05:01 PM EST
Are you going crazy listening to your dog scratching his ears all night
long? Have you about had it with your dog licking her paw non-stop? At your
wit’s end over your dog biting his own tail?
If you think you’re uncomfortable, imagine how your dog feels.
Compulsive scratching, licking, and chewing behaviors are quite common in
dogs and have a variety of causes. They can also be harmful. One of the
first signs your dog has a problem might be the development of a “hot spot”
-- a red, wet, irritated area that arises from persistent chewing or
licking. Although hot spots, or "acute moist dermatitis", can occur
anywhere on your dog’s body, they are most often found on the head, chest,
or hips. Because dogs often incessantly scratch, lick, or bite at an area
once it becomes irritated, hot spots can become large and incredibly sore
Dogs scratch, lick, or chew for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from
allergies to boredom to parasite infestation:
• Allergies. When dog scratching gets out of hand, it is often the result
of allergies to food or environmental triggers, including mold and pollen.
Dogs may also develop a skin irritation called contact dermatitis when they
encounter substances like pesticides or soap.
• Boredom or anxiety. Just as people with anxiety might bite their nails or
twirl their hair, dogs can have physical responses to psychological upset
too. In fact, some dogs develop a condition akin to human
obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can manifest itself in scratching,
licking, or chewing behaviors that can cause severe damage.
• Dry skin. A variety of factors, including winter weather and fatty acid
deficiencies, can cause dry skin in dogs. Your pet may respond to the
discomfort by scratching or licking at her skin or fur.
• Hormonal imbalances. If your dog’s body is not producing enough thyroid
hormone or putting out too much cortisol, superficial skin infections can
occur. You may notice small, red spots and your dog may scratch or lick as
if bothered by allergies.
• Pain. When trying to determine why your dog is licking or chewing
excessively, be sure to consider the possibility that something is making
him physically uncomfortable. For instance, if you notice your dog biting
his paw repeatedly, he could have a thorn or sharp stone stuck in his foot
pad. Compulsive chewing or licking can also be a response to orthopedic
problems, including back pain and hip dysplasia.
• Parasites. Among the most common causes for compulsive dog licking,
chewing, or scratching behaviors are fleas, ticks, and mites. Although
ticks are often visible to the naked eye, fleas often go unseen until there
is a large infestation and mites are microscopic. So don’t assume that your
dog isn’t suffering from parasites just because you can’t see them.
Treatment for Your Dog’s Compulsive Scratching, Licking, and Chewing
Because there are so many reasons why dogs chew or scratch, be sure to
check with your veterinarian as soon as you notice a problem. The
veterinarian will help figure out the cause of the behavior and determine
the best treatment plan. Depending on the cause of your dog’s compulsive
behavior, this might include:
• Eliminating parasites. There are a variety of flea and tick products that
your veterinarian can recommend. Additionally, if your dog’s biting or
chewing problems are caused by fleas, be sure to wash your dog’s bed and
vacuum your carpeting and upholstered furniture on a regular basis to
reduce the likelihood of reinfestation. You also need to treat any other
animals in the household.
• Changing foods. If food allergies are making your dog itch, eliminating
potential trigger foods (such as beef or wheat) can make a huge difference.
Your vet may recommend a special diet if this appears to be the case. The
addition of fatty acid supplements to your pet’s regular food can also help
address dry skin issues and keep your dog’s coat healthy.
• Using medication. Your veterinarian may prescribe medications to treat
underlying problems contributing to your dog’s persistent scratching.
Additionally, your vet may recommend the use of topical or systemic
antibiotics, steroids, or anti-itch products to treat existing hot spots or
• Addressing anxiety or boredom.
In some cases, compulsive biting, chewing, or licking develops in response
to fear, stress, or inadequate stimulation. To reduce this likelihood, be
sure your dog receives enough exercise, attention, and love. It can also be
helpful to train your dog to chew on toys or bones to relieve stress as a
replacement for inappropriate chewing or licking behaviors.