Question: Recently, my dog's nighttime scratching is keeping both of us awake. Her fur seems dry and a bit dandruffy, and she also seems to be shedding more than usual. What can I do to help her?
Answer: Dogs itch for many different reasons, and sometimes, for no reason, and it’s not uncommon for the scratching to seem worse at night, when the house is quiet. Every dog’s gotta scratch some time, and that’s completely normal. But when a dog is incessantly licking, scratching, biting and chewing to the point of wounding herself, then scratching becomes a symptom of an underlying pathology.
The medical term for scratching related to excessive itching is pruritus. This is the second most common reason people take their dogs to the vet (gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea top the list). The causes of pruritus can be quite complex, but there are two main reasons why dogs itch. The first has to do with the condition of the skin itself: Is it infected? Is it too oily? Is it too dry? Of these three, dry skin is a frequent occurrence. The second major cause of pruritus is allergies.
Is It Dry Skin?
One common cause of itching is dry skin. If you live in a region with low humidity, it’s more likely that your dog will have dry skin, which is fairly easy to recognize. When you part your dog’s hair, you see flakes of dandruff in the undercoat, and the skin itself may be cracked and tough. The slightest stimulation of the skin—your gentlest touch—can provoke your dog to scratch violently.
Dry skin can be influenced not only by environmental factors, but also by diet. Commercial pet foods process out the good oils that contribute to healthy skin and a lustrous haircoat. Dry pet foods have an even more dehydrating effect on skin and hair and also stimulate increased thirst, which only partially compensates for the drying nature of these diets.
If you must feed dry foods, then by all means add digestive enzymes to your dog’s meals. In fact, digestive enzymes are good to use with any type of food. Enzymes improve the release of nutrients, and beneficial probiotic bacteria also assist in the digestive process. (Probiotics also help with allergies, as noted below.) A healthy digestive system absorbs fluids more readily from the food your dog eats, thus improving hydration and increasing the moisture levels of the skin and haircoat.
Another common cause of itchy skin is allergies. Allergies may make your dog’s skin dry, greasy, or slightly dry and oily, and are accompanied by frequent scratching, licking or chewing. We are seeing significantly more cases of allergic dogs than we have in the past; many veterinarians believe that we are experiencing an “allergy epidemic.” While the reasons for this allergy epidemic are uncertain, some of the theories put forth include the aggressive vaccination protocols that many dogs have been subjected to, poor breeding practices and the feeding of processed pet foods.
Whatever the cause, allergies are difficult to address. In the worst cases, afflicted dogs require strong (and potentially toxic) pharmaceuticals just to get some relief. Though allergies are rarely cured, early identification and intervention can keep them under control, and in some cases, can substantially diminish them.
Clinical research has shown that one important way to reduce the likelihood that dogs will develop allergies is to give them high-potency cultures of beneficial probiotic bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bifidus when they are very young. Probiotics are relatively inexpensive, absolutely safe to use, and can save both dog and the owner tons of grief—and visits to the vet—later in life.
Regardless of age, many dogs’ allergies are controlled by improving the quality of their diet, giving them high potency acidophilus cultures and high doses of fish oils; adding freshly milled flax seed; and, in some cases, giving them antihistamines. (It can take up to three months for this regimen to take effect; see sidebar for details and dosages.)