Is your pet itching, scratching, chewing or frantically biting themselves?

If so, you are not alone: itchiness is one of the most common reasons that clients bring their pets to see us, and it can mean that your pet has a skin problem.

Itching, scratching, chewing and biting – what’s it all about?

Let’s talk about skin

Did you know your pet’s skin is the largest organ in their body, accounting for between 12-24% of their bodyweight1?  It acts as a vital barrier around pet’s body, protecting them from invasion from nasties such as parasites, infection and dirt!  It also helps to keep the body hydrated, by keeping essential fluids and nutrients tucked away.  Lastly, it acts as a thermostat for your pet, helping to keep their body temperature just right.

Your pet’s skin is made up of several layers and depending on where the skin is located, it may also contain hair follicles and glands that secrete oils to help protect and nourish the skin and coat.  Thanks to the skin, your pet is able to touch and feel the world around them.

With all these essential roles, it’s important to take great care of your pet’s skin to keep them healthy and comfortable. So, if you do spot that your furry friend has a skin problem, it’s vital that you bring them in to see us.  We can then help to get their skin back on the road to recovery and keep your pet healthy and comfortable.

What causes skin problems in pets?

There lots of different things that can cause skin problems and your pet may even have several of them going on at the same time!  Here are some of the culprits that we know can cause skin problems in cats and dogs:

  • Infections e.g. bacteria, viruses or yeasts.
  • Parasites e.g. fleas, mites and lice.
  • Allergies e.g. to food, contact with substances, or flea bites.
  • Hormone problems e.g. thyroid problems or Cushings disease.
  • Tumours e.g. skin cancers.
  • Immune disorders e.g. auto-immune problems.
  • Nutritional problems  e.g. zinc deficiency.
  • Stress  e.g. obsessively licking themselves.

In addition, we know that certain breeds are more vulnerable than others to developing some skin conditions. For example, Persian cats are predisposed to the fungal skin condition ringworm; Siamese cats are prone to psychogenic alopecia (hair loss from overgrooming); Schnauzers can get Schnauzer comedone syndrome (blocked skin glands) and Boxers are vulnerable to mast cell tumours and atopy (an allergy to things in the environment).

What are the most common causes of skin problems?

So, as you can see there are quite a few things that can leave your pet in an itchy scratchy frenzy.  However, in practice, the most common culprits are:

  1. Fleas – These pesky critters are easy for your pet to pick up and are a common cause of skin complaints. Some pets are even allergic to the flea’s saliva and it can take just a few bites to set off a nasty skin reaction called Flea Allergic Dermatitis (FAD). This can affect both cats and dog and is extremely itchy. To learn more, take a peek at our flea.
  2. Food – Your pet can have an allergic reaction to certain foods or ingredients in their diet, causing the skin to react and become irritated.  This is more commonly seen in our canine companions.
  3. Atopy – In dogs, this is an inherited allergy to things in the environment and is something they are born with.  Cats can also get atopy, although, it is slightly different in cats compared to dogs and less well understood.  Pet’s with this condition can be desperately itchy and may or may not show any physical skin signs.
  4. Mites – These creepy critters can really get under your pet’s skin. They love to burrow deep into the skin or nestle in their hair follicles. Many mites will make your pet feel intensely itchy and could mean a sleepless night!  To find out more check out our mites' page!

How do I know if my pet has a skin problem?

Skin problems can cause lots of different signs depending on the cause. However, the most common is itchiness!  If your pet is feeling itchy, they will be desperate to alleviate it and you may notice the following behaviours:

  • Restlessness.
  • Grumpiness – skin problems can be uncomfortable and sore!
  • Biting at themselves.
  • Scratching (day and night!).
  • Rubbing their itchy areas (e.g. ears, belly, face or bottom), against carpets furniture, your leg!
  • Licking at their skin.
  • Traumatising themselves – you may see your pet pulling out their fur.
  • Over-grooming.
  • Lethargy – sometimes their skin can be so uncomfortable that it prevents them from sleeping!

Besides your pet showing behavioural changes, you may notice some physical changes to their skin and coat too (please note, for some skin conditions, itching could be the only sign!):

  • Hair loss (alopecia).
  • Redness to the skin (inflammation).
  • Dry scale in their coat (dandruff).
  • Dry skin • Greasy skin (+/- matted fur).
  • Pimples, pustules or plaques of raised skin.
  • Lumps and bumps.
  • Raw and moist areas of skin.
  • Thickening to the skin (this can happen with chronic skin conditions).
  • Pigmentation of the skin (this can happen with chronic skin conditions).

What about my pet’s ears?

Did you know your pet’s ears are lined with skin too?  Just as skin problems can affect the skin on your pet’s body, feet and legs, they can also affect their ears too!  For example, allergies, infections and ear mites can cause your pet’s ears to become sore and itchy. You can read more about ear disease in the dog here.

How will the vet know what’s causing my pet’s skin problems?

The first place to start is to take a good look at your furry friend and give them a head to tail physical examination (and a quick tickle or cuddle!).  From this, we will be able to identify what areas of their skin have been affected and what the lesions look like.  From this alone, we may already have an inkling as what is causing your furry friend’s skin bother.

However, in most cases, looking alone will not be enough and we may need to take some quick samples from your pet to help us rule out or rule in certain suspects.  These may include hair plucks, tape–strips, skin scrapes and swabs (depending on what we think is most appropriate for your pet).  Also, because we know that fleas are a common cause, we may also do a flea comb of their coat to check for these high-jumping critters.

These quick and simple tests can help us to identify (or rule out) some of the more common culprits, for example, fleas, mites, yeast and bacteria. We might at this stage be able to identify what is causing your pet’s skin problem. If not, we may suggest running some additional blood or allergy tests, or recommend a food elimination trial.

Diagnosing the primary cause of your pet’s skin problem may take time, so please be patient. It is often complicated by the fact that there can be several causes involved.  It is also not uncommon for your pet to develop secondary infections due to an overgrowth of their skin’s yeasts and bacteria population, which will also need to be managed.

How do you treat skin problems?

So, if your furry friend does have a skin problem, don’t panic as there are lots of treatments** that we can give that will make them feel comfortable and like his/her old self in no time!  Depending on the cause (or suspected) cause of your pet’s skin bother, we may use some of the following treatments to manage their condition:

  • Flea and mite treatment.
  • Antibiotics.
  • Anti-fungals.
  • Treatment shampoos.
  • Anti-inflammatories.
  • Allergy medications.
  • Skin supplements.
  • Hypoallergenic food or a novel protein diet.
  • Hormone supplements or suppressants.

**It’s important to understand that not all skin conditions can be treated and some will need life-long management to ensure that your furry friend stays comfy and free from the dreaded itchy-scratches!   This may mean bathing your pet with special shampoos regularly: keeping up to date with their flea or mite treatment; keeping them on special food or regularly medicating them.


1. MSD Veterinary Manual