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Why does my pet scratch?


Scratching (pruritus) in animals can occur for a variety of reasons. In order for the vet to find out why your pet is scratching he/she may have to determine the following:


1)     Do you use regular parasite control?

Your vet may look for flea dirt in your pet’s coat or may deem it necessary to do skin scrapes. This involves using a scalpel blade to scratch the surface of the skin until it bleeds and collect samples. This allows the vet to see if there are any burrowing mites present. Other tests which may be done include sellotape strips to look for yeasts and hair plucks to check for ringworm.


2)     Are any of the other animals in the house scratching and/ or do you, the owner, have any bites?

The answer to these questions will provide guidance as to whether parasites could be involved in causing the scratching.


3)     What does your pet eat?

About 1 – 10 {c30ddf26c8e8213cb48863ffab783535ab04d34a51b7feafd4298625679b40f0} of animals that scratch are found to be allergic to a protein in their food. The most common proteins that cause allergy are beef, chicken and lactose. In order to ascertain whether food is involved in your pet’s pruritus, your vet may recommend an exclusion diet. This involves feeding your pet a novel protein for a minimum of six weeks. No other foods should be offered during this trial so that it can be seen if there has been a reduction in your pet’s scratching.


4)     Where does your pet scratch?

The parts of the body affected by your pet’s scratching can provide the vet with information which can be important in reaching a diagnosis.


5)     Is your pet’s scratching seasonal?

This information can be vital to the vet in helping to find out if your pet could be suffering from allergic skin disease known as ATOPY. This is a common skin disease in the dog – west highland white terriers, boxers, bull dogs and english setters may be predisposed. The main complaint is itch and signs usually appear between 1 – 3 years of age. Itch is concentrated on the feet, underside and face. Affected animals may also suffer from repeated ear infections.

Eye infections and sneezing may also occur in a small percentage of cases. In order to confirm that your pet is atopic, the vet is likely to perform a number of tests to rule out other possibilities before going on to confirm atopic skin disease. When atopy is suspected, it can be confirmed by one of the two following tests –

  1. Blood testing – this is done to try and confirm what your pet is allergic to
  2. Referral to a skin specialist (Dermatologist) for an intradermal skin test. An intradermal skin test involves injecting small amounts of potential allergens under your pet’s skin. (This may be done under mild sedation). If your pet is allergic a red lump (wheal ) will develop at the injection
  3. Once it has been determined what your pet is allergic to, the result of these tests allow a desensitisation vaccine to be produced. This program involves injecting your pet with very small volumes of diluted allergens over a period of time to desensitise your pet’s responses.This is said to offer complete control in approximately 30{c30ddf26c8e8213cb48863ffab783535ab04d34a51b7feafd4298625679b40f0} of cases and significant improvement in approximately 20{c30ddf26c8e8213cb48863ffab783535ab04d34a51b7feafd4298625679b40f0} of cases.


6)     Is your pet otherwise well?

There are some systemic conditions that can cause secondary skin complaints. Sometimes it may be necessary to take blood for a general health profile to ensure there is no primary systemic illness. Skin disease in pets is not always straight forward and it may take several tests before a diagnosis and treatment plan can be made.


Some of the following may form part of your pet’s treatment regime:

  • Antibiotics – if your pet has any infection (pyoderma) in his/her skin, this will perpetuate the A superficial infection may need 3 weeks of antibiotics whereas a deep pyoderma may need 4 -–12 weeks of therapy.


  • Regular parasiticide treatment – This is particularly important in animals with flea allergic dermatitis.


  • Shampoos – Topical antibacterial/ antifungal shampoos can be an important adjunctive Regular shampooing can also help to provide relief to atopic animals by reducing surface allergens.


  • Steroids – These will help to reduce the symptoms (the itch) in animals but does not treat the cause. As steroids have side effects (increase in appetite, thirst and urination) it is important that, if they form the mainstay of therapy, that a minimum effective dose is reached.


  • Antihistamines ; – Various different antihistamines exist and one antihistamine may work better in one pet than another. Antihistamineson their own, control about 10 – 15 {c30ddf26c8e8213cb48863ffab783535ab04d34a51b7feafd4298625679b40f0} of allergic skin disease. Each antihistamine should be trialed for 6 – 9 weeks before its efficacy can be judged. They can be used as an adjunct to steroid therapy in an attempt to reduce the steroid dose to a minimum.


  • Desensitisation vaccine protocol – Immunotherapy may be instigated following results of of intradermal skin testing or allergy blood


  • Exclusion diet – Your vet may recommend a minimum 6 week novel protein diet to rule out a diagnosis of food hypersensitivity (allergy).


  • Free fatty acids – e.g. EfaVet, evening primrose oils, fish oils etc – these can help to improve coat quality.


  • Atopica (cyclosporin) – This is a specific therapy, in the form of capsules, that can be used to treat atopy Its use can only be recommended once a definitive diagnosis of atopy is made.


  • Cytopoint injections are injections that are given once a month and have a cumulative effect so can be given at longer intervals. They are expensive but very effective with very few side effects as they just target the itch cells.


It can be quite helpful to the vet to grade your animal’s pruritus (itchiness) out of ten ( 10/10 being the most itchy and 1/10 being the least). This can help to monitor response to treatment.