Nobody likes to see their guide, hearing or service dog suffer, and we all know how unbearable it can be when you have persistent itching. But being itchy isn’t just a nuisance. It sometimes points to underlying health concerns, and your assistance dog may inadvertently cause additional problems like self-inflicted injuries, hot spots, and hair loss as she scratches, bites, chews, or licks at itchy areas.
There are a variety of causes of excessive scratching or chewing in dogs, and we’ve outlined a number of the most common below. It’s important to take this seriously, so please consult your veterinarian when you notice your assistance dog chewing, biting, scratching, or licking herself a lot.
Common Reasons Dogs Scratch, Chew, or Lick a Lot
- External parasites – A number of external parasites are common causes of excessive scratching or chewing in dogs. Fleas are of course a likely culprit, but ticks, mosquito bites, and mange (mites) are some other possibilities; if your hearing, guide, or service dog is scratching specifically at her ears, ear mites may be to blame. The problem is often visible to the human eye when it comes to external parasites, though mites are microscopic and fleas can be tough to spot unless there are a lot of them (using a flea comb and checking for “flea dirt” helps).
- Allergies – Seasonal allergies and food allergies typically trigger excessive itching and scratching in dogs. Seasonal allergies tend to peak in the spring and fall, and are often a response to pollen. Less likely but still possible, your assistance dog could be allergic to one or more ingredients in her diet. Proteins and grains are the most common food allergens in dogs. Contact dermatitis is another type of allergic skin reaction to chemicals, fabrics, and other environmental irritants. It’s also possible to have exaggerated allergic responses to parasites and their bites (like flea bite dermatitis).
- Dry skin – Sometimes, it’s just good old-fashioned dry skin making your service, hearing, or guide dog all itchy. Cold, dry winter weather can cause it, as can frequent bathing and harsh shampoos. Causes may be more serious though, like fatty acid or other nutritional deficiencies. Ask your vet or professional groomer for a recommendation for a gentle moisturizing canine shampoo, and talk to your vet about whether a fatty acid or other nutritional supplements might be a good idea.
- Injuries and infections – Pain or discomfort from a wound or a foreign object in the skin can prompt excessive chewing, biting, or scratching at the affected area. Bacterial infections also cause itching as a major symptom, and can result from untreated wounds (including damage done by excessive scratching or chewing), parasite bites, and other problems. Dogs also sometimes develop yeast or fungal infections on their skin that makes them itchy.
- Hormonal imbalances – Too little or too much production of certain hormones are other common causes of excessive scratching or chewing in dogs. Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism—conditions of inadequate or excessive thyroid hormone, respectively—are some of the leading hormonal triggers of itchiness. Underproduction of cortisol (hypoadrenocorticism, which causes Addison’s disease) and overproduction of cortisol (hyperadrenocorticism, which causes Cushing’s disease) are possibilities to investigate, too.
Treating Excessive Scratching or Chewing in Your Assistance Dog
Obviously, the treatment will depend on the cause of all that itching. Again, consult your veterinarian for a definitive diagnosis and treatment advice. Be prepared to provide as much detail as possible, such as when your service, guide, or hearing dog started scratching or chewing; where she’s scratching, biting, licking, or chewing; whether there are certain times when she seems to scratch or chew the most; and so on.
Your vet will recommend an appropriate product and some home management tips for any parasitic infestations. Steps to limit exposure to allergens are necessary when they’re to blame, and a specially designed exclusion diet is needed to get to the bottom of food allergies. Your vet can also advise you on products to moisturize and soothe dry skin, or to treat skin infections. Blood testing is required to diagnose hormonal imbalances, and medications or hormone supplements are often indicated.
Also, your veterinarian will help you manage the symptoms while your assistance dog undergoes the appropriate treatment. Topical products, various home remedies, and some nutritional supplements can help reduce itchiness, but check with your vet to make sure they’re OK to use in conjunction with your dog’s condition. If your guide, hearing, or service dog is damaging her coat and skin with excessive biting or chewing, your vet may suggest a cone or inflatable collar that prevents it.