What’s the most common reason we hear for coming to Mission Animal Hospital? ITCHY DOGS!!   

At Mission Animal Hospital, we can help you in both the accurate diagnosis and the most effective treatment of the itchy pet.  Let’s spend a few minutes discussing the most common reasons for that itch, what you can do about it at home, and when you need to bring your San Luis Obispo itchy dog in to see us at Mission Animal Hospital.

Allergies and fleas probably cause 95% of the itchy pets we see around here. We also see skin disease caused by excessive exposure to the sun and other problems,  but we’ll shelve that for now.


On the Central Coast, fleas are inevitable for any pet who goes outside. If your pet is lucky enough not to have fleas now, the only way they’ll get them is by crossing paths with an animal that does have fleas. The hard part is that—while this animal is usually another dog or cat—it can also be a squirrel, coyote, deer, or bird. The cheapest way to avoid fleas is to keep your pet in a home or an area impenetrable to birds and your neighbor’s cat—but how practical is that? Usually, not very. So we typically use drugs. For dogs, this means oral Comforts, Simparica, and Bravecto. For cats, Revolution. Bravecto works for three months per pill, and the rest of them are all used once monthly during the warmer months of the year.


Most pets develop allergies either to things they eat, they touch, or they inhale. And some itchy dogs are lucky enough to have all three at the same time. The basic cause of any allergy– wherever symptoms appear– is an exaggerated response of the immune system to allergens such as pollens, molds, dietary ingredients, chemicals, and other environmental toxins. The best treatment of such allergies is identification and removal of the offending substance. The hard part is that this is practical in only a small percentage of cases, leaving us to try instead to suppress a pet’s immune system. 


While dietary allergies can cause itch over the whole pet, it is usually worst around the head and ears.  In fact, they are the single most common reason for inflammation in BOTH a pet’s ears. You can run into foxtails and infections in one ear, but if both ears are irritated a dietary allergy is the most likely cause. Dietary allergies can also cause GI signs like vomiting and diarrhea, especially in cats. As an aside, if you have a cat who is absolutely healthy and not losing weight but vomits—they are usually allergic to their food.


Similar to what humans go through, inhalted allergies can make pets sneeze, have runny eyes, and cough.


This is most commmonly on the paws or the belly. If you have a dog who is constantly chewing its feet, chances are they are walking on something they are allergic to.   Remember that this can be vegetation, but it can also be your rugs or bedding… and what those rugs or bedding are cleaned with.

In the majority of cases, allergies are a stand alone problem.  However, some dogs may have underlying health issues like thyroid problems, diabetes, or Cushing’s disease which can cause your pet’s skin problems.


Basically, dogs who have atopy lack the normal waxy skin layer that prevents the entry of pollens, etc, into the skin. Our goals with atopy are both to desensitize a pet to the penetrating allergens and also to help them build up that protective skin layer.



Of course, if fleas are involved, they need to be solved to stop your pet’s itch.

1) Pets should be given wild Alaskan salmon oil to provide 50 mg of omega 3 fatty acids per pound body weight.

2) Try to figure out what they are allergic to and avoid it for two weeks. If it doesn’t work, try a second hypothesis, and a third. The most common causes of dietary allergies are either the meat or the grain (especially corn) in the diet. If your pet is allergic to the typical lamb- or poultry-based foods, you may have to find a diet based on salmon, duck, kangaroo, or rabbit — things the average pet in our area has never eaten before. You should stay away from bison if you have an allergic pet — it is too similar to beef. Bear in mind two things:

  1. A dietary change will take up to two months to work.  
  2. If your pet gets into another pet’s food or eats a bite of a sandwich, you’re sunk. No treats, no walks except on a leash, etc.

3) A soothing shampoo, such as one that contains aloe vera and oatmeal, can help your pet. Just make sure that you rinse them WELL with cool water, as there is nothing that will make a pet itch more than soap suds after a bath. Consider a cleansing shampoo followed by a steroid-based rinse in an effort to minimize the use of oral steroids.

4) If your pet’s skin stinks, it is because there is an infection present. This can be a primary problem, but is usually due to your pet’s scratching and biting. In either case, your pet will not stop itching until you have the infection controlled. Mild, local infections will respond well to lotions containing aloe or lavender, or to NeoSporin-type ointments. You can also try baths consisting of  1 part white vinegar to 4 parts water, sponged liberally over your dog and let dry in place. More widespread infections will require antibiotic therapy.

5) Suppress the source of the problem: your pet’s hyperactive immune system. We can do this in six different ways:

  1. With integrative therapy: Every itchy pet will benefit from CURCUMIN at a dose of 50mg per lb body weight once daily, preferably with fish oil.  We have formulated and recommend Transcend, the best curcumin product on the market.
  2. With antihistamines: Antihistamines are much less effective in pets than in humans. However, they are safe, may provide some benefit, and can have mild sedative properties — not necessarily a bad thing for an itchy pet. Benadryl is the old standby, and should be dosed at 1 mg per lb body weight, given twice daily. Zyrtec was recently shown to improve 28% of itchy pets, which is a much better response than Benadryl, and it should be dosed at 1 mg per 2 lbs body weight, given once daily. In either case, you can use these in combination with any other  approach.
  3. With steroids, the traditional (and a very effective ) remedy. Not so fast– see Apoquel, below. If you want an immediate stop to your pet’s itch, you can to use prescription steroids like  prednisone. It is one of the few drugs that we can give a guarantee to. The problem is that steroids can create some side effects.  If we use it just for a few days, these side effects are mild and mostly behavioral—some dogs will pant, drink more water, and can show mild urinary incontinence (which resolves as soon as the pills are stopped). However, if we have to use steroids long term they can create liver inflammation, hypertension, and other issues. As with any other medication, we simply need to weigh the pros and cons, then use the smallest effective dose for the shortest time.
  4. With Apoquel. The new kid on the block, Apoquel is as effective as steroids, but has no side effects. This is the safest and most effective drug we have ever seen in controlling itch. As such, it has largely replaced the use of steroids.
  5. With Atopica. This is a very effective (and expensive) drug that can benefit even the  itchiest patient. While it has fewer behavioral side effects than do steroids, it is such an effective immune suppressant that it can actually raise the risk of some geriatric diseases. Again, pros and cons.
  6. With CADI. For dogs that suffer from atopy, this game-changing injection is given every 4-6 weeks. The CADI injections can sometimes completely eliminate your dogs’ misery!
At Mission Animal Hospital, we’re here to help you—however we can. 
Click here to download our checklist on the care of an itchy dog.

Contact Us

Mission Animal Hospital


3973 South Higuera Street San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

Clinic Hours

Monday-Friday 9 am to 5 pm
Saturday 9am to 3pm
Sunday Closed