Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.
If your dog is scratching at his face, ears, and back until he bleeds, or is licking himself constantly, you need to get him help. You also need to find out why your dog is scratching all of the time in the first place. The cause of the scratching may be simple and something you can take care of quickly, or it may require a proper diagnosis by a veterinarian.
Certain Breeds Are Predisposed to Allergies
What Is the Most Common Cause of Scratching in Dogs?
Despite all of the chemicals on the market, fleas are still the most common cause of itching and scratching in dogs, and scratching is the number one reason people take their dogs to the vet. Do you have any idea how many times your vet hears, "It can't be fleas. My dog doesn't have fleas!" every day? The first thing to do before you even take your dog in for an exam because of excessive scratching is to check for the obvious: fleas.
Determine if your dog has fleas by doing the following:
- Run a flea comb (they are cheap and well worth keeping around) through the hair along your dog's back, especially over the rump and tail head.
- You might see a few of the bugs after collecting this sample. Even if you do not, you will see black flakes or “flea dirt." Flea dirt is actually dried blood that the fleas pass in their stool after dining on your dog.
- Not sure if it's flea dirt? Take the sample collected from your dog and drop it onto a wet paper towel. If it is indeed dried blood, it will turn red when wet, thus confirming the presence of fleas.
Some dogs even become allergic to flea saliva and will be miserable from the constant scratching, so control this problem early before the fleas become established in your home and yard. Buy a flea control chemical (pill or spot-on/topical treatment) from your vet or from a certified supplier. Also, consider proven, alternative flea control methods such as non-chemical flea treatments.
Don't Let Skin Issues Go Untreated
What If Fleas Aren't Causing the Scratching?
No flea dirt? The problem may be tougher to diagnose, but it can definitely be solved. Other common causes of excessive scratching include:
- Mange: If she seems to itch so badly that she cannot even sleep, you need to consider mange. The most common type of mange is sarcoptic mange, which can also affect people. (You might notice small, itchy bites around your waist.) You will have to take her in for a diagnosis by a veterinarian, but there are several good alternative therapies you can try. The other type of mange, demodectic mange, does not cause the intense itching that is seen with sarcoptic mange. With demodectic mange, you will notice hair loss which is sometimes accompanied by a secondary bacterial infection and mild to moderate itching.
- Contact Allergies: If she licks and chews at her feet all of the time, there is a good chance she has a contact allergy. Contact allergies to a food dish will cause the dog to have redness and itching around the mouth, and contact allergies to a shampoo will make the dog itchy wherever the shampoo is used. Contact allergies are a lot less common than fleas or mange, but if you want to try and rule out this problem, you need to get rid of everything that the dog comes into contact with. Once the trigger is identified, the problem can be solved.
- Food Allergies: If she itches all over, has swollen ears and GI issues, she may have food allergies. Several types of food can cause allergies, and the only way to find out which ingredient is triggering the allergy is by eliminating all of the potential allergens and feeding something totally new. It is not sufficient to just switch brands of commercial kibble since many of them use the same fillers and the dog may continue to have problems. Once a good diet is found, you can keep the dog on that food or start adding the old components back in slowly until you have found out what she is allergic to. (This is called a challenge diet.)
- Environmental Allergies: Allergies to environmental allergens (pollens from trees, grass, weeds, etc.) will also cause dogs to itch. Dogs with inhalant allergies might have problems at the same time every year, or the allergen might be something in the house and cause year-round problems. The only way to find out what is causing the problem is by allergy testing. The results are not very reliable, but it is the only test available.
- Fungal and Bacterial Infections: Itching and scratching may not be the main signs you notice when your dog has a fungal or bacterial infection. The itching may be pretty mild compared to the hair loss and the nasty smell. The dog might have patches of infected skin (hot spots) or have a generalized infection.
Is This Dog Naturally Hairless?
How Can Scratching Be Treated?
There are a lot of great products introduced every year, or you can use natural flea control.
