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Why is my dog itching, scratching, and biting himself constantly?

dog itching
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Scratching, biting, chewing, licking – an itchy dog certainly makes his presence known! If your dog is itching excessively, it is worth a trip to your veterinarian to get to the bottom of what’s causing the scratching. 

There are several causes of itching in dogs, and identifying the underlying cause of the itch is essential to getting it treated quickly and correctly.  Proper treatment of the cause of the itch is necessary to resolve it – unfortunately, home remedies and quick fixes just won’t do the trick in this case!

To help you get your dog’s itching under control, read on to learn more about dog itching and what you can do to help your dog. 

Causes of dog itching 

There are many reasons that a dog can be itchy, just as there are many different things that can make a person itchy:

Parasites

One of the primary concerns with itchy dogs is parasites. Although we often think of fleas when we think of pet parasites, there are also many other types of parasites that affect our canine friends. 

While fleas are large enough to be visible on your dog’s fur, other types of parasites like mites are microscopic and cannot be seen with the naked eye. This is why it’s always important to have your itchy pet evaluated by a veterinarian. You don’t want parasites lurking in your home!

Infections or allergies

Dogs can also be itchy because of other skin conditions such as skin infections, ear infections, allergies, or atopy. These three conditions can all look alike, so it is essential for your dog to be appropriately diagnosed by a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause of the itch.

Signs of dog itching 

Many pet owners notice their dogs frequently chewing, biting, and scratching at themselves.  Sometimes it happens so constantly that it keeps pet owners awake at night! 

But what about the more subtle signs of dog itching?  Other symptoms that your dog has been itchy can include: 

  • Frequent licking 
  • Brown discoloration of the fur (saliva staining) 
  • Head shaking 
  • Self-trauma such as scratch marks, scabbing, or bleeding 
  • Hair loss 
  • Rashes 

If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, it’s time to see a veterinarian. Your veterinarian will perform a full head to tail physical examination and may recommend some additional diagnostic testing such as a skin scraping to check for parasites, ear swabs to look for ear infection, or cytology samples of the skin to evaluate for bacteria and yeast infections. 

Once the underlying cause of your dog’s itching has been diagnosed, your vet will be able to prescribe appropriate treatment.

dog licking leg

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Treating itching in dogs 

Treating your dog’s itching first involves treating the underlying cause of the itch.  Treating the itch alone will not solve the problem if the underlying cause is not addressed. 

For example, if your dog has parasites, treating the itch alone will not solve the problem. The best course of treatment will be to treat the parasites with an appropriate medication, which will stop the itch from occurring.

Similarly, if your dog has a skin infection, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications to help treat the infection and stop the itch. For dogs with allergies or atopy, medications to address these concerns may be prescribed, or your dog may need to be on a prescription diet to address food allergies.  

Once the cause of the itch has been appropriately addressed, the itching and its associated symptoms should improve or completely resolve.

Home remedies to treat dog itching 

There are no effective home remedies to treat dog itching, because these treatments do not address what caused the itch in the first place. In order to effectively resolve your dog’s itching, it is essential to identify and address the underlying cause of the itch, whether it is parasites, allergies, skin infections, or another dermatological condition. 

This is why it is best to see your veterinarian first for any concerns about your dog’s itching.  Your veterinarian will help you determine the best course of action to treat your dog’s itching as quickly and effectively as possible. 

As always, never give your dog any over the counter treatments, home remedies, or medications intended for humans without first consulting your veterinarian for advice. Many of these products can be toxic to dogs, especially if given at the wrong dosages. 

dog scratching his face

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When to visit your vet

How do you know when your dog’s itching is excessive?  Veterinarians like to use the  Dog and Cat Itch Scale (opens in new tab) to determine how itchy your pet really is.  To use the scale, pay close attention to your pet for a day and consider how often you see him or her itching, scratching, biting, or licking. 

Is it more frequent than normal?  Is he or she distracted from playing, eating, or sleeping by the need to scratch?  Does he or she wake up from sleep to scratch?  Or, worst of all, do you need to physically restrain him or her to stop the scratching?  If your pet has more than the occasional itch, then it’s time to see a veterinarian, and all this information will help your vet get to the bottom of the problem.  

Summary

Itching is one of the most common reasons dogs are brought to the veterinary clinic.  There are a number of different causes for itching, and determining the underlying cause of the itch is essential to treating it quickly and effectively.  The type of treatment your vet prescribes will depend on the underlying cause. 

It is generally best to avoid home remedies or over the counter treatments, as these do not treat the underlying cause of the itch and may not be safe for your pet.  If you have questions about your pet’s itching, contact your veterinarian for further advice and instructions. 

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice veterinarian covering all things pet health and wellness.  Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine.  As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit.  In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.  Dr. Racine can be found at www.theveterinarywriter.com (opens in new tab) and at https://www.linkedin.com/in/eracinedvm/ (opens in new tab)