Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
If your dog is constantly scratching and biting himself, you know you have a problem. Identifying the exact problem though can turn out to be a challenge. Dogs can scratch and bite themselves for a variety of reasons. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec in the article below shares common causes for dogs constantly scratching and biting themselves.
Why Is My Dog Constantly Biting and Scratching?
If you have ever had an itch, you can relate to how your dog feels when it is constantly scratching, licking, or biting itself.
Best-case scenarios, itching, and scratching are annoying, and worst-case scenarios things escalate into self-inflicted wounds prone to infections. Plus, an extremely itchy dog will wake up solely to scratch.
But, what are the reasons for dogs constantly scratching and biting themselves? Are all dogs equally prone to these issues? And what can be done to help an itchy dog? What are the treatments and prevention methods?
6 Causes of Dogs Constantly Scratching and Biting
Scratching is a multifactorial issue in dogs, meaning it can be caused by various skin–related problems and others occurring in distant locations. Here are the most common causes of scratching in dogs.
1. Dry skin
A top cause for itchiness in dogs is dry skin. Dry skin can be caused by inadequate bathing (products and frequency), environmental conditions, or nutritional deficiencies like lack of omega fatty acids.
Sometimes, dry skin is triggered by a combination of these factors.
The second most common cause of constant itching in dogs is allergies. Dogs are sensitive to various allergens and can develop different types of allergies, including food, contact, and environmental allergies.
Unlike people who usually manifest allergies with runny noses and sneezing, dogs are more likely to show skin lesions and excessive scratching.
Fleas, ticks, and mites are notorious for their ability to trigger itchiness. Plus, they are rarely noticed during the early phases and once spotted, the condition is already progressed.
Intestinal parasites can also cause itchy skin. Namely, they decrease the skin and coat health which over time leads to drying and itchiness.
4. Hormonal Imbalances
Hormone imbalances can decrease the dog’s defenses and make the skin more susceptible to superficial skin infections.
The most common hormonal culprits are lack of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism) and overproduction of cortisol (hyperadrenocorticism).
In both cases, the skin changes and excessive scratching will be accompanied by a myriad of signs and symptoms.
5. Genetic Disorders
Generations of inbreeding lead to genetic disorders, and some of them manifest with excessive scratching.
For example, over 70 percent of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are affected by a genetic condition known as syringomyelia. The main issue is nerve fiber damage in the spinal cord, but it usually triggers a crawling to burning skin sensations manifesting with excessive scratching.
6. Infected Anal Glands
Unless regularly expressed, the anal glands often accumulate secretions that, once infected, serve as a breeding ground for bacteria.
The bacteria make the dog feel itchy, especially in the back region—butt, tail, groins, back legs. Poor dietary choices and sedentary lifestyles contribute to anal gland issues.
How to Help a Dog Who Is Constantly Scratching and Biting Himself
The exact scratching treatment depends on the underlying cause. However, generally speaking, there are several steps you can take to prevent or relieve itchy skin.
Sometimes combining several approaches yields maximum results. Here are some simple, yet efficient, ways you can help an itchy dog.
1. Use *Prescription* Medications
The accent here is put on the word prescription, meaning the decision to medicate your dog must be approved and monitored by your veterinarian.
The vet will evaluate the overall situation and recommend the best meds for your dog’s unique condition.
For example, a dog with allergies needs antihistamines and corticosteroids, while a dog with skin infections needs antibiotics and topical treatments.
Keep in mind that, some meds do not address the underlying issue, but only the symptoms. Also, long-term use of certain medications can cause adverse effects.
2. Try a Different Diet
Food allergies in dogs are pretty common, so putting your dog on a low allergy food can yield positive results. Simple food brand switching though is rarely enough.
You should review the ingredients in your dog’s old diet and ensure the new one is free from these potentially allergenic compounds.
The ideal food choice would be a limited ingredient food with a protein source your dog has never tasted before. For example, if your dog has eaten chicken, lamb, and beef, it is time to get food with venison, fish, or rabbit.
Raw diets are both limited ingredient and low allergen diets. Plus, they allow choosing several nutrient-dense ingredients and serve them with minimal processing. However, do not forget that raw diets come with certain risks too.
3. Consider Anti-Parasite Treatments
Preventing parasitic infestations is critical not just for itchy dogs, but also for all pets and for protecting yourself. When dealing with flea infestations treating the dog is not enough—you will also need to thoroughly clean the house and give preventatives to all household pets.