Medication for Mange
This will depend on what type of mange your dog has. Sarcoptes will cause your dog to scratch until he bleeds, but it can sometimes clear up with something as simple as a single injection. Demodectic mange is harder to treat, but will not cause your dog to be as miserable.
Remove the Allergen From the Environment
This may not be easy, but if your dog is allergic to dust mites, for example, there are things you can do to reduce their buildup in the home.
Allergy Injections (Immunotherapy)
This method of controlling inhalant allergies may not be very effective but it is an option.
If the other causes of scratching are ruled out, it is a good idea to try a challenge diet. Your dog can be fed a new protein source for several months to see if the allergy symptoms clear up.
Bathing May Effectively Reduce Environmental Allergies
How to Provide Relief for Your Dog
If your dog is scratching a lot and you need to give him some temporary relief, your veterinarian might suggest:
- Steroids: Although steroids affect your dog's immune system and have adverse side effects if given for a long time, in the short term, they can provide a lot of relief for itchy skin and are still used frequently. If your dog is in so much discomfort that he is not able to sleep at night, this is definitely something to consider.
- Cyclosporine and Apoquel: Both of these drugs can provide your dog with some temporary relief when steroids are not effective. Since allergies are caused by an immune system that is overactive, both of these drugs act by suppressing the immune system and cause your dog to produce fewer of the cells that make him itch and scratch; they should never be used long term.
- Antihistamines: Some antihistamines are safe and have been used for years. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they do not.
- Bathing: Bathing can be an excellent solution for scratching. Cleaning your dog's skin with shampoo can moisturize the inflamed skin, help with contact allergies, and even help to reduce inhalant allergies that are picked up from the environment. Bathing your dog every time you notice him scratching a lot can end up taking a lot of time, but in some cases, it can be one of the most effective therapies available.
- Dietary Supplements: Omega fatty acids improve the quality of the skin and make your dog less likely to scratch if the inflammation is minor. Some antioxidants like vitamin C will also improve the quality of your dog's skin. These products take longer to provide your dog with some relief, so you will need to start more immediate therapies concurrently.
- Antibiotics: Most clients expect antibiotics when they take their dog in for skin allergies, but these are only helpful if the skin is infected from scratching or the dog has deep dermatitis like demodectic mange.
- Alternative Therapies: Apple cider vinegar (this is the brand of organic apple cider vinegar that I use) is an effective natural remedy for scratching. Just add a teaspoon to your dog's drinking water to alkalinize his body or spray a dilute solution (half ACV and half water) on the skin to keep it acidic and keep yeast from proliferating. Not all veterinarians will discuss these alternative therapies with you, so you might need to read about them and consult a holistic vet. If you want to avoid the negative side effects of therapies like chronic steroids and other immunosuppressant drugs, then changing to ACV and some herbal cures may be of some benefit.
It Is Your Responsibility to Help Your Dog
There is no excuse for letting your dog scratch himself raw. If he is in so much pain that he is bleeding, your dog needs help. If your dog has fleas, take care of it right away and avoid further problems. If he has any of the other problems that I have pointed out in this article, it will take more effort to help him. Be sure to address the problem as soon as possible.
- Natural Dog Health: Allergies
In holistic veterinary medicine symptoms like itchy skin and allergies to flea bites are considered to be caused by poor quality food, over vaccination, and continual exposure to toxins in the environment. These are some alternative treatments for do
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.
Questions & Answers
Question: We just recently got a puppy and he has been scratching 24/7 for over a month. Several vet visits and $500 later he still has no relief. We have tried steroids, antibiotics, special shampoo, skin tests and still nothing. I hate to give up the dog but the vet said it will get even more expensive. Any ideas I could try?
Answer: If the puppy is itching all of the time then sarcoptic mange should be considered. Even if the test is negative, it can be treated and the dogs response to therapy will let you know if that is the problem.
