Why is My Dog's Skin All Itchy and Red? Reasons Why to See the Vet

Dogs with red, itchy skin are often quite miserable
Dogs with red, itchy skin are often quite miserable | Source

Why is my dog's skin itchy and red? This is the million dollar question that has several dog owners scratching their heads wondering what is going on. Truth is, don't be surprised if your vet ends up scratching his head too. Skin problems in dogs can be one of the most challenging issues to properly diagnose. If I would get 20 dollars for every time I wrote" skin problem" in the appointment book for dogs seeing the vet at the animal hospital I used to work for, I would have easily cashed out a large enough sum for an early retirement. If you think I must have lived in an area that for some obscure reason was causing dogs to get mysteriously itchy, think again. Turns out that according to a survey conducted by Veterinary Pet Insurance, skin allergies and hot spots ranked second and third place respectively for the top reasons dogs saw the vet. Wondering what condition took first place? Ear infections, something often also seen in dogs with itchy skin conditions and allergies!

So why is diagnosing a dog with itchy, irritated skin such a daunting task? A good place to start is to consider that hundreds of skin diseases in dogs have been recognized and reported, explain veterinary dermatologist Thomas Lewis and veterinarian Andrew Rosenfeld in an article for DVM 360. And even though many dogs with itchy skin problems often end up having an allergy either to food of something in their environment, finding the problem allergen can sometimes be quite a challenge. As challenging as itchy, irritating skin can be, there are several steps you can take to help your poor itchy dog out. We will see some helpful tips in the next paragraphs.

"Long-term use of steroids can result in many health problems. This is the reason that we encourage diagnosis of the underlying cause of the allergy and more specific or less potentially harmful treatments."

— Carol S. Foil, DVM, MS, Diplomate A.C.V.D.

Pesky Fleas? Here's How to Tell Their Presence

Often, all the itching and scratching can be to fleas. Even one pesky flea may cause loads of trouble if your dog is allergic to flea saliva. Finding fleas at times may be challenging. Look for crawling critters in the ventral area where the hair is short. A flea comb may sometimes capture some live fleas along with dead hairs and flea dirt. Flea dirt looks like black specks of pepper. To know if it's really flea dirt, collect some and place on a white paper towel. If it leeches red, it's sign that it's flea dirt as flea dirt is simply the flea's feces which contain digested blood.

So Why is My Dog's Skin Itchy and Red

These tips should help you save some time and prevent you from getting overwhelmingly frustrated. As much as some tips may sound quite obvious, they are often the most overlooked solutions by dog owners who are hoping for a quick fix.

Stop Asking in the Wrong Places

Posting a picture of your dog's rash on forums or on groups unfortunately won't likely yield much results. Even if a veterinarian may pop on the board, no ethical vet would give a diagnosis over the Internet. Other forum members may give out some ideas of what it could be, but that's sort of like asking your plumber for advice on a lump you found on your arm. At times, you may find somebody with the courage to say: "hey, that looks exactly what my dog had last summer, we cured it using this, give a try!" and you may feel compelled to try it only wasting time if it turns out your dog has a totally different condition--which is not that unlikely, considering that there are so many skin conditions in dogs! On the other hand, you may find users telling you straightforwardly to see the vet or give a soothing oatmeal bath to just give a bit of temporary relief, which means you have just wasted precious time that could have been spent in more productive ways. So seeing your vet instead of guessing something that may remotely be the cause is the best approach, especially when treatment entails a prescription medication that you must obtain from--- the vet.

Give a Detailed History

When a dog presents with a skin condition at the vet, all the little hints you give, help your vet put several puzzle pieces together. The process is known as "differential diagnosis" which means your vet will check off his virtual list of possibilities certain condition based on the details you provide. The age of your dog, the symptoms and findings of his diagnostic tests will help your dog sort through the differential diagnosis process.. This is teamwork at best! Consider that just be telling your vet the age of onset (the age your dog was or is when the skin problems started), your vet can already determine conditions that are "more likely" and "less likely."

For instance, consider that allergies tend to generally begin in young to middle-aged dogs, (atopy is mostly seen in dogs between the ages of 1 and 5 years); whereas, endocrine gland disorders seem to mostly affect dogs who are somewhat older. Breed is another important factor. While any dog can virtually be prone to atopy, the following breeds are more predisposed: retrievers and terriers, Lhasa apsos, Shih Tzus, cocker spaniels, Irish setters, German shepherds and English bulldogs. Certain skin conditions may affect only particular breeds.

Further puzzle pieces can be put together by telling your vet the what products your dog is exposed to, what food your dog is eating, the medications and supplements your dog takes, when your dog is most itchy, whether other dogs in the household are exhibiting similar symptoms and any other relevant information that can help your vet. Don't be vague and try not to leave out important details! If possible, write these little hints down on a piece of paper so you don't forget them on the appointment day. Any little detail can really make a difference if your vet is open to listening!

