Itchiness in Dogs & Cats: The 8 Most Common Reasons [Vet-Approved]

It's a scenario many pet parents are familiar with: watching a fur baby incessantly scratch, nibble, and gnaw at their skin. It can be concerning, especially if the cat or dog itch is accompanied by other skin changes like hair loss, redness, rashes, and so on. 

Since there are various possible causes of itchy skin on pets (e.g. fleas, mites, fungal infections, anxiety, etc.), it can be challenging for pet parents to know what to do next — or to know when to seek veterinary attention. This is why we’ve put together this helpful guide that covers the most common causes of cat or dog itchy skin — as well as what treatment could look like. 

What’s in This Guide?

A cat with cat itch or cat itchy skin scratching their fur

What is Excessive Scratching in Dogs & Cats?

It's normal for dogs and cats to scratch every now and then, so how do we recognize excessive scratching or itching in pets? Excessive scratching in dogs and cats is when they scratch themselves more frequently and intensely than usual. Here's what excessive scratching in pets could look like:

  • Scratching multiple times within a short period;
  • Repetitive scratching towards targeted areas; and
  • Biting or nibling paws or areas of skin.

1. Fleas & Ticks

Fleas are well-known skin parasites. These pests cause itching; they can also be carriers of tapeworm, an intestinal parasite in dogs and cats. Dogs and cats can get fleas from stray animals, backyard wildlife, or from the environment. Fleas can be sneaky pests, leaving some pet parents wondering where exactly their fur baby got it. 

We’ve established that fleas can cause itchy skin — but what about ticks? Unlike flea bites, tick bites do not typically cause itching. However, some pets can be allergic to tick saliva, and this can cause symptoms like irritated red skin and excessive itching. It’s important to remember that ticks can also carry a number of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and more.

Note: There are seasons when ticks and fleas tend to be more prevalent and active. In many areas flea-and-tick season encompasses summer and fall. 

What to Do About Fleas & Ticks

Fleas and ticks can be kept at bay with an effective flea-and-tick prevention strategy which can involve oral medication, topical products, and certain hygiene practices. Reach out to us to learn more about how to treat or prevent fleas and ticks.

→ Learn more - How to Get Rid of Fleas & Ticks on Dogs & Cats

2. Mites (Mange)

Mites, such as ear mites, sarcoptes mites, and demodex mites, are microscopic arthropods that can burrow into the skin and provoke severe itching. There are three main types of mites to look out for:

a. Sarcoptes Mites

Sarcoptes mites, hailing from the genus Sarcoptes, are the cause of sarcoptic mange in dogs and cats. The condition is also known as scabies. This type of mites causes severe itching, hair loss, scabbing, and secondary bacterial infections on affected parts..

Note: Sarcoptes mites are zoonotic, meaning they are capable of being transmitted to people. If you suspect this type of mites in your pet, seek immediate treatment for your pet.

b. Demodex Mites

Demodex mites, hailing from the genus Demodex, cause the condition known as demodectic mange. Demodex mites live in hair follicles and are normal flora on a pet’s skin — they only cause problems when they over multiply. 

As further explained by Dr. Allison Kihn, Sploot’s veterinarian: “Demodex is actually considered a normal fauna of the skin in low levels; the immune system keeps them in check. This is why demodectic mange often occurs when a pet has an immature and/or compromised immune system.”

When the immune system is not able to keep demodex mites in check, these mites cause itching, hair loss, and thickened skin.

c. Ear Mites

Ear mites inhabit the ear canal, causing intense discomfort and itching. When dogs and cats get ear mites, they exhibit symptoms that are common to ear infections in general. Dogs and cats may persistently scratch at their ears or shake their head as a response to the itching feeling. Dark earwax, as well as an unpleasant odor, may also come from the dog’s or cat’s ears. 

What to Do About Mites or Mange

Most cases of mites or mange do NOT go away on their own, and as mentioned above, some mites can be transmitted to people, depending on the species causing the infection. If you suspect any of the above types of mites or mange, it is recommended to get prompt veterinary attention. Veterinarians may prescribe topical or oral medication to treat mites. 

A dog with a dog itch or dog itchy skin which can be caused by dog mites

3. Fungal Infections

Fungal infections can cause a pet to scratch more than usual. One example of a common fungal infection that affects dogs and cats — and causes itching — is yeast infection on the skin (aka Malessezia dermatitis). In addition to itching, a dog or cat with Malessezia dermatitis may also suffer from rashes, crusts, and scales

Note: Not all fungal infections cause itching. Ringworm in dogs and cats, which is a common type of fungal infection, may not lead to itching and scratching. This is why it’s important to also observe changes in the pet’s skin. Scales, rashes, and hair loss are usually associated with skin infections in pets, including those caused by a fungal or bacterial pathogen.

What to Do About Fungal Infections in Dogs & Cats

If a pet gets a fungal infection, it is recommended to see a veterinarian as soon as possible. Early treatment will prevent the further spread of the fungus. Veterinarians can prescribe topical and oral medications for fungal infections in dogs and cats. 

Note: Thorough cleaning may also be a recommended step for treating ringworm, to make sure that fungal spores do not cause reinfection. In addition, ringworm in cats and dogs can infect humans, further necessitating thorough disinfection.