Please consult a veterinary dermatologist. Make sure that you have all of your dogs medical records to present to him at the time of the visit.
Question: Along with excessive scratching, my German Shepherd has lost all of his hair. He also lost 20 pounds; is there more wrong with him that no vet can tell me?
Answer: Have you taken him to your vet? From the symptoms you describe, it sounds a lot like sarcoptic mange, a disease that causes such furious itching that the animals stop eating. Many wild foxes die from this disease since when it starts they itch so badly that they stop hunting and starve to death.
Have you treated him with ivermectin for sarcoptic mange? Even if the vet cannot find it, a trial treatment is worth it. If the vet you are seeing is not willing to give it a shot, get a second opinion. See a veterinary dermatologist.
Do not let your GSD go on suffering like that. It is a horrible way to live and die.
Question: Will having your dog allergy tested give true results?
Answer: If you are talking about the skin test, there is a lot of controversy on the subject. Some vets will perform this test, but the results are usually so poor that many will not even do so anymore.
The blood test is also not very helpful. Some veterinary dermatologists will still perform this test to make up allergy shots that are more likely to help your dog. The results of the allergy shots are also not that good.
© 2012 Dr Mark
If your dog scratches excessively and needs help, leave a question or comment.
John Phoenix on April 09, 2020:
Our 11 month old cross rescue pup is scratching a lot during the evening and nibbling her Paws, as if they are itching too. We've checked her retriever like light coloured coat for flees and are happy that she's clear. She has been treated for them. Not quite as much of a problem during the day, but that may be because she's active
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 09, 2020:
Clarence, I cannot diagnose this on the internet but if it is just dry skin and dandruff, read these articles and see if it sounds similar to what is going on:
The first article focuses only on dandruff, the second is about dry skin remedies you can do at home.
clarence brown on February 09, 2020:
we have a 7 year old portie seems to scratcha lot but we do not see any problem some times u can see white flakezs on his skin like dandruf any help will be appreciated thank you for a year we went to vets at a total cost of 4 or 5 hundred dollars with no result
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on December 30, 2019:
marie, Scratching can be caused by many of the things listed in the article. If your dog is not scratching when wearing something, it may be nervous behavior. She needs to have her skin examined by your regular vet to rule out other causes.
marie on December 26, 2019:
my dog is 4lbs if i leave her coat on she does not scratch as soon as its of she scratches cant figure out what it may be
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 10, 2019:
Donna, if you suspect this is the case your dog needs to be put on an elimination diet. Only feed one protein source for at least a month, and if the symptoms resolve then you can try another protein source. (Not regular dog food, because even if the label says it is one protein it is actually mixed up.)
Donna Warnberg on November 04, 2019:
Could you explain exactly how to treat a dog if you think he's got food allergies? Like would I start by giving him only one food like hamburger and for how long before I add another food and will this cause other health problems like nutrition deficences. Thank you my vet said it's not fleas and has Ike on an over the counter allergy med zertec but it's not releving his simptums much I'm feeling bad for my pups constant digging at himself and need to get him some help
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 21, 2019:
Christy, biting above the tail head is often a sign of flea allergy dermatitis. He does not need to be infested, one flea bite is enough to cause severe itching in some dogs. I recommend you see your regular veterinarian and have him examined.
Christy McDaniel on September 18, 2019:
My dog Rocky is half jack Russell and half papillon. He's 1year and 5months old. I spoil him and think of him as my son. He has no fleas or Tix and is an indoor dog except when itake him for walks on his leash (he ends up being carried), and I take him in the shower with meat least once a month but lately his itching is driving bothof us crasy. He bites at his paws and they were turning redthe other day also by his tail at his behind and part of his back is where his hair is thinking from scratching so much. Help me please I need advice
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on April 02, 2019:
Nellie, please read my comment below to Anne. IF your dog is still suffering there are alternatives.
