pruritus in dogs

New research suggests that chronic pruritus may be related to problem behaviors.

I have an itchy dog. Bella has suffered from skin allergies and chronic itchiness her entire adult life. (We adopted her when she was about 9 months old.) We’ve tried as many different therapies as veterinarians have thrown at us. We tested for allergies, did elimination diets, and bathed Bella with special shampoos, and finally settled on a pharmaceutical treatment that works reasonably well. I’ve often worried about how much Bella’s constant itchiness was impacting her quality of life, and particularly whether it was affecting her psychological health.  

Human patients who suffer from chronic itchiness, or pruritis, report strong negative impacts on quality of life, including psychological stress. Atopic dermatitis, which causes itchiness, is associated with sleep disturbance, depression, and anxiety, among other things Which makes you wonder: Do dogs who suffer constant itchiness from skin conditions like chronic atopic dermatitis also suffer higher rates of stress and stress-related psychological problems than their non-itchy peers?

A small exploratory study by Naomi Harvey and colleagues, “Behavioural Differences in Dogs with Atopic Dermatitis Suggest Stress Could Be a Significant Problem Associated with Chronic Pruritis,” may offer some clues. The researchers set out to explore whether a common allergic skin condition called Canine atopic dermatitis (cAD) that causes chronic itchiness might be associated with increased levels of stress. They tested whether dogs with cAD scored higher on neurotic/fearful scales and whether they displayed higher frequencies of “problematic” behaviors than healthy dogs without itchy skin. These problematic behaviors—which the study authors suggest might be potentially indicative of stress—include “mounting, chewing, hyperactivity, coprophagia (eating faeces), begging for and stealing foodattention-seeking, excitability, excessive grooming, and reduced trainability.”

The researchers collected behavioral data from surveys of 343 guardians of dogs diagnosed with cAD and from 552 healthy controls. The research is part of the Itchy Dog Project, which seeks to better understand the causes of skin allergies in dogs. Participation was limited to Golden and Labrador Retrievers. Atopic dogs (dogs with cAD) scored higher than controls for “everyday problem behaviours” (mounting, pulling excessively on the leash, hyperactivity and restlessness), comfort-seeking behaviors (attention-seeking, begging), behaviors directly related to pruritis (excessive grooming, touch sensitivity), and repetitive behaviors. Itchy dogs also scored lower on trainability, “potentially due to reduced focus from pruritis interrupting/distracting them.” Taken together, the study authors conclude, “these results could indicate that the dogs diagnosed with cAD may be experiencing low-level chronic stress as a result of pruritis.”

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Exactly how itchiness relates to and interacts with problematic behaviors in dogs needs further research. Knowing that itchiness can negatively affect dogs’ quality of life by increasing levels of stress means that active attention to and reduction of stress may be an important component of treatment plans for pruritis.

The bottom line is that itchiness is an unpleasant experience and we owe it to our dogs to make diagnosis and treatment of skin allergies and cAD a priority. Zoetis, the maker of two popular drugs for treating cAD, has created an “Itch Tracker” tool to help dog guardians rate and track itchiness.


Treating itchy skin in dogs requires dedication, as not all treatment options work equally well for each dog. It can take months or even years to figure out the most effective way to help our companion, and therapies—not to mention frequent veterinary visits—can be quite expensive. Nonetheless, our itchy dogs will be grateful if we take the problem seriously.

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Jessica Pierce, Ph.D.


Harvey, N.D.; Craigon, P.J.; Shaw, S.C.; Blott, S.C.; England, G.C. Behavioural Differences in Dogs with Atopic Dermatitis Suggest Stress Could Be a Significant Problem Associated with Chronic Pruritus. Animals 2019, 9, 813.

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Jessica Pierce, Ph.D.

Author’s Books on Amazon

The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Livesblank

Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Petsblank

Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possibleblank

Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animalsblank

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Ageblank

Let Us Worry About the Vet Bills - Embrace Pet Insuranceblank
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Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., is the author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets (Chicago, 2016) and The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives (Chicago, 2012). Additional authored and co-authored books include Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (New World Library, release date of Feb. 6, 2019, with Marc Bekoff), The Animal's Agenda: Compassion and Coexistence in the Age of Humans (Beacon Press, 2017, with Marc Bekoff), Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals; Contemporary Bioethics: A Reader with Cases; The Ethics of Environmentally Responsible Health Care; and Morality Play: Case Studies in Ethics. Some of the questions she explores in her writings on death and dying in animals are: Do animals have death awareness? Why is euthanasia almost always considered the compassionate end point for our animals, but not for our human companions? Is there ever a good reason to euthanize a healthy dog? Why do people often grieve more deeply for their pets than they do for people?
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