Itchy skin is a common problem in pets. There are many causes, ranging from allergies to fleas, with dozens of other possible reasons. But there is one universal factor in all itchy pets: they always make themselves worse by itching themselves raw. There is nothing wrong with pets occasionally itching themselves. Most animals have an occasional scratch as part of their normal grooming routine. This is similar to some humans. When my brother wakes up, he looks in the mirror at his sleepy-headed reflection, and gives his own scalp a good rub and scratch. He finds that this has a stimulating, invigorating effect. Perhaps pets feel the same way.
Dogs often scratch themselves occasionally for no particular reason. If you tickle a dog’s stomach when it rolls over onto its back, you will often find a “tickly bit”. The dog reacts to you petting this area by kicking their hind leg as if they are trying to itch themselves. This is a normal reflex and nothing to worry about. Cats are even more proficient at itching themselves during their normal grooming routines. They sit down, and in a yoga-like pose, they lift their hind leg and give themselves a good scratch under their chin and around their ears.
Self-scratching only becomes a problem when pets begin to damage their own skin with their claws. This is what happened with TJ. Ivan was used to seeing TJ itch himself from time to time, but a few weeks ago, he noticed that he seemed to be doing it continually. And when Ivan watched TJ closely, he noticed that he was always scratching a particular area on the back of his neck. This was different to his normal occasional grooming behaviour.
On close examination, Ivan could see that TJ had developed a small red area on the back of his neck. There was no obvious cause of this – he could have been bitten by another cat, he could have come into contact with an irritant substance, or he could have even burnt himself. If he had left the sore area alone, it would have healed up within a few days. But it felt itchy to TJ, and he was responding by scratching it repeatedly.
Ivan’s family brought TJ in to see me, and by now, the sore area was as large as a five cent coin, and it was getting bigger. It was red and seeping, and looked very painful. Even as I examined him on the consulting table, TJ was trying to get at the sore area with his back legs. Every time he managed to give himself a good scratch, he was further damaging the sore area, raking it with the sharp claws on his hind feet. This type of problem can be difficult to solve. It is a classic vicious circle. The itchy skin was making TJ want to scratch himself. By scratching the itchy skin, TJ was making it even more itchy, and so the situation was getting worse and worse.
In human medicine, adults can just be instructed to leave the itchy area alone, although I am sure that pediatric doctors have a similar problem to vets, with young children poking and prodding at itchy areas. In veterinary medicine, we are used to using various means to prevent our patients from damaging themselves. Plastic, lampshade-like “Elizabethan” collars are used to stop animals from causing problems by licking and biting themselves. Bandages are used to protect wounds from animal interference. It is much more difficult to stop animals from itching the back of the neck – a four-legged strait jacket would be the only way, and that is not a realistic option.
So what could be done for TJ? The answer was a three-fold approach.
Firstly, I gave him a course of antibiotics to control bacterial infection in the sore skin. If bacteria are present in a wound, they produce toxins and other substances which aggravate the itchiness. Secondly, I gave Ivan’s family some soothing cortisone ointment to apply to the sore area. This would take away some of the throbbing discomfort, so that TJ would be less inclined to itch himself. And thirdly, I clipped the nails on TJ’s back feet. Cats’ nails are as sharp as needles. Nail clipping transformed TJ’s feet from daggerlike weapons to padded cushions. Now if he scratched the sore area, he would no longer be able to damage himself in the same way.
TJ came back for twice weekly nail clipping for a few weeks. During that time, the sore area gradually shrank and finally disappeared. If your pets have itchy skin, observe them carefully. Are they making things worse by scratching themselves? If so, they need veterinary help. This is one situation where “scratching the itch” definitely does not help.
- Occasional itching is a normal part of animals’ grooming routines
- Excessive itching, with red sore skin, needs veterinary help
- Human intervention is often needed to stop pets from damaging themselves further
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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.