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How to Help Your Itchy Dog: Veterinary Advice

Itch, itch...scratch, scratch and repeat—persistent dog scratching can consume your dog’s life, along with causing your pet to feel miserable. Since pesky itching affects many dogs and their pet parents we asked Dr. Michael Sterns of 4Paws Mobile Veterinary Services in Mountain View, California to offer some of his thoughts regarding how to help itchy dogs. Many people don’t realize that allergies are just as common in our pets as they are in us. A common skin disorder in dogs that causes itchy skin is atopic dermatitis. In fact, it is the second most common allergic skin disease in dogs.

How to Help Your Itchy Dog: Veterinary Advice

What is Atopic Dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is an inflammatory, chronic skin disease associated with allergies. These allergic reactions can be brought on by substances like grass, mold spores, flea saliva, house dust mites, food, pollen and other environmental allergens.

How is the source of the atopic dermatitis determined?

Most veterinarians have a tiered approach to diagnosing the offending triggers. Skin scrapings or skin cultures can be performed and analyzed for localized lesions. If the problem is more generalized, blood tests can be done to test for environmental and food allergies.

Dog with allergies sitting outside

How is atopic dermatitis in dogs usually treated?

A multi-tiered approach to treatment is often used, ranging from topical therapy to corticosteroids to immunosuppressive drugs (in extreme cases). However, some dogs have a limited response to steroids, and continue to itch like clockwork 4-6 weeks after an injection and short course of oral therapy. In these cases, Cytopoint a new injectable medication may be the solution for dogs who still itch after proper flea control, clearing up any skin infection, changing diet, and reducing exposure to environmental allergens.

Atopic dermatitis in dogs, how is it treated

How is the immune system involved with chronic inflammation?

Atopic dermatitis is caused by a hyperactive immune system resulting in excessive inflammation. Research has shown that the bacteria comprising the gut microbiome (digestive system) can affect the functioning of the immune system. Some beneficial bacteria produce anti-inflammatory compounds that help prevent the immune system from creating needless inflammation. On the other hand, other less helpful bacteria may trigger excessive inflammation.

For some dogs skin conditions may be related to imbalanced gut bacteria. There is an easy Microbiome Test available using a stool sample from your dog. It shows the types and proportions of bacteria living in the dog as well as comparison to healthy dogs.

If the results show a dog’s gut bacterial community is out of balance (lacking gut bacteria diversity) or missing key bacteria, there are fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) oral capsules.

The capsules are used to help restore healthy bacteria within the gut and relieve digestive, skin, and immune system symptoms.

My dog patients and their parents have found great relief using a combination of the FMT supplement capsules and medication treatments, along with avoiding known allergy triggers.

Frech Bulldog with skin dermatitis

Your veterinarian will likely go through the following steps to determine a diagnosis and the best treatment plan for your unique dog.

1. First off, eliminate the easy triggers of allergies: The most important first step is to practice good flea control. Protect your dog year-round to prevent an infestation. Many dogs are allergic to flea saliva.

2. Determine if any active pyoderma, or skin infection is present: The signs of a skin infection are redness and raised scabby lesions. Pyoderma is primarily a Staphylococcus intermedius infection, derived from a dog’s own skin flora and triggered by self-trauma, usually excessive licking or biting an area. It can be treated with a specific antibiotic. In severe cases it can be quite persistent requiring 3-4 weeks of medication.

3. Reduce environmental allergens: Vacuuming and keeping surface dust to a minimum in our homes is important. Indoor air cleaners with HEPA filtration may help. Your veterinarian can run a diagnostic allergy test panel to identify the offending allergens specific to your dog.

4. Determine topical and/or other treatment: A multitiered approach is often used.

  • Topical: There are many therapeutic shampoos and antimicrobials that can help eliminate dander by removing the dead outer layer of skin cells. Some dogs may have a characteristic odor caused by bacterial or fungal overgrowth.
  • Apoquel is an orally administered inhibitor of an itch pathway, but only works when being ingested. Daily administration may extend the interval between corticosteroid use.
  • Use of corticosteroids (steroids), both injectable and oral, can be a very effective front line therapy. These drugs do suppress the overall allergic reaction, and dosed properly have no long term effects.

5. Consider a change in diet: Your dog may be reacting to a particular source of either protein or carbohydrates or to one or more of the preservatives found in certain pet foods. Some dogs do respond to omega 3 fish oil supplements.


6. Check their gut health: Skin health depends on a healthy gut. And so dogs with chronic, recurring or severe skin conditions may benefit by having the bacteria in their gut tested with a stool sample. If bacteria are out of balance, supplementation of oral FMT capsules can help restore pet health.

If you found this article helpful you may want to read, Zuki the Rescue Dog: Healing Her Itchy Skin from Within. Zuki suffered from a severe case of atopic dermatitis, learn more about her story.  

Skin health depends on a healthy gut.

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