nellie gregg on April 01, 2019:
in the last few months my shepherd has started itching really bad, to the point he had sores from it, the first time I took him to the for this they gave him an antiobiotic cephalexin, and apoquel.He lost 2.5 # at this point, he healed up itching stopped, when he was done with medicine same thing happened, took him back to vet they perscribed same medication cleared it up again,and tested him for intestional parasites which he didn't have, now medication done and happening all over again.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on January 23, 2019:
Anne, if your dog is still suffering with apoquel, steroids, and the other immunosuppresants, I suggest you find a holistic vet in your area that treats inhalant allergies. The holistic vet is going to look at your dogs relationship to the environment and evaluate his overall condition, not just focus on one problem. Your dog may not suffer as much.
Anne Owen on January 23, 2019:
My male retriever, now 2yrs just, has dermititis atopica with very frequent flare ups. Is on apoquel, occasional anribiotics/steroids. I have withdrawn apoquel as it does not help and I am concerned at all these drugs. He scratches year round, is on eukanuba dermatitis .
Otherwise fit and jolly active. I notice he has respite following bath and brush.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 08, 2018:
Dena, dogs are not able to sweat from the skin like that, so the discoloration you are noticing is most likely a yeast infection. It makes dogs itch too. The dietary you described will not help.
Here is a list of the best things to do:
Dena Wood on November 07, 2018:
My dog has a massive itching problem. She also sweats constantly over her whole body. Dogs are not suppose to be able to sweat, I thought, an the panting is their cooling. her skin and hair turn a dingy brown color. I've removed all dog food and am now cooking rice and chicken for her meals. Why would she sweat?
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on October 31, 2018:
Vincent, if the dog has no fleas or other external parasites the most common cause of itching is not the food, it is atopy (inhalant allegies). If the dog is outside, mostly has problems in the summer, it is pollen. If inside, it is usally house dust mites.
Vincent on October 31, 2018:
My Old English Sheep Dog scratches all over. I gave him a bath with a shampoo that is supposed to help that, but he still scratches. His diet is good with all the necessaries, fish oil, olive oil, garlic, etc. I am wondering if it could be the rug, or what?
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 20, 2018:
Hi Robin thanks for reading. I enjoyed your Doxy soda poem!!!
Robin Carretti from Hightstown on February 20, 2018:
Very interesting read dogs get so itchy with fleas but they are so loved by us so cared for I love all type of animals I really enjoyed this read thanks
jan on February 01, 2018:
our dog has scratched so much that her ears and getting bad and so is her behind
Aliyah on July 01, 2017:
My new puppy is scratching all the time.She doesn't have any fleas that i know of and ive checked her multiple times but I couldn't find anything.
I think its the shampoo that I cleaned her with (flea and tick shampoo)
She only six weeks
Sometimes I think she does it for no reason because it doesn't bother her at all
dugans on July 31, 2015:
just a follow-up - can't tell as to the honey efficacy as the itching has greatly abated now in tandem with the ACV wash - Nova hated the taste of ACV in her food and water bowl but did like the "eau de parfum" of it with a several times a day wash down of armpits and tummy! it seems that this might have been a "short-term" environmental allergy reaction --- we are in Florida and something is always growing - of course, we are happy with the fact that she is rarely itching now! - because of the spindle cell cancer, we are still limiting the honey she gets, but still giving it to see if it will help ward off the next wave of allergens! Thanks for your constant helpfulness!!!
dugans on July 11, 2015:
thank you for your input - we think that we will start with 1/2 tsp twice a week of our local wildflower honey - also going to add a small amount of ACV to her drinking water - the ACV topically has helped and we have been able to ease her off the bendryl - we let you know if the Lord blesses the means!
