As a pet parent, you’re probably familiar with this scenario. You’re having a quiet evening at home, maybe streaming your favorite show, checking email, or having dinner. Then you suddenly hear a familiar thump-thump-thump that doesn’t stop.
Yes, your dog is scratching again, probably using their back paw on anywhere it can reach, from their ear to their stomach. Or maybe your cat is scratching themselves, although they tend to be quieter about it unless they have a bell on their collar.
I’m sure you can relate to the need to scratch, because we all do it, especially when we itch, and it’s particularly annoying when it’s in a spot that we can’t reach. (Fortunately, we’ve invented backscratchers to help with this.)
Itchy & Scratchy
Human scratching is usually in direct response to an itching sensation, which is often an indicator of a skin inflammation, dryness, damage, or an underlying disease. Scratching only offers temporary relief and, while science isn’t quite sure why this is, it seems to be that scratching actually sends pain signals to the brain, which distract from the itch.
It doesn’t take care of the underlying cause, though, so for a permanent solution other means are necessary, like moisturizers, antihistamines, or, sometimes, prescription ointments or medication.
Some causes of human scratching are not physical at all, and there are psychological reasons that people will pick and scratch at their skin that don’t involve any kind of itching.
Why Our Pets Scratch
- Dry skin
- Boredom, anxiety, or compulsive disorder
The only additional cause in dogs that is not indicated for cats: Hormonal imbalances.
So we know the general reasons that our pets might start scratching themselves compulsively but, of course, this doesn’t stop the scratching. What’s our next step?
There are two next steps, actually: Diagnosis and treatment. We have to figure out the “why” before we can figure out the “what” to do about it.
Finding the Trigger
Parasites are probably the easiest to either diagnose or dismiss. You simply have to give your dog or cat a very close inspection, parting the hair on their back to check the roots, doing the same behind the ears, looking at the corners of their eyes very carefully, then flipping them over and inspecting their chests and bellies. A magnifying glass and bright light are very helpful in this process, and don’t forget to speak calmly and sooth your dog or (especially) cat during the whole thing. Also feel along your dog’s body for any small bumps that might be a hiding tick, and do the same for your cat if it ever goes outdoors.
Finally, if your pet seems to constantly scratch one area, pay particular attention to it. While doing this inspection process, also watch for any patches of skin that seem to be flaky, scaly, or dry, as well as any spots that are reddened or swollen. These will indicate dry skin or allergies as causes. If your pet didn’t yelp or cry out at any point during the previous, check their legs and paws with gentle squeezes. If this makes them yelp, jerk away, or show other signs of discomfort, then the cause is probably pain.
Again, if they consistently scratch at one spot, like a front foreleg, this could indicate some underlying pain — anywhere from a bruise or sprain to a fracture. Also note that our pets don’t just scratch with their feet. If that’s not possible, they’ll nibble. If any of the above checks leads to a likely cause, you’re ready to jump to treatment.
Allergies and hormonal imbalances are a little trickier to diagnose, and may require consultation with your vet, especially in the latter case. To start testing for allergies, you’d do the same thing you’d do for yourself — start selectively eliminating elements from your pet’s diet to see what makes a change.
For example, look at the ingredients in your pet’s food, which may contain things like gluten, eggs, soy, or other common allergens, then find a brand with a similar nutritional profile that’s missing one of those ingredients. Change over your pet’s diet but remember to do it gradually. Unlike humans, an abrupt change of eating habits can cause all kinds of stomach upset, including vomiting and diarrhea.
Once you’ve made the change, observe your pet for a week or two and see if they’ve stopped scratching. If they have, then you may have found the problem and can stick with the new food. If not, continue the differential test until you either find a cause or eliminate all possibilities, in which case it’s time for the vet.
Oh — don’t forget to check their bedding, any shampoos or other products you put on them, and any surfaces in the house they commonly lie on. These can cause allergic reactions, too. Regarding hormonal imbalances, the only way you would have a clue that this might be a cause without a lab and degree in biochemistry would be having an unfixed pet, either a puppy that’s not old enough yet or an adult, that only starts to show the scratching symptoms after certain periods of time.