Accept the Tests

One frustrating trend I used to witness in the good old days of working for the vet, were dog owners refusing to run important tests. I am not sure of the reasoning behind this. I surely understand those who couldn't afford them, but let me say one thing. If you don't feel like running tests due to financial issues, consider that treatment may turn out more costly in the long run. Not to mention the complications due to health issues associated with long term administration of steroids. An example? A dog owner once refused to pay for a simple test, so the vet had to prescribe some medicine to make the dog less miserable and reduce the constant scratching.

After finishing the meds, the dog owner was back, and then back again for more medications. After some time, he got tired of it, so he came back for a recheck. The vet explained that he was getting nowhere because the underlying cause of the itching wasn't being addressed. So after finally agreeing to getting some testing done, the vet got a diagnosis and bingo, all it took was one treatment to get rid of an annoying skin condition!

Most basic tests don't cost much if you compare them to the hassle of purchasing meds to manage skin conditions of unknown origin. Some basic tests consist of skin scrapings and cytology tests which can help rule out presence of parasites, cancer cells, bacterial and yeast infections. Generally, the cost of a dog skin scrape is under $50. In some cases, further tests may be required, and if your vet is seeing a puzzling case, you may need a referral to a specialist.

Consult with a Specialist

Who are the specialists in dog skin disorders? Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology. These are veterinarians who in addition to going to vet school, undertake a residency program which tackles dermatology, histopathology, comparative dermatology, and clinical dermatology. After successfully obtaining advanced training in their field of specialty, they become board-certified and in order to keep their board-certification with the American College of Veterinary Dermatology (ACVD), they must continue their education.

When is it time to see a veterinary dermatology specialist? Usually, when your dog's skin condition isn't getting any better, when secondary infections are setting in from the repeated scratching and you have been to your vet several times. It's definitely worth seeing a specialist if your dog has developed side effects from prolonged use of medications. If your dog has allergies, a veterinary dermatologist can help determine what your dog is allergic to via skin allergy testing which involves several shots of small amounts of allergens ingested within the superficial layers of the skin. These areas are then observed for signs of a reaction. Once the culprit is found, a desensitization program can be started, or if plausible, the trigger can be eliminated from the dog's environment. How much do dog skin allergy tests cost? Consider that the cost of a dog skin allergy test may cost about $260 without considering the examination fee. Click here to find a veterinary dermatologist near you. In most cases, your vet will refer you to one, but you can also directly contact one.

So why is my dog's skin all itchy and red? The answers can be several and this is why your vet can often not diagnose a skin condition by just looking at the itchy area or rash.

Disclaimer: this article is not to be used as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. If your dog's skin is itchy and red, please see your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.

Veterinary dermatologist discusses atopic dermatitis.

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Comments 8 comments

The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 13 months ago from Maryland

Our dog developed itchy skin last year. After the vet ruled out disease through testing, we eventually got it to stop by changing his food, taking him off all treats, giving him a fish oil supplement everyday and using Sebolux shampoo. He's fine now! But he sure was miserable there for a while, poor baby. He must have a food allergy.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 13 months ago from USA Author

The Dirt Farmer, good to hear you were able to get to the bottom of this. Some dogs go on for weeks, months or even years before figuring out what's the problem. Food is often a main culprit and figuring out exactly which food at times can be a challenge as well. Common food allergens are beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb and soy.Thanks for stopping by!


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 13 months ago from Maryland

Hi alexandry, we switched him to types of dog foods he'd never had before-- bison, sweet potato, rabbit, salmon and kangaroo. It's amazing the variety you can find now!


alexadry profile image

alexadry 13 months ago from USA Author

Yes, now there are several novel proteins for dogs with allergies. There's also ostrich and alligator!


Kevin Goodwin 13 months ago

I was in the pet food industry for some time and i found it amazing that so many foods can cause allergies, but i would never ask my vet to perform an allergy test because it costs alot of money and it always turns out positive.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 13 months ago from USA Author

Hello Kevin, yes, there are so many allergies! Usually, the vet suggests a referral for those complicated cases requiring allergy tests, and you are right that they are very expensive! I had the version for humans done once and they pricked my whole arm to figure out what I was allergic to. Turned out I was allergic to many things and avoiding all of them was a close to impossible. It was far easier to just manage with antihistamines. Thanks for stopping by!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 13 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

Thank you for sharing this useful hub, alexadry. I've had dogs in my family for many years and have had to consult a vet about itching before. It's good to get more information about the topic.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 13 months ago from USA Author

Dealing with itchy dogs can be frustrating! Fortunately, many dogs can get relief.

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