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on July 10, 2015:
Dugans: the atopic injection therapy has not proved much good, but if you can provide her with a local raw honey you may provide her with some relief. She will be exposed to the local antigens and have a chance to make antibodies to make her feel a little better. Hope it works for you. Please let us know.
dugans on July 09, 2015:
Dr. Mark: How do you feel about treating topical, seasonal allergies with raw, unfiltered, local honey? Anecdotal evidence indicates it could be helpful. How much could we give her to eat, do you think? However, the catch is, our girl has spindle cell cancer, so we have to watch her sugar intake. Is it worth the try? She's a 41 pound siberian. We are doing the ACV wash externally. Thanks for your input!
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on October 16, 2013:
It sounds more like fleas,ken, but it might also be sarcoptic mange. Definitely not allergies if you get bites too.You need to go back with this info. Good luck.
ken on October 14, 2013:
My Boxer scratches all the time now it seems like whatever she has is effecting the entire family now. Took her to the vet he says it's allergies but I don't what to do with her anymore. The babies have what look like bite marks and I get them sometimes as well. Any help?
Claudia Mitchell on July 21, 2013:
Thanks DrMark - I will definitely check it out. He is on a very low dose, 1 pill per day and the specialist has told me that giving him more than that could lead to long term issues and yes, I mean allergen injections.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on July 21, 2013:
GlimmerTwinFan, do you mean you are giving him allergen injections? If your vet is giving him steroids every day he might feel better, but will be very sick later on. Google "long term side effects of daily steroids for dogs" if you want to learn more. There are other natural altenatives, like raw honey harvested in your area. Take a moment and look at:
If you have any questions or I can help you can leave me a comment and I will get back to you as soon as I can.
Mary Craig from New York on July 21, 2013:
I am currently dealing with mange and even though he has been given medication he is still itching. I found a mixture of borax, peroxide and water on the Internet, applied it last night and he is not scratching today. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
This is a very useful hub to introduce people to the reasons dog scratch.
Voted up, useful, and interesting.
Claudia Mitchell on July 21, 2013:
Glad this hub was shared. My dog has horrible allergies and takes a vaccine shot every few weeks along with a daily steroid pill. He still scratches, but not as much. It took us a very long time and many tests and money to figure out what he was allergic to and now he is pretty much ok. This is a useful hub.
Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on July 21, 2013:
Both of my dogs are supposed to be "water dogs", but they both hate baths. I found your video very interesting and helpful. This is another great hub on taking better care of our dogs. I really appreciate all your information! Voting up, useful, interesting and sharing!
Ruth Lanham on March 22, 2013:
I like the idea of apple cider vinegar and herbs. I think I'll try it...thanks!
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 19, 2012:
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on July 19, 2012:
I am just about to publish a hub with some alternatives to the steroids. I am glad she was able to get by with just the one injections.
wetnosedogs from Alabama on July 19, 2012:
Bella had to get a steroid shot which I dreaded but it helped in the long run to feeling better and getting her coat to look healthier. I give her derm caps. The change of food has helped definitely. I am glad she is better with the food and supplements. The vet suggested she may need to be on steroid tablets every other day or so if the itching got bad again. They are supposed to be a minor point than the shot itself, but I want to avoid those completely. We are doing pretty good.
I loved watching the video of the dog afraid of the bath and as bella does, his dog looked so relieved when it was over.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on July 19, 2012:
Thanks for coming by. I´m glad the garlic is working for your friend´s flea problems.
DoM, I am curious as to whether the fleas in your area have built up a resistance to that product through natural selection. It has happened with every other toxin invented, I am sure it will happen (or has happened already) with Advantage. It was good back in the late 90s but that is a long time for fleas
Shelley Watson on July 19, 2012:
Dr Mark thank you for this very informative hub. I have put a little garlic in their food, it seems to reduce the flea problem! Up, interesting and useful.
Melissa Flagg COA OSC from Rural Central Florida on July 18, 2012:
Great hub as always DrMark. My puppy has dry, itchy skin, and I've been using Vitamin E on it which seems to help tremendously. But her skin is mainly dry. I'm going to try the vinegar as a flea control. I really don't like giving her Advantage and it doesn't work all that well anyway.