Why Is My Pet So Itchy?
I’ve had a rash of clients (pun intended!) over the years who have called me for help with their itchy, unhappy pets. In every case, they’ve already been to their vet and have had tests run to look for the cause of their pet’s unexplained, persistent itching, but they’ve ended up with no clear-cut answers, and they felt stuck.
In some instances, an allergy is already suspected; in others (particularly cats), one might wonder if it’s merely a behavioral issue that has become repetitive. In some of the worst cases I’ve seen, the poor dog or cat has scratched so much that they have drawn blood! Then comes a cycle of healing over before re-scratching and starting the process again. This understandably creates a lot of stress and worry for pet owners. Creams and prescription allergy medications may be of some help, or sometimes not at all. At any rate, medicated creams, allergy meds and steroids are only treating symptoms, not the root of the problem. My clients feel this just isn’t a desirable way to treat a pet for the rest of their life.
It’s astonishing how varied sensitivities can be, as it is with humans. When I am working with a pet and am “inside” their body, I very clearly feel the itching, and I provide my clients specific details. They end up with a better idea of what this feels like to their pet.
I’m always motivated to explore root causes whenever possible. I have worked with some pets who are allergic to grass, household cleaners, or other factors in their environment. One client's cat had never been itchy before but she was suddenly getting bare spots on her legs from incessant licking. We determined that the problem was caused by the new "free and clear"(!) laundry detergent my client had switched to. Her cat was coming into contact with this irritant on the duvet and other bedding.
I recall another cat who I determined was allergic to the lavender in her new brand of litter; she had completely removed all of the fur on her stomach and my client had to go back to the previous litter. And my own cat (an indoor/outdoor guy who loved to explore) used to obsessively lick his belly every Spring until it looked shaven. He never did this at other time of year — only in Spring. The fur would eventually grow back but then the cycle would start all over again. I then discovered that he was getting irritated from contact with the strong oils in the cedar chip mulch my next-door neighbors used in their landscaping.
In many other cases, however, the cause is actually an internal one, which often comes down to the one thing: the pet's diet.
The role of diet in pet allergies
I’ve worked with pets that are fully allergic to gluten, or just grains in general. It makes sense — wolves and wild felines did not evolve to process gluten. Even pets on a grain-free diet can still have a sensitivity or allergic reaction to other things: various meats, vegetables or additives. You might be surprised to hear that I’ve worked with many pets that are reactive to chicken (even though we tend to think of chicken as a benign, mild meat.)
I've also worked with pets who deal with symptoms associated with "irritable bowel syndrome." There are several factors that play into that particular condition, but many of these pets do a lot better with diets that don't contain thickening agents such as carrageenan and guar gum. Naturopaths will tell you that these thickeners are widely known to be aggravating to the intestinal lining. So if your itchy pet has tummy issues too, eliminating those additives is a good first place to start.
Once foods that are problematic for a pet are eliminated, the itchy skin usually begins resolving itself within a couple of weeks. (Note that it can take longer to fully disappear — the problem has often been years in the making.)
Just as with people, an animal’s health ultimately comes down to the quality of their diet. In my experience, the itchiest pets, with the most persistent and recurring scratching behaviors have been the ones who eat a dry diet, aka “kibble.” No matter how organic or healthy the brand is, the fact is that ALL dry pet food is highly processed, and has additives (and by-products) in it as well. Some pets just love their "crunchies" — I suggest that my clients use this as a special, individual treat and not a regular part of the pet’s diet.
Note that although I share anecdotal knowledge gained through my experience working with clients, diet is a personal choice, and I completely leave it up to my client to decide what to feed their pets. If you look at the ingredients in kibble, it seems pretty akin to existing on a diet of cereal. Regarding canned food, the most "minimal ingredient" and "minimally-processed" brands (Wellness is one example) are going to be better, for a number of logical reasons. When possible, a raw diet (including freeze-dried raw, which is very convenient) appears to give great results. Not every pet likes it, though. Even if you can’t/don’t want to go “fully raw”, including a bit of raw in addition to high-quality canned food can still be of benefit, so it's worth looking into and considering. Traditionally-trained vets don't seem to embrace the idea of a raw diet, but alternative and integrative vets have more experience and knowledge to share regarding the benefits of a raw diet, and they are more likely to recommend them. Talk with them about what they might recommend.
Recently, I worked with a dog who had been on the same kibble his whole life — 12 years. He had also been frantically itching and scratching — for 12 years! When I asked if he seemed to enjoy this diet, the client told me that “he doesn’t act like he really loves it…I think he just eats it because it’s what’s there.” She wanted to consider a raw diet; she did her own research and then spoke to staff at her local independent pet store. In contrast to the kibble diet, the dog LOVED the raw food, and my client reported that his shabby dry coat turned incredibly silky and shiny after just two weeks, and his itching was noticeably improving too. As a side benefit, I was happy to hear that the dog also lost a couple of pounds from the new diet, which took some pressure off of his arthritic joints, so he was able to take longer walks again — which he really loved.
The bottom line is that scratching is not normal or comfortable, and there is always a cause. If you’d like more information, book a complimentary consult to discuss how I might help your pet stop driving themselves (and you!) crazy with all that scratching.