Why does my dog have sensitive, itchy skin?

LAST UPDATED 19 December 2019

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski

Finding the origin of your dog's sensitive or itchy skin can be an exhausting endeavour as there are so many variables to consider. Most of the time these symptoms arise from an allergy and by using elimination techniques, you can determine what the irritant is.

Pet Circle Veterinarian, Dr Carla, takes us through some tips for helping itchy skin in dogs. For more helpful videos, subscribe to Pet Circle's Youtube Channel.


We take you through some of the most common causes of sensitive, itchy skin below.

1. Fleas

2. Grass and Environmental Allergies

3. Food Allergies

4. Best Dog Food For Skin Allergies

4. Shampoo: Help or Harm?

5. Which Dog Skin Care Products Actually Work?

6. Recap

Fleas, fleas fleas!

If your pet is suffering from itchy, flaky or sensitive skin, fleas may be the cause. If left untreated, flea infestations can result in flea dermatitis in the form of hair loss, inflammation and scabs on your dog's skin.

Thoroughly check your dog's fur, particularly around the rump area as fleas tend to thrive in this location. While you may not see the fleas themselves, look out for dirty black clumps or powder on your pooch's skin. This is called flea dirt, and it is essentially flea faeces, comprised of digested blood. (Gross!)

Not sure if it's regular dirt or flea dirt? Get a piece of white paper or a paper towel and place some of the dirt onto it. Add a small amount of water to the dirt- if it turns a reddish colour, this is flea feces. The red colour is caused by the high blood content from feeding female fleas.

Products like Nexgard, Bravecto, and Comfortis are effective flea control options for treating and managing infestations.

Shop All Dog Flea Prevention

Grass and other plant allergies

Like humans, dogs can experience allergy-like symptoms in the springtime in response to grass and other pollens. Symptoms commonly manifest as seasonal itching, biting or licking of the paws, and watery or goopy eyes (conjunctivitis).

Unfortunately, unlike changing your pet's diet or keeping flea control up to date, avoiding pollen is not a feasible task. Unless your pooch is kept in a quarantine zone, pollen exposure is inevitable. If your dog is experiencing environmental allergies, you will need to visit a veterinarian for advice on oral or injectable medications.

Keep an eye out for any potentially poisonous plants in your yard such as Wandering Jew (Tradescantia) which is an introduced weed that is commonly found on the east coast of Australia. This weed thrives in moist, shady areas and skin contact with pets can result in a nasty rash.


Food Allergies

A lot of the time, symptoms of food intolerance will manifest in itchy skin, rather than digestive upset. If your pet's symptoms are caused by their diet, it is best to go through an elimination plan with your vet. You will usually choose foods that have a single meat protein source to easier identify which ingredients are the culprits.

A combination of 15 different studies from countries including Australia, United States and United Kingdom tested 278 dogs in total that suffered from food intolerances. The most common allergy was to beef, which affected 34% of the group and clocking into second place was dairy at 20%.

Providing a diet with a 'novel' or 'less common' meat protein is ideal for some pets with food intolerances, as most pets have an allergy to more than just one type of food. Kangaroo, rabbit and venison are popular choices for sensitive pets.

Wondering what food is good for dogs with sensitive, itchy skin? These are some of our recommendations...

Royal Canin Dermacomfort

Enriched with a nutrient complex that helps to support the skin barrier, as well as omega 3 and 6 fatty acids widely known to promote healthy skin and a shiny coat.

Hill's Sensitive Skin

Contains omega 3 & 6 fatty acids, vitamin E and other nutrients, making this food great for dogs with dry, itchy, flaky and sensitive skin.

Billy and Margot Salmon Superfood Blend

Fish protein tends to be a rare allergen, and fish also contains beneficial omega fatty acids which nourish the skin.

Savourlife Kangaroo

With a novel protein (kangaroo) and carbohydrates (peas and tapioca), this diet is great for possible food allergies.

For further details, see our articles below:

Shampoo: help or harm?

The source of sensitive skin may be related to a more local issue like a strongly perfumed shampoo. When using products on your pooch's skin or coat, never use human products. Only ever use those that are approved for canine use.

However, not all shampoos are bad. Some shampoos can provide relief from inflammation or help with infection. However, shampoo is not a replacement for proper medical treatment and most pets will still require an oral or injectable medication from a vet.

Aloveen is an oatmeal based shampoo that is ideal for sensitive pets who suffer from dermatitis. The shampoo provides a gentle cleansing to remove dirt, chemicals and allergens from the skin. Use this with the Aloveen conditioner to prolong the soothing effect and restore moisture to the skin.

Yeast or fungal infections will also cause symptoms which manifest through the skin and coat, such as itchy skin or inflammation. Malaseb medicated shampoo is an antifungal, antibacterial and antipruritic solution to not only alleviate discomfort but also help treat yeast and fungal infections.

Skin Care Products for Dogs: What Actually Works?

With a huge number of dog skin care products on the market, which ones actually work?

1. Omega Oils - Whether these are topical or an oral supplement, omega fatty acids are clinically proven to strengthen the skin barrier. A stronger barrier will quicken skin healing time, and reduce the likelihood that your dog will have a reaction. See some great (and effective) products containing omega fatty acids below:

Natural Animal Solutions Omega Oil

This handy pump bottle allows omega fatty acids to be added to the food. It is suitable for cats, dogs, and horses.

PAW Blackmores Coat, Skin and Nails

This handy chew contains omega fatty acids to nourish the skin. The best part is that your dog will simply think they're getting a tasty treat!

Dermoscent Essential 6 Pippettes

Highly recommended by veterinary dermatologists, these tubes allow you to place nourishing omega fatty acid oils directly onto the coat.

Omega 3-6-9 Oil

Often sold in vet clinics, this 1L bulk bottle of omega oils is great value and can be used in any pump bottle as a refill.

2. Soothing conditioners and lotions. A high-quality soothing lotion which contains beneficial moisturising properties can help nourish your dog's inflamed skin. It can also help provide an extra 'barrier' layer on the skin surface, reducing the risk of some allergens penetrating through and causing a reaction. Our top recommendations for soothing conditioners include:

The take away

Finding the cause of itchy or sensitive skin can be a time consuming endeavour but it's worth it to see that tail wagging again. Keep your dog treated for fleas and swap any fragranced shampoos or beauty products with low irritant alternatives. Diet is the next big thing, but be careful to read the ingredients on the back. A product may advertise as lamb and rice, but may still contain chicken fat or meal in the formula. If your dog has an allergy to specific meat proteins, even small amounts will produce symptoms.

Further Reading

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