Jessie the Labrador suffers with itchy skin

Jessie is an 11 year old Labrador who suffers from one of the most common health issues to afflict dogs in Ireland today: itchy skin. The problem started when she was just four years of age and it has never fully resolved. Her skin disease typically gets worse in the warmer summer months, and when Jessie was brought to see me last week, she was having a flare up: you can see from the photograph that she has sore-looking red blotches on her lower legs.

Jessie’s skin problem was originally investigated in detail. Skin scrapings showed that there were no fleas, mites or other parasites. Samples collected from her skin surface found no evidence of ringworm or other fungal or bacterial infections. She even had skin biopsies taken that ruled out a wide range of rare skin diseases. The biopsies showed that the problem was most likely an irritation caused by something that she was exposed to in her daily life. Once the initial irritation started, she licked and chewed her itchy skin: by doing this, she caused even more irritation to the reddened areas. Bacteria then colonised the damaged skin, causing even more inflammation by producing acids and other irritant toxins. It was a vicious circle: the more itchy she became, the more she chewed herself, and the more bacteria moved in.

An allergic reaction

The ideal answer for an itchy dog like Jessie is to identify the factor in her daily life that is starting the itch in the first place. Nuala has checked and double-checked her home and garden for possible irritants, such as floor cleaners, fabrics, or vegetation that Jessie comes into contact with. There has never been anything obvious. This means that Jessie’s reaction is almost certainly an allergic reaction rather than a direct irritation. Most dogs like Jessie suffer from multiple allergies that can be difficult to identify.

Jessie had blood and skin tests to screen for allergies, and these confirmed that she was allergic to many items in her environment, including house dusts, fungal spores and a range of different pollens. Some dogs with this type of allergy pattern respond well to immunotherapy, where they are given regular tiny injections of the substances causing the allergy. Unfortunately, Jessie was one of the “non-responders” to this treatment.

The possibility of food allergy has also been investigated: in some dogs like Jessie, an allergy to a specific protein in the diet can contribute to the itchiness. Some dogs are instantly and completely cured when they are fed nothing but a special single-protein diet. Nuala has certainly found that Jessie does better when she is fed a diet based on nothing but fish and rice, but it has not stopped her from having flare-ups of itchiness.

A treatment routine for Jessie

At this stage in Jessie’s life, Nuala has accepted that the itchy skin will never be completely cured, but she has established a treatment routine that more-or-less keeps the problem under control. Jessie eats nothing but her fish and rice diet, supplemented by a daily oil capsule to optimise her skin health. She has regular soothing baths and Nuala has an anti-itch spray to use directly onto the sore areas. Jessie has daily anti-histamine tablets, and intermittent cortisone and antibiotics to use when the problem gets worse.

Skin disease is one of the biggest challenges for dog owners and vets. There are regular claims for “magic cures”, using special diets or alternative therapies like homoeopathy. The truth is that there is no single quick fix: if there was, we would all be using it.

Jessie is generally a happy dog, despite her occasional itch. Life isn’t perfect, but isn’t that true for most of us?


  • Itchy skin is a common problem in dogs
  • The problem is often worse in the summer months
  • Medication eases the itch to an acceptable level in most dogs

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