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If your dog appears to be scratching itself frequently, it could be cause for concern. For many pet owners, fleas are the first thing that comes to mind, but that’s not always the case. From fleas to allergies and infections, there are a variety of causes that can lead your dog to itch abnormally. In order to determine the cause of the problem, you’ll need to consult your vet. The good news is that the conditions that cause excessive itching are generally treatable through medication and other therapies.
In this post, we’ll go over some of the potential reasons your dog’s itching (besides fleas) and discuss the next steps to take to care for your pet.
Why Do Dogs Itch?
Dog itching but no fleas? A lot of factors, such as parasites, infections, and allergies can make dogs itch; it isn't just fleas. Below, we’ll outline the reasons dogs itch, including flea infestations.
If you see a flea, that, of course, is the most likely cause of the itching (although be aware that it might not be the only cause). If you don't see fleas, look for reddish patches on your dog's skin, bald patches on the dog, red dots on your skin (especially around the ankles; fleas do bite humans), black specks on the dog's skin and fur, or pale gums in the dog's mouth, which is a sign the dog has lost a lot of blood. If you see these, contact your vet immediately to start treatment, and contact a pest control company to treat your home.1
Note: Fleas can be hard to find and it is very common for pet owners to not notice or find fleas when they look. But not finding fleas on your own doesn’t mean your pet doesn’t have a flea infestation, so make sure to consult your vet for an official diagnosis.
If your dog is itching but doesn’t have fleas, the itching could be caused by another type of parasite, such as skin mites. Your dog can pick these up when playing with infected dogs, or even by merely going outside when suffering from a weakened immune system. Parasites aren't that easy to get rid of, but you can get rid of them with a prescribed treatment plan. It’s also important to note that parasites include fungal infections like ringworm, which can spread to humans. Dog parasites may be internal, external, or intestinal.2
Dogs can also have a number of allergies to foods and environmental conditions, just like humans. All of these allergies can potentially result in itching. To treat this type of itching, you've got to identify the allergen. Sometimes it's obvious (your dog itches after eating a specific dog treat, for example), but oftentimes, it's not. In both cases, have the dog undergo allergy tests at the vet's office to pinpoint and confirm the allergy. Once you know what it is, you can take steps to keep the dog away from the allergen.
Bacterial infections can mimic other conditions like ringworm, so never assume you know exactly what the dog has until your vet confirms it. Whether the dog has an infected cut a few days after playing or has somehow picked up contagious bacteria after encountering an infected animal, you need to bring the dog to the vet as soon as possible. You do not want to let bacterial infections wait because they can quickly turn serious, just as they can in humans. Plus, if the dog keeps scratching an infected wound, the wound and infection could become severe, very quickly.
Dogs are prone to skin infections from a fungus known as Malassezia. While other yeast fungi can cause these infections, too, Malassezia is the most common. Chronic yeast infections in dogs can lead to dark patches of thickened skin, and even non-chronic yeast infections can be very difficult to get rid of. Get the dog to a vet as soon as possible because the itching caused by these infections can be extremely damaging.
The key point for treating itching in dogs is the same as that for treating any symptom in any pet: You have to figure out what's really causing the itching to begin with. Finding the underlying cause, and appropriate treatment relies on you working with your vet to obtain a diagnosis.
Dogs normally scratch once in a while and randomly. Persistent scratching, as mentioned, is a sign that something is wrong, and fleas are among the top concerns. Dogs who pick up fleas can undergo flea treatment, which can take several forms.3
You might have to add topical medications or give the dog oral medications. You'll also have to treat your home, and treat every other pet in the home as a possible flea source, too. Wash all bedding (including yours), and contact a pest control company to treat your home and yard.
If your dog does not undergo regular preventive flea treatment, talk to your vet about preventative care options to keep future infestations at bay.
Parasites can be external, internal, or intestinal, so you really need to pinpoint the actual parasite type so you can get the right treatment for your dog. Different parasites require different treatments so a definitive diagnosis is necessary before starting treatment. Fleas are actually a type of parasite, too. You can use preventives for many other parasites and not just fleas. Again, speak with the vet about the most effective types given the area you live in and what the dog is exposed to.
Treating allergies requires approaching the issue from three potential angles. One is avoiding or eliminating the allergen. Sometimes it’s not possible to avoid the allergen.For example, if your dog is allergic to pollen, then the dog won't be able to escape that during pollen season when out for a walk. But others are easier to eliminate, such as finding out that your dog is allergic to a specific dog treat ingredient, where you can stop buying those treats. By the way, if pollen or dust is the issue, wash your dog's bedding frequently to help remove random pollen grains from the bedding and reduce the dog's exposure.
If the allergy is to a key ingredient in the dog's regular food, then changing the food you buy is the right treatment. You'll need to check the ingredients every time you buy a new bag or can as ingredients can change unexpectedly.
The third form of treatment is allergy medication. This is appropriate when the allergen is something the dog can't avoid, or when you're having trouble finding the exact allergen. The medication will at least alleviate symptoms while you search and may need to be used chronically
Dog allergies can be particularly annoying for the dog, just as your allergies are annoying to you. Dutch.com is a great resource for veterinary telehealth that allows you to connect with a vet quickly, so you can start finding treatments for your dog.
Bacterial Infections and Yeast Infections
Both bacterial and yeast infections have similar treatment options up to a point. A bacterial infection needs an antibiotic, and a yeast infection needs an antifungal. However, both of those can be topical, oral, or injected, depending on how severe or systemic the infection is. You might also need both an antibiotic and an antifungal if the scratching has led to a secondary infection, such as a bacterial infection forming on the skin the dog has scratched due to a yeast infection, or yeast fungi colonizing skin around a bacterial infection.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is my dog itching but doesn't have fleas?
Itching can be caused by many things. Insects like fleas – which are actually considered parasites – are only one potential cause. The dog might have one of any number of other parasites, a bacterial infection, a yeast infection on the skin, an allergy, or even stress and anxiety manifesting as a physical problem with itching as a symptom. You need to take the dog to the vet to find the primary cause.
When should I be concerned about my dog itching?
Seeing your dog scratch itself once in a while isn't a concern. You might see the dog do some scratching during grooming or after playing in a dusty or sandy area, for example. However, you do need to watch out for frequent scratching and be on the lookout for additional symptoms like bad odors, scabs, scales, pus, excessive chewing, and fur loss.
What can I put on my dog to relieve itching?
There are a few things you can try putting on the dog's skin if you see minor areas of inflammation (note: do not do this if the inflamed areas are large or show signs of infection like pus). Among these are cortisone creams and antibiotic ointments. Don't let the dog lick these; taking the dog for a walk for about 20 minutes after applying the ointments or creams can help the dog avoid ingesting these treatments.
If your dog is itching but doesn’t have fleas, it’s a good idea to visit your vet. The problem can be due to an allergy, an infection, or another cause. Dutch.com can help you get your dog diagnosed and treated. If you can't see your regular vet, try Dutch's telehealth services. Dutch also specializes in allergy treatment, allowing you to help soothe your dog's symptoms if an allergy is behind all the itching. Speak online with a vet to get started today.
Editorial, PetMD. “5 Signs You (and Your Pet) Have Fleas and Don't Know It.” PetMD, PetMD, 9 Sept. 2016, https://www.petmd.com/dog/parasites/signs-you-your-pet-have-fleas-and-dont-know-it.
Staff, AKC. “Dog Parasites.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 23 Jan. 2018, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/parasites/.
Dryden, Michael W. “Fleas of Dogs - Dog Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 15 Dec. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/skin-disorders-of-dogs/fleas-of-dogs?query=fleas.