Question: Why is my dog licking his skin all the time?
My dog has been licking himself consistently and I noticed his skin is red. I decided to put a cone on him to help stop licking himself. What could this be caused by and how do I treat it?
Thanks for writing in with your question. Seeing your dog in discomfort is never easy and when you don’t know why–it’s even worse. A dog who has suddenly started licking his skin a lot and shows patches of redness could be suffering from one or more common problems.
A dog’s skin is the largest organ he has. The skin protects your dog from the environment, regulates temperature and allow him to feel what’s happening around him.
With the skin being on the outside of the body, it’s very visible to us humans. It’s not surprising that Nationwide Pet Insurance’s 2017 survey of pet owners found that skin allergies are the number one reason for pets to visit a veterinarian.
What Are Skin Allergies in Dogs?
Skin allergy is a blanket term used for when the immune system in the skin is reacting inappropriately to normal substances. The most common cause of skin allergies in dogs is plant pollen.
Vets call skin allergies atopic dermatitis (AD). We don’t know exactly why AD happens, but it seems to run in some families and breeds of dogs.
In AD, skin barrier defects allow things like pollen or bacteria to penetrate the outer layer of the skin and come in contact with immune cells. The immune cells then release chemicals in an attempt to eradicate “invaders.” These chemicals are irritating to the rest of the skin, leading to itchy sensations and redness.
Many dogs have seasonal flares of skin allergy symptoms in the spring and autumn when pollen counts are high. Once a dog starts scratching, chewing and licking his skin he can develop a secondary bacterial infection that only makes the problem worse.
Symptoms of Skin Allergies
Classic symptoms of atopic dermatitis include:
- Licking skin–especially feet, armpits and groin
- Ear inflammation
- May or may not be seasonal
Diagnosing Skin Allergies
There is no test to prove a dog has atopic dermatitis. Diagnosis is based on symptoms and ruling out other causes.
There are tests available to find out which allergens your dog reacts to the most, but these tests are used to guide treatment, not to make a diagnosis.
Other Things Can Look Like Skin Allergies
There are several other problems that can look like skin allergies/AD, so don’t be fooled! External parasites like fleas and mites can cause itchy skin, sores and redness just like AD. These organisms are so small, they’re often overlooked as a cause for skin problems. Ask your vet for help in identifying and treating parasite infestations.
Treatment of Dog Skin Allergies
Treatment of skin allergies/AD depends on the severity of the symptoms. Mild cases respond well to frequent bathing and oral antihistamines. Dogs with more severe symptoms may also be treated with immune-modulating drugs like corticosteroids, Apoquel and Cytopoint.
I recommend you see your veterinarian for help with your dog’s red, itchy skin. In the meantime, my clients find that bathing dogs every 2-3 days with a mild oatmeal shampoo and finishing with pramoxine leave-on cream rinse helps calm the itch.
Some other tips to help your dog:
- Avoid walking your dog outside between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. when pollen levels are highest
- Rinse him with plain water after going outside to remove pollen from skin
- Keep windows closed in your home
- Use a high-quality air purifier indoors
Hang in there! Dog skin allergies are annoying, but there are many things you can do to help your dog during his uncomfortable allergy season.
TB Thompson DVM