A black and tan dog sitting in the dirt itching its fur.

Itchy Dog? Rule Out Fleas First

Dogs scratch for many reasons. Sometimes the reason they scratch isn’t completely obvious.

Many pet parents immediately suspect fleas are behind their dog’s frequent scratching, even when they can’t find fleas on their pet. There are good reasons to be suspicious and to rule out the presence of fleas first.

  • Fleas are the most common external parasite of dogs and cats.
  • Fleas are one of the most common causes of itchy skin in pets.
  • Flea bites can cause severe itching, hair loss and skin infections.
  • Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is the most common skin condition of dogs.


Dogs with sensitive skin have far more reasons to scratch, lick, bite and chew at their skin than “normal” dogs. But a flea infestation shouldn’t be one of them.

Depending on where you live, fleas can be a common and even a year-round problem, so an occasional flea bite may be unavoidable. Some dogs tolerate fleas with only a little scratching. Others, however, may experience a severe allergic reaction.

Exposure to allergens in flea saliva can lead to the development of flea allergy and FAD in genetically predisposed dogs. Studies have identified three different proteins in flea saliva that are antigens, substances that trigger an immune system response that includes antibody production in some dogs. In fact, one study found up to half of dogs in flea-infested environments develop antibodies against flea antigens.

One of the antigens found in flea saliva is considered a major allergen. An allergen is a type of antigen that produces an abnormally powerful response to something that the body’s immune system would otherwise consider harmless. Often, dogs that have environmental allergies are more likely to be allergic to fleas.


The best approach to flea control uses a combination of practices to eliminate adult fleas from all pets in the home and rid immature flea stages from the environment. It’s important to recognize that, at any given time, only about 5 percent of fleas are present as adults. The remainder of the flea population is present as eggs, larvae (a maggot-like stage) and pupae (cocoon stage). That makes cleaning your home environment critical to flea control.

For flea-allergic dogs, year-round treatment with a flea control product is especially important. However, treatment may be more challenging if your dog has sensitive skin. Some dogs simply don’t tolerate some of the topically applied products.

The good news is that there are several options available, including oral medications and topical solutions. Talk to your veterinarian about which flea products will work well for your dog and for controlling fleas in your area. Your veterinarian will likely recommend a product that not only kills adult fleas on your pet, but also inhibits the growth and development of immature fleas.


No food — not even garlic (which we do not recommend feeding) — can keep fleas off your dog. But your dog’s skin health and immune system can be positively or negatively affected by the food you feed. In addition to consistent flea control, dogs with flea allergies may benefit from a food that’s designed for dogs with sensitive skin. These diets, such as Diamond CARE Sensitive Skin Formula for Adult Dogs, combine carefully chosen ingredients to support dogs’ skin and immune-system health, and may include a limited number of protein sources, increased levels of omega fatty acids and a blend of antioxidants.

Ask your veterinarian if your dog would benefit from a sensitive-skin formula.

RELATED POST: Sensitive Skin Needs Protection from Fleas

RELATED POST: 5 Tips to Help Your Dog Ditch the Itch

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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