Itching, Scratching, and Hair Loss

Why does my pet itch?

Scratching dog
Scratching dog. © blmurch on Flickr

Please see the Itching and Scratching index for related topics.

My dog is scratching like crazy. What flea shampoo works best?

Wait - hold the suds. Yes, fleas can make pets and people itchy and uncomfortable, but don't always assume that your pet's itchiness is the result of fleas.

Fleas bite, and their saliva is very allergenic to susceptible animals. This causes skin redness, itching, biting, scratching, chewing, crusts in the skin, and even a greasy feel and strong odor for some pets.

In non-allergic pets, fleas don't bother the animal in these classic ways.

Fleas love humidity and warmth. They are a year-round problem in many climates, virtually nonexistent in other climates (arid, cold).

If not fleas, what could it be? Your veterinarian is the only one that can answer these questions for your pet, but here are a few of the things that vets look for when a pet is itchy:

  • Other allergies not related to fleas -- inhalant (grasses, pollens, etc.), contact (allergic to a shampoo, food dish) or systemic (food allergy).
  • Other parasites, such as mites.
  • Fungal infections
  • Skin infections -- moist skin infections secondary to licking, scratching, even swimming. Skin infections (i.e. hot spots) are also very itchy and bothersome on their own and are often secondary to problems with allergies and parasites.

Note of caution: make sure that your pet does indeed have a flea-induced skin problem prior to using any type of flea shampoo or treatment.

Flea killers can be dangerous if used improperly, and items such as shampoos can be very drying to the skin, exacerbating an itchy skin problem.

My cat is going bald on her hind legs. Should I be concerned?

Baldness, or alopecia, isn't 'normal' in animals (with exception of certain breeds, like the Chinese Crested (hairless dog).

So anytime a bald spot is noticed, your veterinarian should have a look.

Extreme itchiness and the resultant licking, chewing, biting will cause hair loss (traumatic alopecia). This can be seen as blunted stubble in the affected area.

But what about situations where there isn't any itching? When the skin looks normal - not red, inflamed or seemingly bothered? You still need to have it checked out. It could be a hormonal imbalance (i.e. hypothyroidism - more common in dogs), ringworm, or what is commonly known in cats as "pyschogenic alopecia." This is now recognized as an obsessive compulsive behavior wherein the cat, continually "overgrooms" an area, perhaps due to stress.

As you can see, there are many conditions that can cause baldness with or without itching in cats and dog. Other conditions not mentioned above include parasites other than fleas (Demodex mites, Notedres mites).

My human physician recommended oatmeal baths when I had poison ivy. Is this OK to use with pets?

Oatmeal baths are a safe way to reduce itching in pets, too. Bathing will reduce itchiness for allergic animals -- washing the allergens (flea saliva, pollens, etc.) will help reduce the itchiness considerably. Keeping the skin and coat in good condition, not overdrying with harsh shampoos, will also help.

Learn more about choosing the right shampoo for your pet from your veterinarian and what will be the best choice for your pet.

What about dietary supplements to control itching?

Yes, there are some worthy veterinary fatty acid supplements that will help reduce itchiness due to allergies and also help keep the skin and coat in top condition. They take time (6-8 weeks) to work. Ask your veterinarian about what type of supplement would be right for your pet.

Please see the archive for more Q & A topics.

Related Terminology:

  • Pruritis
  • Psychogenic Alopecia

Photo: Scratching dog © blmurch on Flickr

Please note: this article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible.