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Scratching and Biting and Licking, Oh My!

closeup of a cat in sunshine, scratching her head

The incessant jingle of your dog’s collar as he scratches at his ears. Your cat’s constant chewing that leaves her with bald spots. Our pets’ chronic skin problems can be enough to drive us nuts — but think about how THEY must feel!

We all know what it’s like to have a horribly itchy bug bite. We do our very best not to scratch, but the urge can often be overwhelming. For dogs and cats who don’t understand the concept of “leave it alone or you’ll make it worse,” untreated cases of pruritus —  the medical term for the sensation that is derived from the Latin prurire, meaning “itch” — can lead to serious medical issues. Chronic itching is an extremely common problem and accounts for about 25% of the cases for which veterinarians see their patients.

There are five main causes of dermatitis, or skin inflammation, that can make your dog or cat unbearably itchy. Consequently, a trip to your veterinarian as soon as the problem starts is essential to figure out the cause — or causes — and determine the proper treatment that will give your fur buddy relief.

Read on to learn the five most common causes of your pet’s pruritus.

1) Parasites
Bites from fleas, mites, chiggers, gnats, and mosquitoes can make your dog or cat extremely itchy. If not properly treated, the constant scratching, biting and chewing caused by those bites — as well as allergic reactions to the insect’s saliva — can lead to hair loss, scabs and infections. Mites are particularly nasty critters that cause serious conditions such as mange and scabies — yikes!

Fortunately, there are plenty of effective medications on the market to both treat parasite bites and infestations, and help prevent them in the first place. Regular doses of the preventative medicine your vet recommends is the most effective way of keeping your dog or cat free from the parasites that can lead to pruritus. And if your pet does develop an infestation, your vet will provide just the right cure.

2) Environmental allergies
Just like us, our pets can develop allergies to just about everything in the environment, including plant material, dust, and fibers — both synthetic and natural. Simply put, an allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to a generally harmless substance. When a person with an allergy comes into contact with that substance, called an allergen, their immune system reacts by producing antibodies that attach themselves to special cells called “mast cells.” When the mast cells come into contact with the allergen, they release something called histamine, which causes pruritus in dogs and cats.

Unfortunately, allergies don’t have cures, but the good news is that with proper care, they can be managed. Your veterinarian will help determine whether your pet’s itching is allergy-related, likely through a series of tests, and then develop an appropriate plan to provide relief. Treatment could involve a combination of avoiding the allergen that is causing the reaction, a series of shots that will slowly desensitize your pet to the allergen, oral medications, and topical applications such as shampoos, ointments, and sprays.

3) Food reactions
What your pet eats can also cause chronic itching. Just as with environmental allergens, the ingredients found in pet food can cause allergic reactions in some dogs and cats. The most common food allergens are also the most common ingredients found in pet foods, including beef, chicken, and wheat. In addition to allergens, poor quality ingredients and a general lack of nutritional value in some foods can deprive your pet of the nourishment they need to keep their bodies healthy — including their skin and coat — which can lead to pruritus.

As with parasites and environmental allergens, you’ll need to consult with your veterinarian to determine whether your pet’s constant itching is food-related. If so, your doctor can recommend a diet that will clear up the problem.

4) Infections
Fungal, yeast and bacterial infections can all cause pruritus in pets. Sometimes these infections are the main cause of the chronic itching, while other times — especially in the case of bacterial infections —  they’re the result of the constant scratching, biting and chewing that results when pruritus is left untreated. The damaged skin and open sores can become a breeding ground, leading to a secondary infection that can make your pet’s itchy skin even worse. That’s why it’s so important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian at the first sign of scratching.

Symptoms of infection include moist, inflamed lesions; greasy or waxy discharge; and a foul odor. Your veterinarian will be able to properly diagnose and treat an infection.

5) The mystery cause
In some rare cases, after all the proper tests have been completed, the cause of a pet’s pruritus remains a mystery. In these cases, it seems that the issue is more emotional than biological, and the problem could be caused by separation anxiety, frustration, confinement or even boredom. In these cases, vets will often do their best to treat the symptoms and recommend a behaviorist to help get to the root of the problem.

Pruritus is more than just an annoyance for both you and your pet. It’s a condition that — if left untreated — can lead to serious medical problems. So, when you hear that constant jingling or notice a bald spot, don’t wait — schedule an appointment with your veterinarian right away!