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Carlisle Vets

Atopic Dermatitis

Itchy Dogs

“Help, My Dog Won’t Stop Scratching! …and not only that, he sits in front of the TV to do it!”

There are many reasons why your dog could be feeling itchy. Read on to learn about possible causes and what we can do to help.

Parasites – fleas, lice and mites:

These little hitch-hikers bite, which hurts your dog and causes them to start scratching their skin. Dogs can also develop allergic reactions from this, for example to flea saliva. There are currently dozens of products on the market to kill external parasites. We stock a range of the safest and most reliable:

  • Credelio – a tablet that covers fleas and ticks
  • Selehold – a spot-on preparation that covers fleas and roundworms
  • Frontline – a spray that covers fleas and ticks

Credelio and Selehold are given monthly and are the treatment of choice for many owners for the convenience they offer. Frontline is applied every 3 months. We can order in other parasite treatments if preferred or recommended by a vet.

Fleas are rapidly developing resistance to some of the older flea control products, particularly shampoos and powders, so please feel free to discuss your needs with someone from the surgery to make sure you get a safe and reliable product and sound advice on how best to use it.

Food Allergies:

It’s strange but true! Eating the wrong food can make your dog itchy. The worst offenders are beef and dairy proteins but any food could be the culprit. To confirm that a food allergy is responsible for your pet’s itchy skin, you can conduct an elimination trial. This means feeding a novel protein which your pet has not come in contact with before for at least 6 weeks, for example a diet of duck (if new to your pet), plain rice and veg. An alternative option is feeding “anallergenic” or “hypoallergenic” diets containing very small or chemically treated (hydrolysed) proteins to reduce risk of reactions. But you must feed the dog this diet EXCLUSIVELY! Unfortunately this means no titbits, dog chews, gravy bones, dental sticks or Digestives!

Atopic Dermatitis:

This is an inherited problem for which there is, as of yet, no cure. However, we can provide help to ease the itching. It is the most common cause of allergic skin disease, with four out of five allergic dogs having atopic dermatitis. Dogs with atopic dermatitis do have a tendency to develop allergies but much of the problem is due to failure of the barrier function of the skin. Common examples of allergens which effect dogs with atopic dermatitis are house-dust mites, grasses, weeds, trees, shrubs, storage mites, moulds and fleas. As you can see, the problem with many of these common allergens is that it is difficult (if not outright impossible!) to prevent your dog from coming into contact with them.

However, there are several types of medicines available which can help.

  1. Corticosteroids (“steroids”): These anti-inflammatory drugs ease the rash that forms when your pet comes into contact with the allergen. They are usually given by either injection or in tablet form but they are also available as creams and sprays. Steroids are widely used and are effective at reducing symptoms but they can lead to an increase in appetite, urination and thirst while pets are under treatment. They are undoubtedly useful in the treatment of itchiness but if used at high doses over long periods they can have adverse side-effects that make your pet unwell, although such side-effects are almost always reversible once the steroids are withdrawn.


  1. Desensitisation Injections or Immunotherapy: This treatment option requires a blood sample to determine the specific allergens your pet is reacting to. A “vaccine” is then produced for these allergens. Your pet will then receive monthly injections for one to two years and reducing in frequency from then. Usually each vaccine can cover up to four allergens, but some dogs may be allergic to more than four allergens.


  1. Immune Modulators: These change the way the skin reacts to allergens leaving it less reactive and itchy. There are several drugs available under the trade names of Apoquel (tablets), Atopica (tablets)/Sporimune (oral solution) and Cytopoint (injections). Atopica has been used since about 1995 but Apoquel came to the veterinary market more recently in 2013 and Cytopoint in 2014. Both the vaccine and the immune modulators work by making the skin less sensitive so that it doesn’t get itchy in the first place.


  • There are several shampoos or mousses which are soothing to inflamed skin and there are numerous dietary supplements containing essential fatty acids which support the skin cells.
  • Atopic/allergic dogs often have yeast and bacteria skin infections at the same time and may need antibacterial shampoos or antibiotics by mouth or injection.
  • Blood tests can be done to provide a list of both environmental and food allergies, to assist with targeted management and treatment.


In summary: atopy or atopic dermatitis is a disease that we cannot cure. Rather, we aim to control it and reduce the negative effects of its symptoms. This is usually done with a combination of treatments rather than a single medication. Regular visits to the surgery are often required to monitor the problem and ensure the right treatments are given at the right time. Some treatments can be expensive so it is always worth discussing your budget with your vet.


Ellie Skelhorn BVMedSci BVMBVS MRCVS