Is it eczema?
Eczema simply means `itchy skin', often due to allergy in people. Lots of skin problems in dogs are caused by allergies, but there are several other important causes as well.
Could it be fleas?
It's vital that itchy dogs undergo good flea control. Products from the vet are generally more effective than those bought from the supermarket or pet shop. All cats, dogs and rabbits in the house should be treated, as should the house itself, since fleas lay their eggs off of your pet. Fleas are often NOT seen if your dog is allergic to flea bites. A single bite can trigger a reaction, and the scratching that follows disturbs the flea so it jumps off.
The vet says my dog may have an allergy, but there's nothing new in the house.
An allergy happens because of a change in the animal's body. In normal daily life, the body is surrounded by substances which are outside itself and which it recognises as different. Some of these, like viruses and bacteria, may be dangerous, and an immune response occurs to prevent infection. Normally non-dangerous things are identified and ignored so that an unnecessary immune response doesn't happen. In allergies this process goes wrong, and the body fails to recognise non-dangerous substances correctly and an immune response occurs, causing the itchy skin. Allergies can be seasonal and may stop in winter.
Would an allergy test be helpful?
The last vet gave my dog an injection and it stopped itching just like that!
Skin and blood tests are not completely reliable. Dogs are frequently allergic to more than one thing, such as pollen, house dust mites and mold spores, so identifying the cause of the allergy is difficult. However, provided that your pet has had tests for other causes, like mange, a vet can tell from the way that the itchiness develops that allergy is likely. If your pet has had the cause of its allergy diagnosed it may be possible to give a course of injections to try and reduce the allergic reaction, but this only works in about a third of cases. Flea control is still vital, as one bite can make an allergic dog really scratch!
Most itches can be stopped by a steroid injection. For allergic skin conditions steroids are often needed, but tablets are better. Follow the vet's advice carefully on how to give them. They only stop the itch while your pet is taking them and the cause still needs to be investigated.
Could it be mange or ringworm?
It's possible, and if itchiness persists your vet will probably take a skin scrape or a hair sample to check. Many skin conditions look alike, so tests are needed. Mange is hard to find, so sometimes the vet may suggest treatment even if it hasn't been detected.
My dog keeps licking itself - what can I do until I can take it to the vet?
Licking doesn't heal, it just produces more damage and discomfort. Use an Elizabethan or `bucket' collar or cover sores on the trunk by putting a T-shirt on your pet. Soothe the skin by bathing with cold salt water (a teaspoon of salt to a pint of water) or applying ice, and witch hazel or camomile lotion. Remember that the most effective treatments for controlling fleas are bought at the vets.
My dog keeps shaking its head - what's wrong?
This suggests an ear problem. If this comes on suddenly and your pet is in distress it may have a foreign body in its ear. Many different conditions cause lots of wax. Take your dog to the vet as soon as possible. An anesthetic may be needed for a full examination. Ear drops are likely to be prescribed. In dogs the ear opening is high on the head, then a tube (the vertical canal) runs down the side of the head before turning inwards to the inner ear. Feel for this tube below the visible ear opening and flap, and gently massage the drops downwards with your finger and thumb after application.
My dog is fine while its on ear drops, but once it stops taking them the problems start again - what's the problem?
There is usually a reason for ear problems. It may be straightforward, such as a foreign body or insects called ear mites. Allergies can cause inflammation of the skin lining the ear. This produces lots of wax, creating an ideal environment for infection. It may just affect one ear. Regular cleaning, plus drugs to reduce episodes of inflammation, helps, but it is a lifelong problem. Veterinary advice is needed.
Can I do anything to prevent ear problems?
Regular cleaning will help. The vet will show you how and supply a safe cleaning solution (but tell your vet immediately if your dog's ears go red after cleaning). Keep your pet from swimming. The vet will advise you about removing hair from the canal. See the vet at the first sign of irritation, discharge, or smell from the head. This will ensure that pain and discomfort are kept to a minimum.
Help, my dog's ear has swollen up overnight!
A sudden swelling of the ear flap is likely to be a hematoma or blood blister. It occurs when a blood vessel ruptures, and bleeds into the ear flap, and is usually caused by the dog scratching or shaking its head. Although this blood is gradually resorbed, the ear flap will scar and crumple into a cauliflower ear, which can obstruct the ear canal. Your vet may advise an operation to remove the blood clot, and will also look for the underlying reason for the itch.