“Stop Scratching!” If you own a golden retriever, odds are really good you’ve said that at least a few times, as if the dog could obey this like a “Sit” or “Shake” command.  Rather than being just an irritating behavior, though, scratching is a signal that something is not right, something that could lead to much bigger problems for our dog.  Our first step is to figure out the cause so proper treatment is started and we can prevent those bigger problems. Some of the more common reasons for scratching that will be discussed here include parasites, environmental allergens, food and other sensitivities, and hot spots.

One of the first things to do if you see your dog scratching is to inspect that area closely.  Look for redness, hair loss, any sores or oozing, or parasites in the area. Look closely for ticks, fleas, or “flea dirt,” the tiny black specks of excrement left behind by fleas. A flea comb can be really helpful in determining if your dog has these awful parasites hitching a ride. Check the head and neck closely as these are prime areas for parasites since they have good access to a canine head poking around under bushes or in tall grass. Feet and legs are good access points also, especially if your dog is walking through tall grass or on trails.  Fleas like to hide in deep fur, so around the ears, armpits, and tail area are good spots for them. Every dog that goes outside should be checked thoroughly at least once each day for ticks and other parasites. It’s a good time to feel for lumps and bumps while you’re at it. If you find a tick, be sure to remove it properly to minimize disease transmission.

Check out this video for a description of proper tick removal:   https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/how-to-remove-tick-from-dog/

Here’s a good link and video about how to use a flea comb to find and remove fleas:

Scratching around the head also can be an early sign of ear infection, so take a good look under the ear flap. Redness or heat in that area, a foul odor, or an ear flap with tiny specks of brown (typical of yeast infections) or that otherwise looks dirty may indicate an infection is building so a trip to the vet is in order.

Another common cause of scratching is natural environmental allergens. Pollens and molds are abundant in much of Virginia.  These can be problems for both humans and canines. Some people may notice that when they start sneezing or feel the pressure of sinus congestion their dogs start scratching, too.  That may be a sign that environmental allergens are on the rise and a notice to be on the lookout for sensitivities in your dog. Dogs can have issues with pollens just from walking across grass, and rolling in it may bring instant pleasure but an itchy night later. Feet are particularly vulnerable due to contact with grass pollens (and chemical residue on many lawns which, despite advertisements to the contrary, can still be transferred to the dog long after application). In such cases, something as simple as a good foot wash for the dog (and shoe removal for the humans) before going into the house can work well to remove those irritants and limit the amount that enters the house.  A dog who likes to roll in the grass might benefit from a soothing rinse to remove irritants from the fur.  My current dog had no problems with itching before moving to Virginia (thank you, humidity and pollens!). Foot rinses during pollen season and HEPA air filters inside the house have made life much better for both of us. His bedding also gets washed weekly with mild, all natural, unscented detergent.

Bathing – A complete bath may be needed but optimal schedule varies for each dog. Obviously baths are needed more often for a dog who swims and gets fur full of sand, one who frolics in mud, and dogs like one of mine who loved nothing better than rolling in dead alewives on the shores of Lake Michigan (if you’ve been to Lake Michigan, you know what I’m talking about).  Baths can be beneficial to remove irritants and restore a dog to a huggable condition, but they also can be detrimental if they dry out the skin, strip it of essential oils, or if the dog is not dried properly afterwards. The need for baths varies, but in general no more often than once each week and use only a mild solution made specifically for dogs. Many with skin sensitivities benefit from conditioning hypoallergenic or neutral shampoos which can be soothing as well as cleansing. Before bathing, a good brushing to remove loose fur and undercoat will make the bath more effective and avoid trapping of moisture against the skin by that cottony undercoat. Be sure to dry the dog thoroughly afterwards with a clean towel. If you use a dryer, use only low heat and keep the dryer a distance from the dog to avoid burns or excessive drying of the skin.