4.  Bacterial Infections

Bacterial infections typically occur when the pet’s skin barrier is broken (due to wounds, scratches, surgical incisions, etc.) — and proper wound care is not administered. There are various species of bacteria that can cause skin infections in dogs and cats. 

Bacterial infections can lead to various symptoms, including redness, peeling of the skin, rash formation, hair loss, and swelling. In more severe bacterial skin infections, pustules or abscesses can be observed as well.

What to Do About Bacterial Infections

Bacterial infections in pets typically do not go away on their own. Therefore, it's crucial for pet parents to consult a veterinarian after observing the signs of a bacterial skin infection. Veterinarians can recommend a suitable treatment plan, which may involve antibiotics, medicated shampoos, or antibacterial ointments.

A cat with a cat itch or itchy skin which can be caused by bacterial infections on the skin of cats

5. Allergies

Allergies in dogs and cats can lead to itching skin and paws, resulting in scratching and chewing on paws — this is true for both seasonal allergies and food allergies. 

Seasonal Allergies 

Pets can get seasonal allergies during spring, summer, and autumn. In fact, it’s one of the common causes of itching in cats and dogs. During certain seasons, allergens from the environment such as mold, dust mites, and pollen can trigger allergic reactions, resulting in itching and discomfort. 

Food Allergies

If seasonal allergies pertain to reactions to floating particles which have seasonal prevalence, food allergies, on the other hand, occur when pets react adversely to certain ingredients in their diet. 

Dogs and cats can be allergic to certain foods that ‘seem’ like regular food for them — allergens can be present in chicken, beef, milk, fish, and so on.

What to Do About Allergies

When dealing with allergies in pets, it is recommended for pet parents to reach out to veterinarians. Veterinarians are able to perform allergy testing so that pet parents can be aware of their fur babies’ allergic triggers. Veterinarians also help pet parents to take the next steps to manage allergies. They can recommend select protein diets, provide anti-itch medication, or administer allergy injections, depending on the pet’s individual needs.

6. Dry Skin

Cat or dog itchy skin is not always caused by an external pathogen. Just like humans, pets can suffer from dry skin, especially during harsh weather conditions. Dry, flaky skin can cause itchiness. 

In addition to harsh weather, using products that are not formulated for dogs and cats can also cause itchy dry skin. Sploot’s veterinarian, Dr. Kihn, gives examples of commonly misused products that can cause dry skin in pets: 

“Dry skin in pets can be caused by using shampoos or soaps that are not formulated for dogs and cats. For example, human products will dry the [pet’s] skin out because dogs, cats, and humans don't have the same skin pH. In addition, to answer a commonly asked question among pet parents, products like Dawn dish soap will dry out the pet’s skin too — because it will remove natural oils from the pet’s skin.”

What to Do About Dry Skin in Dogs & Cats

Ensuring proper hydration, a balanced diet rich in essential fatty acids, and using pet-friendly oatmeal-based shampoo can help alleviate dry skin issues. In some cases, using fatty acid supplements may also help alleviate dry skin in dogs and cats. 

8. Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when pets come into direct contact with certain plants, chemicals, or grooming products that cause irritation. In episodes of contact dermatitis, the pet’s skin reacts by becoming red, inflamed, and itchy. 

What to Do About Contact Dermatitis

If a certain plant, product, or substance is causing contact dermatitis, it is recommended to give the pet a bath to help wash off the substance that’s causing the irritation. If the bath does not relieve the irritation, seek veterinary attention. If necessary, your veterinarian may recommend topical treatments or medications to soothe the dog’s or cat’s skin.

A puppy with a dog itch which can be due to contact dermatitis

7. Anxiety and Stress

Sometimes itching comes from internal causes rather than external ones. Anxiety and stress can manifest physically in pets, leading to excessive grooming and scratching. Compulsive behaviors, such as over-grooming, can result in hair loss and skin irritation which can then lead to more itching and secondary skin infections.

What to Do About Anxiety- or Stress-Related Itching in Pets

Experienced veterinarians will be able to zero-in on the underlying cause of a cat or dog itch by doing a physical exam and conducting needed tests to rule out other causes of itchy skin. Ruling out other causes of a cat or dog itch is essential for conclusively determining if excessive scratching is anxiety- or stress-related.  

If excessive scratching is linked to anxiety or stress, addressing the sources of stress or anxiety is crucial. Veterinarians may also prescribe behavioral modification, environmental enrichment, and, in some cases, medications to help manage anxiety

Final Thoughts About Cat & Dog Itchy Skin

In conclusion, itching and scratching are common issues faced by cats and dogs, often stemming from a variety of underlying causes. Identifying the root cause of your pet's discomfort is essential for providing effective treatment and relief. 

If you think your fur baby is scratching more than usual, an experienced veterinarian from Sploot Vets can make a prompt diagnosis and give effective treatment recommendations. 

Sploot Veterinary Care is a primary & urgent care clinic with multiple convenient locations in Denver and Chicago. We are open 365 days a year, from 10 am to 10 pm

Schedule an appointment today or come on in for a walk-in consultation! Till next time, we’re with you every pounce of the way!

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