Scratching the right spot – skin problems among dogs

Vets Corner

Skin irritation can be very distressing for your dog and it’s often difficult to work out just what’s causing it. Here, Paul Boland looks at some of the causes of itchy patches – as well as what can be done to remedy the problem.

The medical term for itching and scratching is ‘pruritus’, and this can be caused by a number of factors, the major one being allergy. The number of dogs with allergies that I see has increased dramatically in recent years; in fact, it’s probably one of the most common reasons dog owners take their dog to the vet. Genetic history plays a role in how allergy- prone a dog is, but all breeds can be affected.

To have an allergic reaction the dog must be exposed to the allergen at least twice. The first exposure causes the immune system to manufacture antibodies to the particular allergy-causing agent; subsequent exposures then trigger the allergen antibody reaction, which releases histamine, the chemical mediator responsible for the reaction.

In dogs, an allergic reaction is more likely to show up on the skin. The reaction can be immediate, generally resulting in hives or raised, circular, itchy wheals on the skin of the face and elsewhere. The hair sticks out in little patches and sometimes the eyelids are swollen. In severe cases this can result in anaphylactic shock accompanied by breathing problems, vomiting or diarrhoea.

On the other hand, the reaction may appear hours or even days later, with a reaction that tends to cause intense itching. Although common, when the reaction is delayed, it can be much more difficult to identify the cause.

What’s more, the itching and scratching of the skin can lead to secondary infections, so creating a vicious cycle of yet more itchiness and scratching.

The major sources of allergies include: biting insects like fleas; inhaled allergens such as house dust mites, grasses and pollens; allergens in food; and contact allergens, caused by direct contact of the allergen with the skin. Pharmaceutical drugs also cause a great deal of allergic reactions in dogs. For instance, hives can occur after vaccination or a course of penicillin, tetracycline and many other antibiotics. If none of these has caused your dog’s itching, you should also investigate topical insecticides and soaps occur after vaccination or a course of penicillin, tetracycline and many other antibiotics. If none of these has caused your dog’s itching, you should also investigate topical insecticides and soaps.

The standard veterinary approach to allergic reactions is a drug—either antihistamines or corticosteroids. But as with many drug treatments, both of these usually only suppresses the clinical symptoms and they can have side-effects. Antihistamines only work in a small number of cases and can cause sleepiness. And although corticosteroids work very well, they often come with major long-term side-effects.

I am uncomfortable with this approach, especially if it means treating an allergic reaction to a drug with yet another drug.

I see many dogs and cats with pruritus and I’ve discovered many effective, natural ways to prevent skin problems.


One of the best things you can do for your dog is to choose a high-quality, well- balanced diet.

While the exact ratios can vary, the food you buy for your dog should be about 50% meat and 50% vegetables. If you must choose a food that contains grains, try to find one with rolled oats, barley or brownrice. A human diet is not ideal for a dog, so give human food sparingly, if at all, or at least in the correct ratios for a dog. It’s not uncommon for people to overfeed their dogs by giving them leftover people food such as ice cream; even table scraps often consist of fat rather than meat protein, and the scraps themselves can be a source of potential allergy-causing ingredients. Be careful of raw meat as this can contain bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter.

When food allergy is suspected, modify your dog’s diet to eliminate the potential allergen. Introduce any new food very gradually as this will allow the enzymes in the intestines to adjust, preventing stomach upsets. Start by feeding with a proportion of 1/10 new food to 9/10 old food and gradually alter the balance over the next 10 days or so until it’s 100% new food. Measure out your dog’s food every day using a cup with a line drawn at the correct level.

Weight control

Keeping your dog at the correct weight is helpful, as fat cells secrete cytokines that contribute to inflammation and so can contribute to skin allergies and other skin diseases. Numerous studies and clinical investigations have been conducted on the metabolism of omega-3 fatty acids in domestic animals and humans.

The importance of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is now becoming better understood, and both are now known to have significant benefits by protecting against inflammatory diseases.

Omega natural oil (DHA and EPA) are currently believed to be essential for the maintenance of healthy skin function, immune function and inflammatory response. These seem to work by inhibiting the production of the proinflammatory eicosanoids and leukotrienes.

I would recommend an orally administered fish oil supplement that delivers high levels of both DHA and EPA. An average size Cocker Spaniel, for example, should be given least 500mg of EPA and 360mg of DHA per day, plus at least 1 g of lecithin every day. Lecithin contains phosphatidylcholine, which is thought to assist in the transport and utilization of fatty acids and lipoproteins.

Bee propolis

I have used bee propolis based products very successfully for pruritus and its secondary infections. Bees harvest propolis for maintaining their hives; they line the hive with propolis to make it a sterile environment—indeed, more sterile than an operating theatre. Propolis has antiviral, antibiotic and antifungal properties. It’s also high in flavonoids, which are thought to have antimicrobial effects.

I would also advise applying propolis (as a balm, cream, ointment, lotion or extract) directly onto the affected skin as this may help to speed up skin healing.

Coat care

Your dog’s skin should always be kept clean and the coat well groomed. Tangle- and matted-free hair helps promote healthy skin. Bathing can remove any allergy-causing agents from the skin, and regular brushing will help to distribute oils throughout the skin and hair. External parasites like fleas can be difficult to control, but it is essential to prevent such infestations as they can cause hair loss and itchiness because many dogs suffer from allergic reactions to flea saliva.

If you follow this programme and use the suggested supplements regularly, expect to see improvement in your dog’s hives within a week or so and, as a bonus, a dog with a far glossier coat and healthier skin to boot.

Does your dog suffer from fur conditions? Come and browse our skin and coat care range of natural medicine for dogs.