Dogs Life at Home Veterinary Care

The Itchy Dog, Part 1: Your Questions Answered

Share on
Reading Time: 5 minutes

You are not alone if your dog is itchy with skin or ear problems. Itch is the number one reason pet owners seek help from a veterinarian.1 In fact, 7.5 million dogs were treated by veterinarians last year for skin and ear problems.2 We know skin disease can decrease quality of life for a pet and a pet owner, too.3,4 Unmanaged skin problems lead to frequent visits to the vet clinic, which can contribute to anxiety and stress.

1. What is Itch?

Itch is an uncomfortable sensation in the skin that causes a desire for your dog to scratch. Excessive itching, scratching, face rubbing or other behaviors by your dog are not normal and may be a sign of allergic skin disease. This is an uncomfortable condition that causes anxiety and stress in dogs when left untreated. Think of how it feels if you have ever experienced contact with poison ivy or eczema. That type of itch is often described by people as: uncomfortable, annoying, a crawling sensation, dry, maddening, merciless, painful, raw, sore or unrelenting. Dogs can’t verbalize these types of feelings but all that biting, and licking helps us understand how bad they could be feeling.

2. What Do Allergies Look Like in Dogs?

Dogs present with signs of allergic itch differently than people do. Dogs may have signs like frequent scratching but there are other telltale signs as well: frequent licking, chewing, biting, excessive rolling, rubbing or scooting. Some allergic dogs may have recurrent ear problems with head shaking, ear discharge, ear odor, or scratching at ears. Others may have hair loss, body odor, or skin changes that make the skin look like it has a really bad rash, is infected, or has excessive redness, greasy skin or scabs.

3. Why Are Dogs Itchy?

There are many reasons why dogs are itchy. While these are not the only cause of itch, they are the most common considerations for the itchy dog:

  • Parasites that live on or in the skin (fleas in particular but also scabies and other mites)
  • Many dogs are very allergic to flea bites.
  • Food allergy for those dogs with non-seasonal itch
  • Atopic dermatitis (allergy to seasonal pollens, outdoor and indoor molds, or dust mites)
  • Skin infections with bacteria and/or yeast may develop if the above allergies are not adequately managed.

When your dog has an allergy to food, fleas, or something in the environment, there are several things that happen within the body. Scratching results from exposure to allergy “triggers” and a frustrating cycle of behavior starts and continues unless it’s interrupted with treatment that specifically target the itch. Allergies can lead to secondary infections of the skin and ears which can further increase the level of itch and discomfort they experience. This vicious cycle contributes to anxiety and stress.

4. When is an Itch More Than Just an Itch? Meet Toby!

Toby is a sweet and handsome yellow Labrador Retriever. He was about 7 years old when his owners realized his itch was more than just an itch. He would rub his face back and forth across the bedroom carpet for about two hours each morning. Can you imagine? Two hours!

When you looked at Toby, his skin wasn’t obviously raw or inflamed. He didn’t have open, red, oozing, infected skin. He wasn’t missing any fur, but he was so itchy! Thankfully, Toby’s owner called the veterinarian and scheduled an appointment for Toby to be examined. The veterinarian realized Toby needed something fast for relief, and Apoquel® (oclacitinib tablet) was administered in the exam room. Apoquel® is an oral medication that provides rapid relief for allergic itch and inflammation and starts working within four hours.

Over several months Toby’s veterinarian and owners worked together to ensure that Toby was on consistent flea and tick prevention and that he did not have any active infection. Toby was fed a prescription food specifically designed to help determine if he had a food allergy for four months to make sure he wasn’t allergic to an ingredient in his food. Once parasites, infection, and food allergy were determined to not be the cause of Toby’s itch, his veterinarian determined that Toby had atopic dermatitis.

Atopic dermatitis is typically a life-long, chronic disease that gets worse over time. Thankfully, Apoquel® was given for relief immediately, throughout the work-up, and for long-term management of his disease. His mornings got a whole lot better, too — he got to sleep in!

5. What Can I Do to Help My Itchy Dog? Tips to Reduce the Anxiety and Stress Associated with Itch

  • Seek immediate help from your veterinarian if you have even the slightest concern about your dog’s skin, ears, and/or itch level. A delay may only make things worse for your dog and your bond with your dog, exacerbating stress and anxiety.
  • Still not sure? Take this itch quiz and find out if your dog’s itch could be a medical condition that requires veterinary care.
  • Proactively request relief for your itchy dog initially and throughout the work-up to determine the underlying cause of the itch.
  • Ask your veterinarian if Apoquel® can be used to relieve your dog’s flare of allergic itch due to fleas, food, or seasonal factors.
  • Did you know? August is Itchy Pet Awareness Month! See you really are not alone; there are so many itchy dogs out there that an entire month is dedicated to them! Stay tuned for future articles about your dog’s skin and itch!
  • With your veterinarian’s help, the stress and anxiety of itch can be a thing of the past and the bond you share with your dog will be protected.


Control of pruritus (itching) associated with allergic dermatitis and control of atopic dermatitis in dogs at least 12 months of age.

Important safety Information

Do not use APOQUEL in dogs less than 12 months of age or those with serious infections. APOQUEL may increase the chances of developing serious infections and may cause existing parasitic skin infestations or pre-existing cancers to get worse. APOQUEL has not been tested in dogs receiving some medications including some commonly used to treat skin conditions such as corticosteroids and cyclosporines. Do not use in breeding, pregnant, or lactating dogs. Most common side effects are vomiting and diarrhea. APOQUEL has been used safely with many common medications including parasiticides, antibiotics and vaccines. See full Prescribing Information.


    2. Data on File. Vetstreet/Covetrus Pruritus Projection Trend. March 2019. Zoetis Inc.
    3. Linek M, Favrot C. Impact of canine atopic dermatitis on the health-related quality of life of affected dogs and quality of life of their owners. Vet Dermatol. 2010 Oct;21(5):456-62.
    4. Cosgrove SB, Cleaver DM, King VL, Gilmer AR, Daniels AE, Wren JA, Stegemann MR. Long-term compassionate use of oclacitinib in dogs with atopic and allergic skin disease: safety, efficacy and quality of life. Vet Dermatol. 2015 Jun;26(3):171-9

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

This article is brought to you in collaboration with our friends at Zoetis Petcare.ZPC-00338

Recent Articles

View and Search All Available Content >