Stop That Scratching!

by Nancy Kay, DVM 

If the sounds of a canine  “scratchfest” is interrupting your slumber, or you’re snarling, “Stop scratching!” several times a day, chances are you have an allergic pet on your hands. 

Just as with human hay fever, most dog and cat allergies are the result of an exaggerated immune system response to allergens in the environment such as plant pollens, tree pollens, and mold spores.

The scientific name for this inherited allergic condition is atopy or atopic dermatitis. 

Terriers of any type are notorious atopy sufferers along with Dalmatians, Lhasa Apsos, Shar-peis, Bulldogs, and Labrador Retrievers.

Whereas people are prone to runny nose and eyes, dogs and cats with atopy develop itchy skin, often accompanied by skin and ear infections. 

Symptoms are initially mild and seasonal, but tend to progress year by year in terms of severity and duration.

Fortunately, there are many options for treating atopy including medicated shampoos, antihistamines, fatty acid supplements, and drugs that alter the immune system’s overzealous behavior (cyclosporine, cortisone).  Just as for people, immunotherapy can be used after specific testing is done to determine which allergens are provoking the immune response. Elimination of exposure to the allergens may also be an option (a good excuse to move to Hawaii!).

Some dogs develop allergies to their food.  

This can result in year round itchy skin, ear infections, and/or gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, gassiness).  If a food allergy is suspected, your veterinarian will recommend an “elimination food trial.”  This requires strict adherence (including elimination of your pet’s favorite treats) to feeding a novel protein diet for six to eight weeks. There are many such diets to choose from these days that contain duck, rabbit, venison, salmon, and even kangaroo! If the chronic symptoms disappear in response to the diet change, voila, the diagnosis of food allergy has been made. One must then hope that, over time, the animal doesn’t develop an allergy to the new diet!

Lastly, some dogs develop an allergy to fleas, more specifically, to the flea’s saliva.  

Whereas many fleas are required to cause most animals to scratch like crazy, for those with a flea allergy, just one bite is all it takes to set off an intensely itchy reaction that can last for days. The best treatment for this allergy is stringent flea control, or relocation to Colorado; fleas don’t survive in high altitude locations!

‘Tis the season for fleas and seasonal atopy.

Do you have an itchy dog on your hands?  If so, what will your strategy be to soothe your pet’s itch and preserve your sanity?

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Articles by Dr. Kay:
Reasonable Expectations: The Ability to Discuss Your Internet Research With Your Vet
Finding Dr. Wonderful And Your Mutt's Mayo Clinic: Getting Started
Even The Best Veterinarian Can Make A Mistake
A Different Way to Spay
Making Tough Medical Decisions For Your Dog: Lily's Story
If You Don't Know What A Lick Granuloma Is, Count Your Blessings!
Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleaning 
Talking Teeth 
Urinary Accidents
I Can't Believe He Ate That! Foreign Body Ingestion 
What Caused Murphy's And Ruska'sPneumothorax?
The Whole Picture: When The Test Results Don't Match What's In Front Of You