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Why You Should Never Ignore Your Dog’s Itchy Skin

September 23, 2022 | General

  • Atopic dermatitis (AD) in dogs is a horribly itchy allergic skin condition similar to eczema in people.
  • Studies in humans show that pruritis (itchy skin) can lead to psychological disturbances such as depression and anxiety.
  • A 2019 U.K. study of dogs with AD shows the condition may be associated with several problem behaviors along with chronic, low-level stress.
  • It’s very important to try to find the root cause of AD in dogs, and to then develop a treatment protocol that includes necessary changes to the diet, along with non-toxic remedies for symptom relief.
  • Stress-reduction should also be part of the treatment protocol, especially considering the U.K. study results.

Severely itchy skin is no laughing matter, and sadly, too many dogs suffer from it. It’s one thing to have an occasional itchy spot that resolves when you rub or scratch or apply lotion to the area. But it’s a whole different story when you can’t relieve the itch no matter what you do.

The constant tickly sensation and urge to scratch till you bleed, coupled with the damage you inevitably cause to your skin, can result in significant anxiety and feelings of helplessness.

Many dogs today are also miserable thanks to atopic dermatitis (AD), an allergic skin condition similar to eczema in people that causes long-term itching. AD is most often caused by a hypersensitivity to either food or environmental allergens, including pollens, molds, dust mites, and insect antigens. In my experience and that of other integrative veterinarians, chemical hypersensitivities can also play a role in the condition.

Can Itchiness Negatively Influence a Dog’s Behavior?

Studies in humans have linked pruritis (itchiness) with psychological distress that can lead to depression and anxiety, as anyone who has ever experienced persistent, wildly itchy skin understands all too well.

Not long ago, researchers from the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Leicestershire, U.K., set out to determine if AD has a psychological effect on dogs similar to the effect on humans of persistent pruritis. Their goal was to see if dogs with AD exhibit problem behaviors that could be the result of psychological stress brought on by their condition.

The study involved the owners of 895 Golden and Labrador Retrievers recruited through an online study called the Itchy Dog Project1 designed to explore potential genetic and environmental causes of AD in these two breeds. Of the 895 dogs, 343 were diagnosed with AD. The remaining 552 dogs served as controls.

The owners weren’t told the premise of the study — they were simply asked to complete a questionnaire concerning their dog’s skin health and behavior.

Study Says: Severe Itching Is Linked to Problem Behaviors

From the published study:

“The results showed that itch severity in dogs with [AD] was associated with increased frequency of behaviours often considered problematic, such as: mounting, chewing, hyperactivity, coprophagia [poop eating], begging for and stealing food, attention-seeking, excitability, excessive grooming and reduced trainability.”2

What the study results didn’t show was a link between canine AD and generally anxious, fearful, or aggressive behavior, which led the researchers to conclude “[their] results could indicate that the dogs diagnosed with AD may be experiencing low-level chronic stress as a result of pruritus.”

They also note that further investigation is warranted, and that dogs with AD may benefit from stress reduction as part of their treatment protocol.

The Treatment Approach I Recommend

If your dog is suffering with atopic dermatitis, it’s important to try to find the underlying cause, whether it’s dietary or environmental. It’s also important a veterinarian diagnoses your pet with AD, as there are many other conditions that cause intense itching that need to be ruled out.

Many integrative veterinarians see tremendous improvement in symptoms by eliminating pro-inflammatory and GMO sources of grains (with lots of glyphosate contamination), unnecessary preservatives, synthetic vitamins, and toxic processing techniques, in addition to adding omega-3 essential fats to the diet.

Food is either healing or harmful. Research demonstrates a fresh food diet modulates the immune system positively, leading to changes in gene expression (called nutrigenomics) compared to an ultra-processed diet (kibble).3 Transitioning itchy pets to an ultra-low carb, fresher food diet means you’ll be feeding an anti-inflammatory diet, as well (that’s the “itis” in dermatitis).

Dogs that only eat ultra-processed foods (aka kibble) consume more advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which have been linked to an increased incidence of food allergies.4 One study found that the odds of developing canine atopic dermatitis were twice as high among offspring of dogs who only ate kibble,5 so food choices and food processing techniques matter.

In the meantime, for symptom relief, I always opt for safe, natural remedies rather than immuno-suppressant drugs unless the animal’s quality of life is terrible. In some cases, drugs with major side effects are prescribed for a short period of time or intermittently, giving the doctor time to work to improve your pet’s overactive immune response.

Fecal transplants and other all-natural treatments can significantly reduce how frequently your dog has flare ups of AD. Because the condition is characterized by an overabundance of certain types of bacteria, I’ve also long advocated topical therapy in place of oral antibiotics for this condition.

Bathing dogs with naturally anti-bacterial shampoos (and rinsing with carbonated water),6 skin ozone treatments and then applying microbiome-restoring rinses, sprays or microbiome-balancing powders can offer the same benefits as oral antibiotics (killing off the bacterial overgrowth) without any negative side effects (except a little hard work on your part).

I use therapeutic baths and rinses for these patients with great success. Research shows the hair follicle microbiome plays a role in skin health,7 so finding a way to restore microbial balance without lifelong oral antibiotics is a must for these patients.
I believe disinfecting and microbiome-restorative baths are one of the most underutilized therapies in veterinary dermatology (probably because they’re super cheap and anyone can do them). A functional medicine veterinarian will be able to customize a protocol specifically for your pet.

Tips to Calm a Stressed-Out Dog

  1. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise, playtime, mental stimulation, attention, and affection. Daily rigorous exercise is one of the most overlooked, free, and effective treatments for reducing stress that too few pet parents take advantage of.
    The greater the level of stress and anxiety, the more exercise they need; I’ve found two hours a day can be positively life-altering for my worst AD cases. This may seem excessive, but when you see the results, you’ll become a believer.
  2. When your dog will be home alone, open all the curtains and blinds, and leave him with an article of clothing or blanket with your scent on it and a treat-release toy. Place small, healthy treats and his favorite toys around the house for him to discover and put on some soothing doggy music before you leave. Consider a dog walker if you’ll be gone more than 8 hours.
  3. Also play calm, soothing music before a possible stressor occurs. This may relax your dog, with the bonus of drowning out distressing noises. If you’ve adopted a dog who may have had a rocky start in life, I highly recommend a program called A Sound Beginning, which is designed to help rescue dogs and their adoptive families learn to communicate effectively and form an unbreakable bond.
  4. Set aside time to engage in play with interactive toys, a round of hide and seek, tug or a really good doggie massage daily. Learning a brain-stimulating sport, like nose work, is a fantastic way to co-develop a hobby with your dog.
  5. If your dog responds well to pressure applied to her body, invest in a wrap like the Thundershirt; also consider Ttouch, a specific massage technique that can help anxious pets.
  6. Consider adding a probiotic supplement or fermented veggies to your dog’s fresh, nutritionally optimal, species-specific whole food diet, as studies show probiotics reduce stress-related GI disturbances in dogs.
  7. Consult an integrative veterinarian about nutraceuticals, homeopathics and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) remedies. These can be helpful in many ways, including addressing your dog’s intermittent stress.
  8. The essential oil of lavender has been proven to reduce the stress response in dogs. Place a few drops on a cloth or cotton ball and place it on your pet’s bedding before a stressor occurs or diffuse the oil around your house. There are also great oil blends specifically for calming animals.
  9. If your dog’s anxiety seems to be getting worse despite your best efforts, consider an individualized approach to managing her stress by allowing her to choose what best soothes her via applied zoopharmacognosy (self-healing techniques offered through a trained professional).

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