Why is My Dog Scratching But No Fleas?

Often the tell-tale jingle-jangle of a dog’s collar sends us in to a panic.  The dog is scratching!  He must have fleas!  We rush into battle mode, spot-on treatment in one hand, room spray in the other.  Just back up a little!  Is the dog’s flea treatment is up-to-date?  Do you follow a rigorous and frequent vacuum cleaning regime?  If yes, does the dog really have fleas?  You may find, when you check, that your dog is scratching, but actually has no fleas.  What now?[break]

This post is about:[break]

  • Dogs that scratch excessively.
  • Possible causes of excessive scratching.
  • What treatment to follow. [break]

Check that Fleas are Not the Issue [break]

Most dogs will occasionally scratch, just like we do.  It’s nothing to be too concerned about.  Alarm bells should start ringing when the scratching becomes sustained, your dog is biting at his skin, and you can see wet patches, “hot spots”, sore skin or missing fur.  This type of scratching must be investigated immediately and the cause treated.  [break]

Check that your dog’s scratching is definitely not caused by fleas [break]

 If you are following a year round, continuous flea prevention strategy that includes a high quality flea control treatment for your dog and you are keeping your house clear too, you should be keeping fleas under control.  However, the best laid plans can be derailed, so just double check for fleas. [break]

You can try checking for fleas by looking for the adult fleas on the dog’s skin.  This can be tricky, but not impossible, particularly on short coated dogs.  Try to look when they are asleep on their backs – you often see the fleas on the belly of the dog, where the skin is more exposed. [break]
You may find it easier to comb through the dog’s coat, particularly around the base of the tail, and empty the comb contents onto a piece of moist, white kitchen paper.  Any flea droppings will turn red – caused by blood. [break]
If you can rule out fleas, consider what else may be causing your dog to scratch.  [break]
Scratching Caused by Environmental Allergens[break]
Just like humans, dogs can get allergies.  It’s often difficult for us to pin down where our own allergies spring from and it may be tricky to isolate the cause of your dog’s allergy.
  • In the summer, consider airborne pollen as a culprit – it may be a particular pollen at a particular time of year, or it could be a generalised pollen allergy.
  • Your dog may suffer from a contact allergy, perhaps to a washing powder or fabric softener that you use on his bedding. [break]

Scratching Due to Food Allergies [break]

Some dogs just don’t get on with some brands of food.  They may always have the allergy or it may appear after a while.  Food allergies account for around 10% of dog allergies.   Common symptoms of a food allergy are:
  • Itchy, dry skin
  • Inflammation of the skin
  • Excessive scratching [break]
Try your dog on a high quality dog food that is hypo-allergenic.  These typically don’t have the common causes of allergies for dogs, like corn, dairy products and wheat.  If no improvement is seen, consult your veterinarian. [break]
Scratching Caused by Parasites [break]
Fleas aren’t the only insects that live off your dog; lice, mites and ticks can also colonise your dog and make him extremely itchy. [break]
  • Lice are different from fleas in that they spend their entire life cycle on your pet.  Their eggs, unlike those of fleas, stay on the dog, stuck fast to the hair.  Lice can cause itchiness as they move around the animal’s skin.
  • Cheyletiellosis (Walking Dandruff) is a mite, causing intense itching, particularly on the back of the animal.  These insects can survive away from the dog for a short time and can cause rashes on humans.
  • Ear Mites, as the name suggests, live in the ear canal.  If you dog is scratching around the ears, has a brownish discharge from his ears and is shaking his head, consult your veterinarian.
  • Mange in its various forms is caused by a mite.  It will cause intense itching and consequent scratching.  Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose the condition for you.
  • Ticks are picked up from the environment and burrow deep into your dog’s skin.  Paralysis ticks can be fatal; thousands of animals die each year from the toxicity produced by this particular tick.  If you live in an area prone to ticks, you need to check your dog after every outing.  A dog that is affected by tick toxicity needs to see a vet as a matter of urgency. [break]


Scratching due to Fungal Skin Infections [break]
  • Ringworm affects dogs as well as humans.  You may notice a circular area of hair loss around the lesion.  Most commonly ringworm will affect your dog’s head and legs, but left untreated it will spread.  The dog will scratch at the affected skin.
Ringworm is infectious and an affected dog should be kept away from other pets and people, particularly young children. [break]
Anal Glands and Other Underlying Health Issues Causing Scratching [break]
My dog once started paying an enormous amount of attention to the top of her back legs and her back, around the base of her tail.  I assumed it was a skin problem, but was unable to detect what it was, so we visited the vet.  It was quickly established that the problem wasn’t her skin, it was full anal glands.  Obviously they were bothering her, but she couldn’t reach back there so nibbled the nearest part to the place that was bothering her.  The vet nurse expressed the glands, my dog squeaked but immediately looked so much happier! [break]
Rarely, scratching may be a reaction to a more serious health issue, so if you cannot pinpoint the problem yourself and deal with it effectively, go to your veterinarian. [break]
Treatment for Excessive Scratching [break]
In most cases you will need to consult your vet for diagnosis and treatment.  It is better to do so at the outset of the problem rather than ignore it and hope that it will go away.  Generally, it won’t! [break]
If you do have a dog who suffers from an itchy skin, try bathing him using a soothing, conditioning shampoo.  Often a good shampoo, whilst not treating an underlying problem, will give your dog some much needed relief.  Oatmeal shampoos are effective, as are VIrbac’s shampoos. [break]
If you can’t visit a vet immediately and your dog has “hot spots” or broken skin, get an Elizabethan collar (Buster collar) so that he cannot reach the affected skin. [break]
If you dog has a problem with mites or ticks, consider using a combined flea, mite and tick treatment, like Frontline Plus.  Should ticks be a problem in your part of the world it is essential that you check your dog daily for signs of ticks and either learn how to remove them or visit the vet. [break]
Summary [break]
  • Dogs naturally scratch, but excessive scratching needs immediate investigation and prompt attention.
  • Fleas aren’t the only cause of itching and scratching.
  • You can alleviate your dog’s scratching, but a proper diagnosis by a vet is usually needed.



3 thoughts on “Why is My Dog Scratching But No Fleas?

  1. my puppy has scratch marks on his belly like something has irritated him he hasnt got fleas but i come out in red marks on my skin aswell when we been having a cuddle i have very sensitive skin so ive just ignored it but it keeps happeing so just a bit concerned of what it could be any help would be great thank you.

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