Did you know the ditty “My Dog Has Fleas” is frequently used by ukulele players to tune their instruments? It’s true. Each word, when sung, corresponds to a different note on the uke.
It’s an interesting bit of trivia that, unfortunately, won’t help you at all when your dog begins to obsessively scratch itself and won’t stop. (Music soothes the savage beasts, after all – not the itchy ones). And, certainly, those parasitic pests – fleas, ticks, mites, etc. – only make dogs and their owners feel like singing the blues.
“You won’t be able to make skin happy if your dog has fleas until you get rid of the fleas,” says Dr. David MacDonald, DVM, CVA, CVSMT, with Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care. “Obviously, there are both conventional ways of treating fleas as well as more natural methods. And that’s another conversation, entirely.”
But identifying the source of a dog’s itchy skin is not always quite so easy or straightforward, Dr. MacDonald notes.
“Sometimes you’ll have animals you see over some time until you crack the code and say, ‘Ah! I know why this dog’s itchy.’”
A Clean Start
Setting fleas and ticks aside (thank goodness), the ailments that make a dog unbearably itchy can sometimes be relieved by a simple, quick fix – or could reflect a bigger disease process that’s occurring, says Dr. MacDonald.
“If a dog is itchy, there’s some sort of stimulus that is making them feel uncomfortable. So, they’re nibbling, scratching, and rubbing,” he says.
“At a basic level, we need to recognize where that discomfort is coming from. Are they dirty? Do they just need a good bath? Sometimes, it comes down to simple grooming. If a dog’s coat is not in good condition and gets kind of matted or clumped up with chunks of skin flakes – that can cause severe itching. The best thing for those dogs is often just a good bath, a good cleaning, and a good brushing.”
Dr. MacDonald notes that he’s not a big believer that dogs need to be bathed ad nauseam.
“They certainly don’t need to be bathed as often as people do,” he says. “Generally speaking, I think most people most of the time are bathing animals more than they should.”
The doctor’s dogs, for instance, are maybe bathed four times a year.
“They just don’t need it that often,” he says. “Sure, if they go for a long hike and come back all muddy and mucky – of course, they need to be cleaned up. And sometimes, just a good, oatmeal-based shampoo is the simplest way to ease that surface irritation.”
“Grooming, of course, is a good routine to get into,” he continues. “Whether your dog has a long, thick, furry coat or a short coat, it just feels good to get brushed. The hair follicles like that stimulation, and it fosters natural oils and secretions that keep the skin healthy.”
Beyond the Baths (or Getting to the Source)
Occasionally, dogs get itchy after being exposed to an irritant that causes a direct physical sensation that simply goes away in time.
“But more often, we have animals who have itchy skin because of a sensitivity that they’re experiencing,” says Dr. MacDonald.
Many pet owners are quick to jump to the “allergy” conclusion.
“I think to a degree that’s true if you’re thinking of an allergy as a sensitivity that makes you feel itchy. But it’s kind of a shortcut to say ‘allergy’ when really what we need to do is think about the source of where that sensation is coming from.”
Frequently, that itchiness is a response to an internal imbalance.
“The skin is often where we initially see or feel an imbalance in the body. What is happening inside gets reflected on the outside.”
And the best, first step, to cure such imbalances is to ensure your dog is on a healthy diet.
“A healthy diet is always on the top of the list of how we help patients do better and feel better,” Dr. MacDonald says. “And for the whole body, for that matter – it’s not just skin related.”
A biologically appropriate diet for dogs should be high protein, low carbs, and minimally processed – and there are many ways to accomplish that, from high-quality packaged food to a natural-based diet, whether homemade or raw.
“Those steps are certainly applicable to help address the source of where that inflammation and immune sensitivity is coming from,” Dr. MacDonald says.
Go with Their Gut
In addition to a sound diet, the microbiome must be considered.
“The balance of the gut has such a profound role in regulating the body’s functions,” Dr. MacDonald says. “And that’s probably most pronounced with the immune system. We’re seeing more and more these days that animals with itchy skin usually have a microbial imbalance.”
Doylestown Veterinary Hospital has had great success using AnimalBiome, a shelf-stable supplement that helps to restore the microbiome in animals with food sensitivities and chronic skin issues.
“It’s an opportunity for us to treat the source of where that immune sensitivity comes from, rather than just treating the symptoms.”
Providing Immediate Relief
Proper diet and restoring the microbiome are the keys to helping a dog’s itchy skin, but those steps can take weeks or months before long-term relief is achieved.
“So, we may need some things that can help more immediately,” Dr. MacDonald says.
Oral supplements like Omega 3 fatty acids are incredibly effective, he says.
“These are profoundly anti-inflammatory, in general, and they almost always have a nourishing effect on the skin. Omega 3s not only help to address the source of the inflammation, but it also helps the skin to function more normally. It just feels better.”
The conventional approach of steroids and antihistamines can be used, if necessary, but Dr. MacDonald tries to avoid them whenever possible, opting for a more natural course of action, instead.
“In my practice, I use a lot of Chinese herbs – particularly those that help with certain types of skin conditions.”
Stinging nettles are also used in both Eastern and Western medicine with astounding results.
“I have nettles growing on my property where I live,” says Dr. MacDonald. “If you brush against this plant, or touch it, or grab it, it stings – like you’re grabbing an electrical wire. And it’s kind of crazy to think: how could using this herb help anyone feel better?”
Interestingly, when the plant is processed and taken as an herbal supplement, the body sends a signal that the stinging sensation is a problem that needs to be eliminated.
“The way that this herb works is not unlike how homeopathic preparations work. In presenting a stimulus that mimics the physical state in the body, a healing response is created to that stimulus through immune modulation. You can take several animals who have different reasons for being itchy, and so many will benefit after being treated with nettles.”
For those who enjoy a nice cup of tea, Green Tea or Chamomile when applied directly to a welt or itchy spot on your dog can also provide relief for a dog’s itchy skin. After steeping your tea, simply apply the leftover tea bag to the affected area for a quick and soothing topical treatment.
TCB Regarding CBD
Dr. MacDonald says that Doylestown Veterinary Hospital is increasingly seeing the benefits of CBD oil when treating a dog’s itchy skin.
“When we’re talking about CBD, we’re using a version of the chemical that can be isolated from the plant,” he says. “None of it includes the THC associated with cannabis. It’s very safe for us to use and it’s interesting to know that there are receptors in the body for these compounds that naturally occur in these plants. The body’s endocannabinoid system knows how to use these compounds in a way that directly regulates the immune system, the nervous system, mood, and things like that. It can also have anti-inflammatory effects and anti-cancer effects.”
And anything that reduces inflammation is good for the skin.
“We will soon be able to make use of some topical CBD applications, as well. That’s kind of on the horizon of new things we’re exploring as we discover more benefits of CBD.”
As the world continues to crack open the door when thinking about hemp, the controversy and the obstacles begin to drop away, allowing the benefits to be seen.
“We have the ability to use the positive aspects of the hemp plant without the negative perceptions surrounding cannabis,” Dr. MacDonald says. “And we do see that there are benefits to using this as part of our medical repertoire. It’s a treatment, a remedy that comes from the plant world – and it’s innovative, groundbreaking medicine.”