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itchy skin in dogs

Why Is My Pet So Itchy? A Veterinarian’s Tips on Tackling Pet Allergies

The most common condition I treat at my animal hospital is pet allergies. Unlike humans, who present with runny noses, coughing, sneezing, or red watery eyes when allergies attack, pets develop skin infections, ear infections, and itchiness as a response to allergies. So today, I would like to help answer some of the questions most commonly asked by my pet parents dealing with itchy skin in dogs and cats.

What are the Most Common Reasons for Itchy Skin in Dogs and Cats?

Food Allergies

There are two different types of allergies to foods in dogs – a hypersensitivity reaction and a food intolerance. A hypersensitivity reaction involves the body’s immune system which produces a reaction when exposed to an allergen over time. Food intolerance can occur with the first exposure to a particular food and is commonly seen in young animals.

Both types of allergy, hypersensitivity or intolerance, can present in the same way and be difficult to tell apart without veterinary guidance. Contrary to common belief, pets with food allergies are generally allergic to the protein from animal- or plant-based ingredients in their diet. The proteins are broken down into molecules that the immune system misidentifies as foreign and a threat to the body. Chicken, beef, and eggs are the most common types of food allergies, but sometimes we see soy and gluten allergies as well.

Flea Allergies

Flea allergies are caused by flea bites and are a very common cause of itchy skin in dogs and cats. The saliva in the flea bite causes a severe itchy response and many times a secondary skin infection. The most common clinical signs you may see are hair loss, scratching, chewing, open and oozing sores, skin damage due to scratching and licking, and biting intensely at the tail, hind end, and legs.


Some pets may have a genetic predisposition to developing allergies to environmental allergens such as pollens, grasses, or soils. The most common clinical signs you may see are licking at the paws (many times after coming in from outside), generalized hair loss, scratching, chewing, or biting intensely, skin damage due to scratching/licking, and ear infections.

What are the Treatment Options for Pet Allergies?

The first step is to work with your veterinarian to determine if your pet is actually suffering from allergies and if so, the cause of the allergic reaction. A food allergy requires placing your pet on a prescription hypoallergenic diet. If your pet is allergic to fleas, veterinarians can prescribe flea preventatives that are very effective and, most importantly, safe for your pets. Environmental allergies are more difficult to treat, but there are many options available. Work with your veterinarian to determine what works best to relieve itchy skin in your dogs or cats.

The second step is to have your veterinarian determine the type of infection your pet has for proper treatment. Many times, your veterinarian will recommend skin scrapes, skin cytology, cultures, or bloodwork to assess the type of infection and treat accordingly.

What Can I Do to Relieve Itchy Skin in Dogs and Cats?

Your veterinarian needs to assess your pet and make a treatment plan. There are many treatments available, and every pet is unique. Treatment regimens need to be prescribed by your veterinarian.

While all allergies are different, here is my top list for treatment of allergies and associated skin infections:

  • Proper monthly flea preventative
  • Hypoallergenic diet, if diagnosed with food allergies.
  • Weekly prescription medicated shampoos for active skin infections
  • Healthy skin supplementation
  • Antibiotics
  • Antifungals
  • Antihistamines
  • Proper and effective flea and tick preventatives
  • Immuno-suppressants
  • Hypoallergenic vaccinations
  • Steroids
  • Immunotherapy
  • Referral to veterinarian dermatologist, if itching is severe

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, allergies are a common problem for our furry friends. However, there are many things we can do to help. I try and stress to my pet parents that while allergies in pets are not curable, they are manageable. As a small animal veterinarian, my ultimate goal is to relieve your pet as much as possible and provide him or her with fewer breakouts, less itching, and more comfort. Speak with your veterinarian to discuss an appropriate treatment plan for your pet’s allergies!

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