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That's a good question that isn't always easy to answer.
Just like people, all dogs and cats get an occasional transient itch that needs to be scratched and that is nothing to worry about.
When an itch is non-stop and pets are constantly biting, chewing and scratching at themselves, that is something that needs to be addressed, identified if possible and managed.
While there are many things that can cause itching, the most common reasons pets itch are related to parasites, allergies/sensitivities and skin disease.
Many pets are sensitive to flea bites (it's actually the flea saliva). In a sensitive pet, a single bite can cause severe itching and self-inflicted damage to the skin. Controlling and preventing fleas is so easy, no pet should have to suffer from fleas. Because there are so many products on the market to choose from, your veterinarian is the best source for obtaining a recommendation for the safest and most effective product for your pet(s) and the environment they live in.
Sarcoptes, which is a mite is another parasite that can cause intense itching, mostly in dogs. The mites are too small to see with the naked eye and need to be diagnosed by a veterinarian. The mites can be difficult to find, especially when the itching and accompanying skin damage have been going on for a period of time. Sarcoptic mange mites are zoonotic, meaning people can get them from infected pets and must be treated by a human physician.
When pets have significant allergies, the skin and/or ears are most often affected. Allergies may be seasonal or year around. Allergies in some pets may start as seasonal and gradually increase to be year around. Most allergies are environmental, food related or a combination. Some allergies, especially in young dogs, have a genetic component to them. Mild allergies, especially seasonal ones can often be controlled by medical therapy and when practical, avoidance of the suspected allergen. For dogs with severe allergies, allergy testing and desensitization may be the most effective way to control symptoms. For environmental allergies, the goal is to manage them, as it is rarely possible to cure them.
Some pets may have food allergies, which can cause skin/ear issues and/or gastrointestinal problems. There is no test for food allergies other than an elimination diet trial, which must be done by adhering to very specific guidelines. If a food allergy is suspected, working directly with your veterinarian is best way to ensure that the trial is conducted properly.
Skin infections can occur as a primary disease or secondary to damage to the skin caused by severe itching. Skin infections must be treated by a veterinarian who will also work to identify any underlying issues such as allergy or parasite.
John Smith, DVMVeterinarian
Dr. John Smith is a graduate of LSU, Class of 1998. He has over 10 years of experience...
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