Itchy scratchies

Watching your furry friend contort their body to reach that darn itchy spot can look a bit funny. But if they’re doing it frequently, it’s no laughing matter, particularly if allergies are to blame. Here’s the lowdown on the most common types of pet allergies, their symptoms and the treatment options available.

Atopic dermatitis (atopy) – one cause of those ‘itchy scratchies’

If you’re pet has atopic dermatitis (or atopy), they have a defect … in their skin that is! But they’re not the only ones; many humans suffer from it too. Atopy occurs when the skin’s outer layer or barrier doesn’t function very well so the person – or pet – easily absorbs allergens. If they’re allergic, their immune system reacts which causes them to itch like crazy. This leads to skin inflammation and sometimes, an infection (known as hot spots in pets).

Atopy symptoms

+ Itchy skin, ears and/or paws
+ Obsessive licking/grooming
+ Hot spots (red weeping skin sores)

Atopy causes

+ Insect bites
+ Flea allergy
+ Food allergy
+ Environmental allergy (dust mites, plants, pollen etc)


The first step is to work out the cause and your Fur Life vet is the best person to help. They have a range of tests available to determine if your pet has an allergy; which is often the cause of atopy. Depending on the test results, there are a number of treatment options available from topical creams to medications to desensitisation. Below is a rundown on some of those options along with a few other ways you can help your precious pet too:

Traditionally, treatment for atophy in dogs involves using cortisone (steroids). While it works really well, it can have some nasty side effects such as liver changes, weight gain (as it reallyincreases their appetite!) and panting. But there’s a new product available market called Apoquel that’s a great alternative to steroids. Our Fur Life vets have been using it for a while, and are really pleased with results in itchy dogs. Speak to your vet at your next visit if you’d like to know more.
Reduce exposure
The best way to avoid an atopy flare up is to avoid the allergen. Food is a pretty easy one, as are fleas thanks to some great control products, but environmental allergies are a tad more difficult. Your vet can give you some suggestions for these.
A good ol’ regular wash will help to get rid of allergens and reduce flare ups. Choose the right shampoo (seek vet advice) and let it soak into your pet’s skin for 10 minutes or so, then rinse well.
Create a skin shield
Improving your best mate’s skin barrier is one of the most important ways to combat atopy. Without going all ‘sciency’ on you, the outer skin layer is made up of cells and fats which act as a great physical barrier to the environment. This barrier prevents the skin from losing too much water (think, too much licking!), maintains body temperature, and is an excellent defence against UV and physical damage (think, too much scratching!). And the stronger the skin barrier, the better your pet’s atopy. To improve their skin barrier, shampoo as noted above and then follow with a leave in conditioner. This will moisturise and reintroduce much needed fats back into your pet’s outer skin layer.
Diet check
Adding Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids to your pet’s diet will also help improve their skin barrier. You can use oil supplements or alternatively, your furry friend may benefit from a specialised diet specifically for those with atopic dermatitis. Check with your vet.

Fur Life Vet, Dr Serena Moore has a few tips on what to look out for and what just might be causing that annoying itch.

Flea allergy – another cause of ‘itchy scratchies’

In some pets, fleas are more than just an irritant. Over time, pets can develop an allergic reaction to flea saliva so even one itty bite can cause ‘flea allergy dermatitis’.

Flea allergy symptoms:

+ Excessive scratching and/or licking (skin, paws, ears)
+ Weeping skin
+ Skin ‘hot spots’

Over time, pets can develop an allergic reaction to flea saliva so even one bite can cause ‘flea allergy dermatitis’

Food allergies

Just like their human counterparts, pets can suffer from food allergies too.


+ Excessive scratching and/or licking (skin, paws, ears)
+ Weeping skin
+ Skin hot spots
+ Vomiting and/or diarrhoea

If you notice any of these, schedule a vet visit. They’ll help you determine if it’s a true food allergy, as opposed to another one. You can then ensure you feed them the right diet to combat any allergic reactions.

Spot light on hot spots!

Hot spots (aka acute moist dermatitis) are bacterial skin infections. These icky red sores appear just about anywhere on your pet’s skin. They spread super quickly due to your furry friend’s inability to stop licking or scratching them! If you spot them, a vet visit is a must.

+ Excessive scratching and/or grooming
+ Appearance of red, oozing, skin sores (might be scabby)
+ Hair loss
+ Allergies (food, fleas, environment)
+ Poor grooming
+ Insect bites (ticks, mozzies, fleas)
+ Excessive heat
  1. Visit your Fur Life vet
  2. Determine the cause through testing (blood, allergy or skin)
  3. Clip hair & apply antiseptic
  4. Prescribe antibiotics to clear infection
  5. Ongoing treatment with steroid-based cream until healed
What can you do?
+ Keep your pet’s skin in tip top condition (grooming, flea prevention & the right good diet)
+ If an allergy is to blame, carefully follow your vet’s treatment tips

“Non-steroidal medication made all the difference to the young staffies condition. Less side-effects, clinically normal skin, a happy dog and a very happy owner”

Dr Anthony Down
Fur Life Vet Warrnambool

Case study – Dog with a severe case of the itches
The presentation
A Staffordshire Bull Terrier with a history of skin complaints in the form of very itchy skin and rashes, and associated hair loss. A previous clinic treated him with a course of cortisone (steroid) medication, but the owner was unhappy with the side effects. This made for one depressed dog and owner.

Atopy (atopic dermatitis)

Our Fur Life Vet suggested a trial of a non-steroidal medication called Apoquel.

After two weeks on Apoquel, the staffy showed significant improvement with no lesions, no itch and hair regrowth. His owner said he was ‘a different dog’ and chose to continue treatment post-trial. There was a slight hiccup when the owners went on holidays and boarded their dog. He suffered a relapse of atophy due to a mixture of missed Apoquel and a new diet. The dog was placed on a higher dose of Apoquel and within a week, his skin was 90% better. He’s currently on a maintenance dose and has skin that is considered clinically ‘normal’ … not to mention he is a much happier dog with a renewed lease on life! A great result for the dog and his owner.

The staffy is now feeling much better!