The idea here is that the hormonal imbalances that cause itching happen in response to the changes in chemistry in your dog’s body in preparation for going into heat and ovulation. (They do not shed their uterine lining, however.) Unlike some mammals, dogs do not go into heat based on the calendar. Generally, female dogs go into heat at six-month intervals, although very small breeds may experience it every four months and large breeds only once a year.
Again, cats don’t seem to have scratching problems related to being in heat, probably because, being cats, they like to do things much more to schedule than dogs do. If you’ve ruled out everything else, there’s one more step to take before heading to the vet.
The last cause, and the only strictly psychological one, is boredom. Is your dog or cat getting enough mental stimulation in their environment, or are they pretty much left to themselves except during walks and mealtime?
Hey, you’d be biting your arms as well if your family did that to you. This type of itching is probably the easiest one to treat, and will give you the quickest and most obvious results.
So... what can you do to stop your pet from scratching themselves?
The steps you take depend upon the cause of the scratching. Here are six.
1. Extermination — of Parasites
If your pet is suffering from parasites, like fleas or ticks, then this is the course of action. There are various treatments available, in both topical and oral varieties, to get rid of these little beasties. For treating existing infestations first, there are flea shampoos, but use these with caution. For flea and tick preventatives and treatments, consult your vet.
2. Elimination — of Allergens
This is the best way to deal with allergens, and you may have already found the scratching trigger through your food test. If not, though, it’s probably time to have your vet do an in-office allergen test to nail down the actual culprit. Once this is done, it’s time to find that thing in your pet’s environment and, like the heading says, eliminate it.
3. Medication — for inflammation, infection, and disease
These can be necessary for non-parasite and non-allergen caused itching and scratching, when inflammation is being triggered by something else, like an underlying disease. They also come in various forms including injectable, oral, topical, and shampoo. Anti-inflammatories used in cases of itching often include steroids, which a lot of people are averse to giving to their pets or taking themselves, but sometimes this might be the only option. Again, consult your vet.
4. Mitigation — for Pain and Injury
Outside of the other causes, the problem may just be dry skin or a hotspot, or it could be a sprain or strain. There are many hot-spot and itch-relief sprays available for dogs and cats.
For sprains and strains, you can apply an ice pack or heating pad, depending on the type and timing of the injury; give your pet vet-recommended NSAIDS (but never over-the-counter types intended for humans); make sure they get plenty of rest, kenneling if necessary; provide a brace or have your vet apply one; and start slowly on rehab through gentle walks on a leash.
5. Prevention — for continued scratching
Sometimes, the above methods don’t work, particularly if the cause goes beyond the physical. Maybe your dog or cat is just obsessed with nibbling their foot or scratching their ear and don’t have any underlying condition or cause.
In that case, you can use bitter sprays to stop licking and biting, or even bring out the E-collar (aka the “Cone of Shame”) to limit your pet’s access to the spot. Also keep your pet nearby when you’re at home so you can correct them when they do try to scratch.
By the way, the name E-collar has nothing at all to do with giving your pet online access. Rather, that “E” stands for Elizabethan, and came from the resemblance between the original white cone version and the high, stiff, ruffled collars worn by men and women during the Elizabethan era.
So tell your pet it’s not punishment, it’s cosplay!
6. Intervention — for Boredom Relief
Sometimes, you just have to get involved, and this is the treatment when the cause of your pet’s itching is boredom or lack of enrichment in their environment. Get every member of the family to engage them in playtime, especially things that will stimulate them mentally, like a variation of the shell game using a single treat and three cups.
If your pet is so inclined, a game of ball or a rigorous session with a cat fascinator will also do the trick, and don’t forget a ride in the family vehicle to the dog park, pet store, or pet-friendly businesses for your dog or cat. Well, except for the dog park. Don’t take your cat there.
Don’t forget to take your dog on walks, ideally three but at least two times daily, if not more, and don’t always follow the same route. Let your dog discover new streets and smells. You may discover entirely new things yourself, so it will be a mentally stimulating exercise for both of you.
Peace at Last
It can be a challenge to figure out why your fur baby is constantly scratching themselves, but it’s not an unsolvable mystery. With a combination of careful looking, examining the environment, trial and error and, of course, your vet’s help, you can and will find the right solution to stop your dog and cat from tormenting themselves (and you) with non-stop scratching.
And, as a pet parent, you owe it to them to take care of the problems so that they no longer have anything to itch about.
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