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The Itchy Dog, Part 1: The Emotional Roller Coaster of Canine Itch

Portrait of a Labrador retriever - studio shot isolated on black.

Michele Rosenbaum, VMD, DACVD

Taking Anxiety and Stress Out of Summer Allergies in Dogs

Ah, the joy of summer: Days get longer, temperatures warm, flowers are blooming, and school is out. Kids and their dogs run outside to play and all is right with the world. Or is it?

As people and pets spend more time outdoors, opportunities increase for our canine patients to be exposed to fleas and environmental allergens like grass and tree pollens. Summer allergies to environmental allergens can lead to itchy skin from allergic and atopic dermatitis. Signs of itch such as constant scratching, chewing, licking, rolling, rubbing, scooting, and head shaking can cause suffering, anxiety, and stress in our canine patients and their pet parents.

Itch can erode the special bond between dogs and their families. Itchy dogs are often up at night scratching and licking, and this prevents family members from sleeping well (55 percent of participants in a study of 962 adults in the U.S. share their beds with at least one dog1) or they are banished to separate rooms of the house because their skin smells so bad. Owners are often reluctant to pet or hold their dogs and may be too embarrassed to walk their itchy dog outside because of their appearance, further disrupting their bond. This isolation and lack of interaction can lead to anxiety and stress for pets and their family. Learn more about how uncontrolled allergic itch can stress the special bond between pets and their owners at scienceofstrongerbonds.com.

Because of this anxiety and stress, pet parents of itchy dogs often are desperate to try anything for relief for their dog. Studies have shown that before seeing the veterinarian, 88 percent of owners of itchy dogs have already tried up to 15 over-the-counter options such as coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, pet store treatments, antihistamines meant for humans, putting a T-shirt on, oatmeal baths, or changing their diet to grain-free.2 These solutions don’t work for allergies in dogs in most cases, and only serve to keep the pet owner and their dog on an emotional roller coaster where hope for a cure is quickly followed by disappointment and frustration when treatments fail. Stress and anxiety build, itch continues, and the bond is strained.3 This cycle repeats many times, up and down the roller coaster of emotions, and can be exhausting for both the pet and their families.

Itch is the number reason for veterinary visits.4 Make sure your customer service representatives (CSRs) are giving owners of itchy dogs an appointment for an exam with their veterinarian, rather than the common “phone fix” with OTC options unlikely to help such as antihistamines, oatmeal baths, supplements, or grain-free diets. Helpful scripts are available for CSRs at scienceofstrongerbonds.com under Dermatological Resources. Click to download Answering the Call for Itchy Dogs CSR scripts. This is the very first step on the path of real relief for the pet.

Next, obtain a complete history and perform a thorough dermatologic physical examination using Fear Free techniques. (This will be discussed in Part 2.) Once these steps are completed, reach for targeted medications specifically designed for allergic disease in dogs that provide fast, effective, and safe control of itch and skin inflammation. Relief from itch can reduce the stress, anxiety, and suffering that allergic dogs experience and provides peace of mind for their pet parents. (These treatments will be described in Part 3.) Once the itch and inflammation are under control, perform a stepwise diagnostic work up to find the all-important cause of the dog’s itch to reduce constant flares and “putting out the fires.” (This will be outlined in Part 4.) Finally, set realistic expectations to pet owners for long-term management of their allergic dog, including tips for minimizing and treating flares of allergic itch and inflammation. (This will be discussed in Part 5.)

August is Itchy Pet Awareness Month. Get your practice and staff ready with resources at scienceofstrongerbonds.com under Dermatological Resources. Remember, as the patient’s veterinary professional, you are the best partner for pet parents to provide real relief for your canine patients’ itchy skin. Your patients deserve comfort and relief from the anxiety and stress of itchy allergic skin disease, and your pet owners deserve the peace of mind that goes with itch relief for their best friend.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.


    1. 1. Hoffman CL et al. An examination of adult women’s sleep quality and sleep routines in relation to pet ownership and bedsharing. Anthrozoös 2018;31:6, 711-725. DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2018.1529354.
    1. 2. Zoetis data on file, 2018. Secret Shopper Study, C-Space 2018
    1. 3. Olivry T, DeBoer DJ, Favrot C, Jackson HA, Mueller RS, Nuttall T, Prélaud P; International Committee on Allergic Diseases of Animals. Treatment of canine atopic dermatitis: 2015 updated guidelines from the International Committee on Allergic Diseases of Animals (ICADA). BMC Vet Res. 2015 Aug 16; 11:210.
    1. 4. Data on file. Zoetis Pruritus Diary Study Wave 2, 2015, Zoetis Inc.

This article is brought to you in collaboration with our friends at Zoetis. ZPC-00370

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