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Dealing With Canine Scratching and Licking

Many people can relate to the feeling of annoyance that a dog's relentless scratching and licking can bring. We may feel bad for them, wonder why it is happening, and try to figure out what to do to help. It can be difficult to determine the cause of skin disorders in dogs but it's important to diagnose it properly so the appropriate treatment can be instituted. This will calm your dog's misery and keep your sanity.

Causes of Scratching in Dogs

  • Allergies
  • Parasites
  • Infections
  • Anxiety


Allergies are the most common cause of scratching in dogs. The following categories of allergies are common in dogs:

Environmental Allergies

Pollen, mold, and house dust are some of the most common environmental allergens. They are everywhere (even if your house is spotless) and can be difficult to diagnose and treat. Environmental allergies may be suspected in the following circumstances:

  • Scratching begins after one year of age and usually before age five.
  • Scratching is seasonal.
  • Certain breeds are more prone to developing environmental allergies. These include golden retrievers, pugs, bulldogs, and all terrier breeds.
  • Recurrent ear infections (otitis externa) can also be seen with higher frequency in a dog suffering from environmental allergies.

If you think an environmental allergy is the cause of your dog's symptoms, seeing a veterinarian is the first step toward helping. Here are some of the recommendations that may be made by a professional.

  1. Allergy testing: This is the same procedure that is done for humans. It can be expensive, but the results will allow allergy shots to be formulated for your dog and these are safe and effective.
  2. Wash your dog's feet off when he come in from outside to reduce the chance that allergens are tracked into the house.
  3. Vacuuming more often may help, but there will always be some dust, so it won't completely control allergies. A HEPA filter does a great job of decreasing allergens, but can be pricey.
  4. Antihistamines such as Benadryl work well in controlling the signs of allergies. Other antihistamines which are made specifically for dogs work well for some dogs and have very few side effects. Your vet can provide you with relatively cheap antihistamines to use when your dog has flair ups. Always remember not to use your own drugs or over-the-counter medications for your dog without your vet's advice.
  5. Steroids can be used if the allergy is extreme, keeps coming back, and the antihistamines don't work. These come in the form of sprays, oral medications, or injections. There are definite risks and side effects involved in steroid usage, but for the occasional serious outbreak, they may be the answer.
  6. Cyclosporine is a drug with fewer risks than steroids for long-term use for dogs that have constant outbreaks. This medication is very expensive, especially for large breed dogs.
  7. Products containing fatty acids, Omega 3's and 6's, can also be applied to the skin or taken orally. They are said to help with all skin issues because they maintain a thicker protective layer over the skin.

Food Allergies

Another common allergy that causes dogs to scratch is food allergy. Dogs may develop an allergy to a food even if they've been eating it for a while. The number one food ingredient that causes allergic reactions is the protein source. So, while a dog could be allergic to the grain or rice, it is much more likely to be the meat. In fact, chicken is the number one food allergen.

Remember - this allergy will be all year round, not seasonal like some environmental causes. The good news is that it's very simple to treat. Simply conduct a food trial with the supervision of your vet and you can easily discover if the food causing the problem. However, food only accounts for about 15% of dog allergies. Read this article to learn why vets are having more and more problems diagnosing and treating food allergies. It's often the result of the owner trying to provide the best food.



Also known as red mange, scabies is another source of scratching in dogs. This is a mite that lives in your dog's skin and causes an intense itch. It can also be passed to humans. There are both medications and dips to treat scabies. One clue that you may be dealing with scabies is that the outside of the ears and elbows are usually the itchiest spots. Your veterinarian will need to do a simple skin scraping to determine if these mites are present on your dog's skin. Specialized medication treatment is required for scratching related to scabies.


Demodex is a second mite that can cause scratching in dogs, though it isn't usually as intense and the dogs tend to lose their hair. A skin scraping can diagnose this mite, as well, and the treatments vary from ointments to dips.

Chiggers, lice, and ringworm

These are all external parasites that also cause scratching in dogs. Shampoos work well for parasites, and sometimes antibiotics are required for secondary infections. There is an easy test for ringworm that involves removing a few pieces of fur.


There are two ways that fleas can cause your dog to scratch. Dogs can be allergic to flea saliva and, in this instance, one bite from a flea can cause the dog's entire body to break out. A dog that is not allergic to fleas may still have quite a reaction if overwhelming numbers of them are present (infestation). Fleas spend most of their life cycle off the dog, so you may not be able to see any. They may leave behind black specks. It may be necessary to treat the dog and the environment when fleas are present. Use flea medication that is recommended by your veterinarian and apply it as directed.


Infections are a very common cause of scratching in dogs of any age. Bacterial infections often manifest as raised, pus-filled bumps that are red, warm, and sometimes draining. Antibiotic creams can be tried if only one or two spots are affected and it is minor, but if this infection is serious, oral antibiotics will be needed. Also, depending on the location of the lesions, antibiotic creams are often just licked off by the dog. Your veterinarian will decide on the antibiotics that will work best. In some cases, a culture of the bacteria may be needed to ensure the proper antibiotic is chosen.

Your dog can also get yeast infections anywhere on the body. There are shampoos, wipes, and oral medications for more serious infections. You may be able to smell the yeast, as it is typically described as smelling like bread or beer.

Infections can be the primary source of the scratching in some instances, but may also occur secondarily to other causes of scratching (allergies or parasites).


Excessive licking can also be caused by stress, rather than an itch. Often, this licking starts when a dog is left alone for too long but it can also start with a trauma to the area. The skin is usually ulcerated with lesions secondary to persistent licking. This dog may simply need more stimulation, a new toy, more walks, or more attention. It is important to stop the dog from licking these spots because they will never heal with continuous licking and will be prone to infection. If the anxiety is very serious, there are oral medications that your veterinarian can prescribe to relax your dog. This behavior typically develops in larger dogs between 12 and 36 months of age.

Finding out why your dog is scratching can decrease your annoyance and increase your ability to help your best friend feel better.

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