Dull, dry, flaky skin can be a cause of itching. If your dog fits this description, a quality fish, krill, or green lipped mussel based oil supplement can provide significant relief from dry, itchy skin. Fish oils are known to carry a lot of impurities, however, so processing and quality control are important. Look for products tested for purity by a third party lab and who make those results public.  With rare exception, most dogs benefit from fish oil/Omega 3s, not just those with skin problems. There is extensive research supporting their anti-inflammatory effects as well as benefits to nerve transmission and heart muscle health in both humans and dogs. The difference in skin condition can be remarkable as well and generally shows up fairly quickly if this is going to make a difference in skin and coat health.

Other causes for itching should be considered if the dog has chronic problems regardless of weather conditions or seasonal variations.  Food sensitivities or household products could be irritants for the dog, so there are other avenues to explore if problems with itching persist throughout the year. A discussion with your vet can help identify possible sources, but some easy things to consider in advance of that visit are possible irritants around the house such as cleaning materials or laundry detergents. Minimizing use of chemicals with which the dog may have contact, including scented laundry detergents or cleaning agents used on flooring, can be very helpful to the sensitive dog. A change in diet may be worth considering, especially if your dog has year round skin problems and is on a diet based on proteins often associated with sensitivities.

Hot spots – a phrase that strikes fear in many golden retriever owners.  Hot spots, also known as  “moist dermatitis,” arise quickly, spread rapidly, can be challenging to heal, and make your dog miserable. Since they often require a cone to restrict the dog’s access to the spot, we definitely want to do what we can to minimize occurrence and speed healing. Hot spots are preventable in many instances. Common causes include wet fur from swimming or bathing without proper drying; skin irritation from parasites; dermatitis from contact with various irritants including pollens or household products; and improper skin and fur hygiene, with matted fur provoking the dog to lick and chew and also trapping moisture and bacteria. High humidity such as we see in much of Virginia creates a double-whammy with these other conditions leading to an optimal environment for hot spots. It is important that we prevent these dreaded skin problems as much as possible, intervene quickly, and be diligent to put healing on a fast track.

Hot spots arise when scratching and itching problems are not addressed promptly and the dog damages the skin leaving an open wound. This wound leads to more scratching and licking and chewing (keeping things moist) and in no time at all can be a significant size and also infected. Hot spots generally are associated with bacterial infections, so they need proper treatment and avoidance of scratching to heal. Hot spots appear as defined areas of redness. They are moist and often oozing with drainage that that collects in the surrounding fur. They itch terribly which makes it very hard for the dog to leave that site alone and which, of course, contributes to rapid enlargement. These wounds often have a secondary bacterial infection, so treatment by a vet is recommended.  There are a number of over the counter preparations and instructions on the internet for home remedies, but contents vary and some could be additional irritants or even toxic (such as some essential oil remedies I’ve seen). These could make the wound worse or at least they may be ineffective and delay healing. The usual veterinary treatment is to shave around the area so the wound is open to air, and then a prescribed process for cleansing with an antiseptic solution. Following cleansing, usually there is application of an antibiotic preparation. This antibiotic preparation may be combined with something to help manage the itching.  While it might be possible to manage these at home, especially with experience, the rapid spread and slow healing make it worth a trip to the vet to get treatment going before things get even harder to heal. Typical healing time is 10 days or more depending on the size and depth of the wound. It is important to keep the dog from injuring this area further while the spot heals, thus a cone or restrictive collar may be needed.

Scratching is an important way for our dogs to tell us something is bothering them. We want to provide close inspection to see if we can determine the cause and also so we can report to the vet as much detail as possible. Early detection of parasites, good management of skin condition and hygiene, healthy diet, and limiting environmental irritants can do a great deal to keep your dog happy and itch-free. Dogs who have frequent problems may benefit from a variety of products to manage recurrences if needed and avoid complications of too much scratching. Many causes of itching can be managed very well at home as noted above.  For recurring problems that do not respond to such intervention, talk with your vet to determine what is going on with your dog and the best management approach. Diligence and early intervention, and consultation with your vet, are key to keeping your dog as itch free as possible and avoid bigger skin problems.