May issue

May issue
May issue

Friday, 23 March 2012

Scratching the surface

Can you help?

My two-year-old Labrador, Maisie, is scratching an awful lot. It seems to be her whole body is itchy as she scratches her head/ears, and has taken to rolling over and rubbing her back along the floor.

She went into scratching overdrive about three weeks ago, which is around the time I got my yearly itchy eyes and runny nose, courtesy of pollen. I wonder if this is connected, can dogs get hayfever? A friend suggested it could be diet related, but she is fed a mixture of wet food and dry kibble and doesn’t seem to have any tummy problems or anything.

Thanks in advance for any help.

Diane Camping, by email

Alison Logan, vet, advises...

What you describe does sound very much as if Maisie has an allergy to environmental factors, or atopy. We develop the classic signs of hayfever such as sneezing and watery eyes, whereas dogs simply scratch and scratch at themselves in response to an itchy skin, classically affecting tthe head, ears, paws and underside of the belly (note – you describe Maisie as having itchy head and ears, but rather than scratching at her ventral abdomen she rolls around on her back to rub at that area. There may be a concurrent problem, of which more later!).

Maisie is also the classic age for first showing signs of atopy, being a young adult dog. The potential to be atopic is inbuilt. It would therefore be unlikely for an atopic dog to show signs of atopy as a puppy in the spring when he first encounters factors to which he is sensitive; the following spring, however, he may become itchy if exposed to them.

An atopic dog is generally allergic to several factors, again like the situation in us. A useful concept is the itch threshold: a dog can be coping quite well with the presence of factors to which he is allergic until there comes a point where the arrival of another allergen exceeds his itch threshold and then he starts scratching at himself. As you say, you started showing signs of hayfever at about the same time that Maisie started scratching, suggesting that a rise in pollen levels may have taken Maisie above the itch threshold.

As your friend suggested, there may be an element of food allergy which could have been ticking away without becoming apparent until exposure to pollen took Maisie above that magic itch threshold. It is worth remembering that as well as being allergic to ingredients in the food, which are eaten at every meal, a dog may become itchy only as the lower levels of a sack of food are reached, where forage mites may have developed. For my patients who are atopic, I recommend buying smaller quantities of food, rather than going for the economic option of bulk buying, to avoid the potential for forage mites.

That itchy back! Here is where I come to fleas. I could not advise on itchy skin without mentioning fleas! You describe Maisie as having an itchy back which does suggest fleas, atopic dogs usually rubbing at the underside of the belly. Fleas are a year-round problem and do need constant and effective preventive measures. If Maisie has had a break in flea control over the winter, she may well have picked up fleas hatching out in the environment with this warm spell of weather. Any atopic dog is likely to have a flea allergy, so the addition of fleas may, again, tip him or her over the itch threshold.

I would suggest you check for signs of fleas with a flea comb (finding just flea dirts is as significant as finding live fleas) and treat if found, including the environment. If you have allowed flea control to lapse over the winter, then I would resume effective control of fleas on all pets and the environment regardless of finding signs of fleas. If the itching persists then I would take Maisie to your vet for a full examination and further investigation. This incessant scratching can cause damage to the skin and predispose to a bacterial skin infection which itself is itchy, so that an itch-scratch cycle becomes established. Eliminating fleas will not stop the itchy skin if there is still a bacterial skin infection present, let alone other underlying issues as already mentioned.

The treatment of an itchy dog has progressed a very long way and it should be possible to formulate a management plan for Maisie, but you will both have to be patient. Working up an itchy dog takes time, but time worth taking.


  1. Is there a reason you haven't asked your vet? this would seem to be the logical first place to start.

  2. You could try walking your dog away from grass for a few day's to see if the scratching improves when your dog is kept of it. I have had a dog that was allergic to a weed that grew in grass, and had a homoeopathic remedy made up to help with it. One remedy that may help your dog if it is grass related is 'Mixed Grasses'. You would probably find it from any of the homoeopathic suppliers on-line. Ask how to adminster this and what dosage to give.

    As for diet, this could also cause itching, particularly if there is cereal in what you are feeding or rice. In fact anything that is in the food could cause a reaction in your dog, and the only way to find out would be to change the diet for 10 to 14 days with something natural that you have perhaps cooked yourself, or bought such as Naturediet.

    Other things that can cause itching in dog's are flea preparations, carpet cleaner or the powder to refresh your carpet, washing powder that you wash the dog's bedding in, especially if you have recently changed it, and of course fleas.

    Also check the anal glands, this can cause itching especially along the spine.

    Definately consult your vet if things don't improve, as there is also a condition that affects the hair follicles as well that can cause intense itching, though this is usually accompanied with hair loss and redness of the skin.

  3. It may be an idea to stop feeding the dry food for a few days to see if it is a wheat related allergy.

  4. some dogs do suffer from 'seasonal allergies' Piriton is safe to try. This might be all that is needed.