Mite infestations can be equally challenging and usually require using anti-parasitic shampoos or prescribed medications in more severe cases.
Finally, keeping your dog free from intestinal parasites requires regular de-worming. The exact de-worming protocol (frequency and de-wormer type) depends on your dog’s age, lifestyle, and where you live.
4. Wipe Your Dog After Walks
It is impossible to limit your dog’s exposure to environmental allergens. Therefore instead of preventing, you should focus on managing.
For example, a good way of dealing with allergens is wiping your dog after walks—especially wiping the paws and belly, as these body parts are most likely to contact allergens while walking.
We should note that wiping does not entirely remove the environmental allergens from your dog’s skin. However, it will limit the number of allergens entering the home and reduce the risk of spreading the allergens all over the body by scratching.
As long as your dog does not mind wearing them, raincoats and dog shoes are efficient tools for keeping environmental allergens at bay. Even if your dog is not a big fan of such apparel, he can get used to wearing accessories over time.
5. Limit Exposure to Airborne Allergens
Airborne allergens are tricky to manage—pollen, molds, dust mites are everywhere and hard to avoid. Therefore, totally preventing exposure to airborne allergens is impossible. What is possible is to limit the exposure.
Managing the environment inside your home is much easier. All you need to do is be diligent about maintaining your house clean – practice regular vacuuming and install special HEPA filters to clean the circulating air.
Outside we recommend avoiding locations dense with your dog’s particular allergen. For example, if your dog is allergic to pollen, avoid walking in woods, meadows or places with lots of trees and flowers.
6. Bathe Your Dog Regularly
Bathing your dog is an excellent way of removing allergens stuck on the skin and coat. Plus, it will remove loose hairs and help with shedding issues. However, there is one caveat—you need to be mindful about the shampoo selection.
Namely, most dog shampoos tend to dry the skin, thus worsening the itch-causing issue. Therefore you need to invest in a high-quality moisturizing shampoo. Such shampoos usually contain ingredients like oats, coconut oil, and aloe vera.
Remember that excess bathing can contribute to many skin issues meaning you should not over-bathe your dog.
Also, avoid blow-drying your dog, as this method adds to the drying effect. Instead, let your dog shake the water and then towel dry it.
7. Add Omega Supplements to Your Dog's Menu
Omega 3 fatty acids have natural anti-inflammatory properties and can significantly relieve dogs with itchy skin. In some cases, the use of omega fatty acids can make antihistamines obsolete. Omegas will help your dog on various levels, not just with the itchiness.
The best omega source for dogs is fish oil. Always choose fish oil made of wild-caught, cold-water fish like salmon or mackerel. The dosing guidelines depend on your dog’s size and will be provided by the manufacturer.
If you are unsure about implementing fish oil, do not hesitate to talk to your vet. Also, keep in mind that fish oil is caloric.
If your dog is on a particular diet regimen, you would need to consider the oil’s calories when counting the daily caloric intake.
So why is your dog constantly scratching and biting himself? As seen, extreme itchiness in dogs can be caused by several issues, with dry skin and adverse food reactions being the most common.
However, environmental allergies and external parasites are not very behind on the list.
The bad news is scratching is quite annoying and unpleasant, thus seek immediate veterinary attention. The good news is that most itchy skin causes are not life-threatening and, once correctly diagnosed, they can be successfully treated.
All in all, if your dog is waking up in the middle of the night for a scratching session, licking its paws to the point of creating skin sores, or he's obsessed with biting his own tail, call your favorite vet and schedule an appointment.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
FlourishAnyway from USA on September 13, 2021:
Bless their hearts, they are such sensitive creatures and it can be such a process of elimination to figure out what the culprit is. You do a great job in the article laying out what the possibilities are.
Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on September 11, 2021:
very useful post
JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on September 11, 2021:
My dog likes to bite stuff. Many resources I read said that my dog probably needs a lot of physical activity. But since the pandemic started, we rarely go out. This is probably the reason for her need to bite stuff in the house.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 11, 2021:
Your advice about consulting a vet for issues like these is good. If we experienced itchy skin we would want help. That is the least we should do to help our canine buddies.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 11, 2021:
You have covered the causes and treatments for constant scratching very well, Adrienne. I never thought about dogs having hormonal problems, but it makes sense. This is another excellent article.