Itching (or pruritus) is one of the most common reasons that our canine patients present to us. It can also be one of the most frustrating conditions for both owners and veterinarians to manage. While itching may seem like a straightforward problem, the cause (and therefore the treatment) is often very complex.

Itching patients can present in a variety of ways. Oftentimes itching can manifest as basic scratching, while other itchy patients may present for consistent licking (especially their paws). I often use a scale (from 1 to 10) to determine just how itchy my patients are (1 being seldom scratching/”normal” dog scratching and 10 being that your dog cannot eat, drink, sleep or play without stopping to scratch). On average, an owner will say that a dog with “typical” environmental allergies (discussed more below) is a 5 to 6.

When I think about an itching patient, I always think of the problem as a set of building blocks. The largest base block is the primary underlying cause (most often either environmental or food-related allergies). However, other issues (or blocks) can be stacked on the primary block to make the itching worse. These secondary blocks include: secondary bacterial/yeast infections, ear infections and ectoparasites (like fleas and mites). Each of these “blocks” has to be addressed (removed) to help the patient’s itch.

Let’s look at an example: one of my favorite 2 year old Golden Retriever patients, Millie, presents for itching. Her owner tells me that she is a 6 out of 10 on our itch scale. She also mentions that her itching started when the weather got warmer On my physical exam, I notice red, inflamed ears and small areas of crusting on her belly. While it is likely that Millie has an environmental allergy, she also has evidence of secondary skin and ear infections. These infections will need to be investigated appropriately and treated (essentially removing two top blocks). This will give us the opportunity to treat Millie’s underlying allergy more effectively.

Treatment options for itching have improved significantly in the last 10 years. The treatments that your veterinarian recommends will likely involve treating each of the secondary conditions (to remove the top blocks) so that the primary condition (for example, environmental allergies) can be treated, as mentioned in the example above.

While itching can be complex and frustrating, it can also be treated and well-managed by collaborating with your veterinarian to develop a plan that works for your furry family member! There is no “one size fits all” treatment plan, but each of our veterinarians is well-equipped to deal with this itchy problem!

About the Author

Dr. Jenna Barber

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