Stop That Scratching!

If the sounds of a canine or feline “scratchfest” is interrupting your slumber, or you’re snarling, “Stop scratching!” several times a day, chances are you have an allergic pet on your hands. Just as with human hay fever, most dog and cat allergies are the result of an exaggerated immune system response to allergens in the environment such as plant pollens, tree pollens, and mold spores.  The scientific name for this inherited allergic condition is atopy or atopic dermatitis. Terriers of any type are notorious atopy sufferers along with Dalmatians, Lhasa Apsos, Shar-peis, Bulldogs, and Labrador Retrievers. 

Whereas people are prone to runny nose and eyes, dogs and cats with atopy develop itchy skin, often accompanied by skin and ear infections. Symptoms are initially mild and seasonal, but tend to progress year by year in terms of severity and duration.  Fortunately, there are many options for treating atopy including medicated shampoos, antihistamines, fatty acid supplements, and drugs that alter the immune system’s overzealous behavior (cyclosporine, cortisone).  Just as for people, desensitization injections can be administered after specific testing is done to determine which allergens are provoking the immune response. Elimination of exposure to the allergens may also be an option (a good excuse to move to Hawaii!). 

Some dogs and cats develop allergies to their food.  This can result in year round itchy skin, ear infections, and/or gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, gassiness).  If a food allergy is suspected, your veterinarian will recommend an “elimination food trial.”  This requires strict adherence (including elimination of your pet’s favorite treats) to feeding a novel protein diet for six to eight weeks. There are many such diets to choose from these days that contain duck, rabbit, venison, salmon, and even kangaroo! If the chronic symptoms disappear in response to the diet change, voila, the diagnosis of food allergy has been made. One must then hope that, over time, the animal doesn’t develop an allergy to the new diet! 

Lastly, some dogs and cats develop an allergy to fleas, more specifically, to the flea’s saliva.  Whereas many fleas are required to cause most animals to scratch like crazy, for those with a flea allergy, just one bite is all it takes to set off an intensely itchy reaction that can last for days. The best treatment for this allergy is stringent flea control, or relocation to Colorado; fleas don’t survive in high altitude locations! 

‘Tis the season for fleas and seasonal atopy.  Do you have an itchy dog or cat on your hands?  If so, what will your strategy be to soothe your pet’s itch and preserve your sanity? 

Best wishes to you and your four-legged family members for abundant good health,   

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life

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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.

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4 Comments on “Stop That Scratching!

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks so much for responding to my blog. So sorry to hear about what you and your dog are going through. The ears are truly an extension of the skin and the veterinarians who are going to be most knowledgeable about treating ear disease are those who are specialists in veterinary dermatology. Might you have a board certified dermatologist in your neck of the woods?

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Nancy Kay

  2. My dog gets really bad this time of year with itching and ear problems. I’ve taken him to the vet for his ears, and they first gave me an ear cleanser that caused him to have an infection in his good ear – I should never have messed with it! Then they prescribed Mometemax, and that cause total hearing loss, and aside from that, didnt do anything to clear up his ear infections. Neither did Tresaderm. He has just regained a little hearing, but cant distinguish where the noises are coming from. Mometemax has a warning not to be given to military dogs and service dogs because of risk of hearing loss, but my vet never told me this, and I never ever thought putting this in his ears could causes this. I feel awful about it. Every time i go to the vet anymore, it costs a fortune, and things just get worse !!

  3. In the last few months I have consulted with several of my clients whose dogs have been itching badly. I also noticed that their coats were poor, brittle and broken. Upon enquiring what they used for shampoo, without exception they told me that they used human shampoo such as Head and Shoulders, Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, Prell, and many other high quality human shampoos. Having advised them that human shampoos are unsuitable for use on dogs and cats because of the difference inthe Ph balance of the skin (be he a Great Dane or a Chihuahua) I was confronted with acquired advice from their breeder, hairdresser, brother-in-law or second cousin three times removed.
    It is difficult to wage battle against such “expert” advice but thos owners who heeded me reported dramatic improvement, especially when they rinsed, rinsed and rinsed.
    Thus, when excessive itching is observed, this situation ahould also be looked into before the skin is broken, more shampooing takes place in the belief that the dog is “dirty again” and the problem is exacerbated.
    Sincerely – Miriam Yarden, “The K9 Tutor” Long Beahc, CA

  4. My Lab, Gracie, develops contact allergies every year to grass pollen, which had led to horrid hot spots. Now, we keep her out of high weed/grass areas, give her mild antihistamines when warranted, and spray irritated skin with non-chemical agents that both dry up the inflammation and soothe her skin. A proactive owner who knows her dog can prevent many of the problems associated with allergies; thanks, Dr. Kay, for speaking up for our allergic pets!