Pruritus is a complicated term meaning itchiness. Pruritus in pets can be caused by numerous conditions, and itchy skin can sometimes lead to serious health problems. Our Town & Country Animal Hospital team explains how we address pet pruritus.

Potential pet pruritus causes

Before we can treat pet pruritus, we must determine the cause, because every condition requires different treatment strategies. Potential pet pruritus causes include:

  • Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) — FAD is the most common skin condition diagnosed in pets. Affected pets are allergic to the flea’s saliva, and a bite from one flea can lead to a severe itchy response. 
  • Atopy — Atopy refers to allergies pets develop to environmental substances, such as tree and grass pollen, mold spores, and dust mites, where the normal skin barrier is disrupted, and allergens invade the skin and cause inflammation and itchiness.
  • Food allergies — A food allergy occurs when a pet is allergic to ingredients, most commonly beef, chicken, dairy, and eggs, in their food. 
  • Infection — Many allergic pets are affected by secondary skin infections that involve bacteria and yeast. These infections can worsen inflammation and itchiness and complicate diagnosis and treatment.
  • Mites — Sarcoptic mites are microscopic parasites that burrow under the upper layers of your pet’s skin, causing inflammation and itchiness.

Diagnosing pet pruritus

When your pet can’t stop scratching, how do you know what is causing their itchiness? Determining the underlying cause can be an involved process. Diagnostics our team may employ include:

  • History — Obtaining a detailed medical history is an important diagnostic step. Questions we may ask include:
  • Is your pet on year-round flea control? — Since FAD commonly causes pet itchiness, we need to know if your pet is on consistent, year-round flea control.
  • Has your pet had itchy skin before? — If your pet experiences itchy skin seasonally, this suggests they likely have atopy.
  • Does your pet have other signs? — If your pet has other signs, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and excessive gas, a food allergy may be the problem.
  • When did your pet’s itchiness start? — Itchiness typically starts in atopic pets between 1 and 3 years of age, and  before 6 months of age or after 6 years in food allergic pets.
  • Flea comb — During your pet’s physical examination, our team will use a flea comb to find live fleas or flea dirt (i.e., flea feces), which likely indicates that FAD is causing your pet’s itchiness.
  • Skin evaluation — Many itchy pets also have skin lesions and hair loss and the pattern of these abnormalities can sometimes help our team determine the itchiness cause. Examples include:
  • Flea allergy dermatitis — FAD skin lesions and hair loss most commonly appear on the pet’s lower back, abdomen, and inner thighs.
  • Atopy — Atopy most commonly causes skin lesions and hair loss on the pet’s face, feet, armpits, groin, and hindquarters.
  • Food allergies — Food allergies affect dogs and cats differently. In dogs, skin lesions and hair loss are most commonly seen on the dog’s face, feet, and under the tail, while in cats, lesions most commonly occur on their head and neck.
  • Mites — Sarcoptic mites most commonly cause skin lesions and hair loss on the pet’s ear margins, ankles, and elbows.
  • Skin scraping — A skin scraping allows our team to evaluate the sample for skin cell abnormalities and sarcoptic mites.
  • Culture — If your pet has a skin infection, we will obtain a sample to determine an appropriate antimicrobial.
  • Skin biopsy — In some cases, we need to evaluate your pet’s deeper skin layers to determine what is causing their itchiness.
  • Food elimination trial — If we suspect a food allergy, we will put your pet on a food elimination trial to determine the causative ingredient.
  • Allergy testing — Allergy testing is a tool used in a pet who has been diagnosed as atopic to determine the causative environmental allergens. The information can then be used to create allergy shots to desensitize your pet to the problematic allergens.

Pet pruritus treatment

Our team will devise an appropriate treatment protocol based on your pet’s specific condition. Many cases require a multi-modal approach that may include:

  • Parasite control — All itchy pets benefit from year-round parasite prevention to protect them from fleas and mites. 
  • Allergen avoidance — If your pet is affected by atopy or food allergies, avoiding the problematic allergens helps prevent itchiness. This may involve:
      • Feeding your pet a hypoallergenic diet and avoiding off-limits foods, such as treats, medicated chews and supplements, and table scraps
      • Wiping down your pet’s coat after outings to remove allergens
      • Keeping your pet indoors on high pollen days
      • Keeping your windows and doors closed and running your air conditioner
  • Bathing — Bathing your pet with a veterinary-approved shampoo can help soothe irritated, itchy skin, and can also remove allergens from their coat.
  • Anti-itch medications — Steroids and other nonsteroidal medications are often necessary to help control your pet’s pruritus.
  • Antimicrobials — If a skin infection is contributing to your pet’s itchiness, we will prescribe an appropriate antimicrobial to resolve the infection.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids — We may prescribe omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation and itchiness.
  • Hyposensitization therapy (i.e., allergy shots) — Allergy shots that administer gradually increasing doses of allergen under your pet’s skin to desensitize them to the problematic substance are the best treatment for atopic pets. 

Pet pruritus is a serious issue that must be investigated to determine the underlying cause, so an appropriate treatment strategy can be devised. Contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Town & Country Animal Hospital if your pet is pruritic, so we can alleviate their itchiness as soon as possible.