If your pet is forever scratching himself, he’s may be dealing with fleas, allergies or another medical problem. Here's what you can do to help.

Itching is one of the most common problems veterinarians encounter, and they have an arsenal of weapons—from special shampoos to lotions, supplements and medications—to ease the incessant itching and prevent a simple twinge from turning into something more.

What Causes Itching?

Itching is usually a sign of an underlying problem. For example, if your pet has an allergy, exposure to the allergen causes a series of events to occur within the animal’s body, including the release of histamine, a chemical that is very irritating and leads to itching. Allergic reactions also cause the release of several other chemicals that contribute to irritation, inflammation, and itching. Some bacteria and fungal organisms (which can be introduced into the skin when your pet scratches himself) also release chemicals that irritate nerve endings in the skin and cause itching. If an itchy pet doesn’t respond to an antihistamine (a medication that targets histamine), it may be because histamine isn’t the main cause of the itch.

Less commonly, some animals chew, itch or lick themselves excessively as a compulsive behavior, usually as the result of stress or boredom.

What Are Clinical Signs of Itching?

In addition to the scratching, your pet may also exhibit mild or severe:

  • Licking
  • Biting
  • Rubbing
  • Twitching of the skin
  • In addition to these symptoms, excessive scratching can quickly lead to skin damage, bleeding, hair loss, scabs, and secondary skin infections with bacteria or fungal organisms.

How Is Itching Diagnosed?

Itching is a response to another condition, so identifying the cause is as important as treating the itch. Your veterinarian will likely take a complete medical history and do a physical examination of your pet. Your veterinarian may also recommend diagnostic testing that can include the following:

  • Combing your pet to look for fleas
  • Taking samples of hair and skin cells to look for mites and other skin parasites
  • Culture testing to identify bacteria or fungal organisms Allergy testing
  • Blood work to look for underlying medical issues that can affect the skin.

If the problem has been chronic or recurring, your veterinarian will likely ask what therapies you’ve already tried and whether they were successful. This information can provide useful information about the underlying problem.

How Is Itching Treated?

Managing an itchy pet can involve combining several approaches, because multiple factors can be contributing to the problem. For example, if your pet has an underlying allergy that’s complicated by a flea infestation in addition to a bacterial or fungal infection, all of these issues need to be addressed.

Treatment for an itchy pet can require a long-term commitment, since pets respond differently to medications. If a particular treatment doesn’t seem to be helping, or if your pet seems to be responding negatively, you should let your veterinarian know so changes can be made as needed.

  • Topical products: Your veterinarian may recommend a moisturizer, ointment, or lotion if your pet’s itch is mild or confined to one spot, or in addition to other medications. These products may need to be applied frequently—up to several times a day—to be effective. Be sure to follow all label directions, and consult your veterinarian with any questions.
  • Shampoos: Medicated shampoos can help some pets suffering with itchy skin, and they can be effective for a few days per use. What’s more, some shampoos can be used along with a leave-on conditioner to make the effect last longer. If you’re unable to bathe your pet, ask your veterinarian about other treatment options.
  • Medications: For many pets, corticosteroids are the most effective treatment for itching. They come in pill, liquid, and injectable formulations, but the powerful drugs carry side effects, and not every pet is a candidate for this treatment. Your veterinarian will determine if corticosteroids are a good option. Some pets with itching do well when given antihistamines, and other medications can heal bacterial or fungal skin infections.
  • Supplements: Fish oil, fatty acids and other nutritional supplements can help some pets, but the effectiveness of these products can vary. Ask your veterinarian if a nutritional supplement can help your pet.

If your pet is not responding to therapy, contact your veterinarian to see if modifications may be helpful. Sometimes, your veterinarian will combine several therapies for the best results. But every animal is different, so one may do very well receiving a combination of antihistamines with a shampoo and a nutritional supplement, whereas another pet may not.

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.