fleas like to congregate and cause issues.

Treatment: Thankfully, this typically can be prevented and treated with good quality flea/tick prevention. Depending on how active your pet is, there are topical, oral, and collar options available.

Food Allergy

Any component of the diet can be allergenic, but proteins are the most common allergen, not grains!

For dogs: beef, dairy, wheat, lamb, and egg are the most common allergens

For cats: beef, dairy, fish, poultry, rabbit, and eggs are the most common allergens

The most common clinical signs are the itchiness is non-seasonal and tends to affect the face, feet, ears, and perineum. There can also be vomiting, diarrhea, and flatulence associated with this. Most pets are either <1 year of age or between 5-6 years and certain breeds may be at an increased risk of developing food allergies.

Treatment: Unfortunately there is not a great way to definitively diagnose food allergies. Ideally, a food elimination trial would be implemented, with a limited number of novel, highly digestible proteins.

  • hydrolyzed diet
  • commercial novel protein/limited ingredient diet
  • home-cooked novel protein diet

Diet trials should last on average about 8 weeks, with no other food or treats given.

“Hot Spots” (Acute Moist Dermatitis)

This tends to occur more in thick coated dogs.

Clinical signs tend to include a sudden onset of a red, moist, itchy area the pet won’t leave alone. Tends to be painful and often secondary to other issues (like flea allergy!) As the skin oozes, the hair around it sticks tight, making it ideal for bacteria to flourish.

Treatment: clipping the hair and cleaning the lesions with an anti-bacterial scrub is the first step. Each vet has their own “recipe” for treatment, but typically pets will be sent home with either a round of steroids or a topical medication.


This is just a fancy word for an infection within the hair follicles. This tends to be seen most on the trunk (or body) of the patient and spares the head and legs.

The most common signs are small red bumps, flaking hair, and a patchy hair coat. This occurs secondary to underlying issues like allergies, nutrition, or environment (humidity, frequent baths, etc).

Treatment: This typically can be healed using antibiotics and occasionally will be coupled with a medicated bath.


Atopic dermatitis and flea allergy dermatitis make up 90% of cases for itchy dogs! That’s a big percentage. This means your trusted companion is allergic to something in their environment. Think mold, dust particles, or pollens. When a dog (or cat) is predisposed to these allergies, any break in the skin barrier can cause a reaction.

Breeds predisposed include Dalmatians, Golden retrievers, West Highland white terrier, Labradors, Shih Tzus, Boxers, and Pugs.

Quite frequently, these dogs can meet a certain “criteria” for helping us diagnose atopy:

  • Young age (between 1-3 years of age)
  • Mostly indoors
  • Response to steroids (many patients will clear up quickly once placed on a cortisone-type medication, like prednisone)
  • Chronic yeast infections of the skin
  • Front foot licking: this is a biggin!
  • Lesions NOT seen on ears or lower back
  • Seasonality

It is difficult to pin down exactly what causes the itch in your pet with atopy. This is a clinical diagnosis, meaning vets come to this through symptoms and treatment response.

Treatment should ideally include a trip to a dermatologist, who can help more accurately diagnose what exactly your pet is allergic to, and then come up with an allergy shot serum personalized to that patient.


There are two main types of mange: demodectic and sarcoptic.

  • Demodex: These are NOT contagious and tend to occur in younger animals (less than 15 months old) or older animals that are immune compromised.
  • Sarcoptes: These ARE contagious, both to people and to other animals.

Each type is diagnosed with skin scraping and can be treated with Ivermectin or other parasiticides.

While creepy-crawlie-like mange isn’t the best thing to think about, the risk of common skin problems can be decreased through monthly bathing and frequent cleaning of all pet beds and toys. By keeping your pet up to date on prevention and in good health, we can do our best to avoid more frequent vet visits. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”