Back to Stories & News

September 6, 2016 – If you’ve ever lived with a dog, you’ve probably seen a rear leg start moving when we scratch their ears or belly. Maybe you have a cat that always seems to scratch its ears. Or, you’ve heard the jingle jangle of a collar as a back paw comes up to scratch an itchy neck. Although both dogs and cats experience the occasional itch (just like we do), as pet owners it’s important to recognize when an itch is an indication of a more serious problem.

“Itch can sometimes be mistaken as normal behavior by pet owners,” said Dr. Linda Messinger, a Denver-based board certified veterinary dermatologist. “I find this especially true with dogs who lick or chew their paws. Many people feel this may be normal grooming, a soothing activity or a habit, when in fact it may be a sign of underlying allergies. Itch can be displayed in many different ways, including scratching, biting, chewing, rubbing and scooting. Cats often are more dramatic about displaying their itch, developing bald spots or wounds. Itchy pets are uncomfortable – something we don’t want for them."

What are the top causes of itchy skin in dogs and cats? According to veterinary dermatology experts (and taking into account some regional differences), the top five disorders, listed from most common to least common “itchy” diseases in dogs and cats, are:


  1. Flea allergy dermatitis/flea bite hypersensitivity
  2. Allergies to environmental allergens (like pollen)
  3. Bacteria/yeast infections of the skin (including the ears)
  4. Food allergies/adverse food reactions
  5. Ectoparasites other than fleas (sarcoptic mange, also known as scabies, is most itchy)


  1. Flea allergy dermatitis/flea bite hypersensitivity
  2. Allergies to environmental allergens (like pollen)
  3. Food allergies/adverse food reactions
  4. Ectoparasites other than fleas
  5. Bacteria/yeast infections of the skin (including the ears)

As pet parents, we want our animal friends to be healthy and comfortable. Not all itching and scratching is normal, and getting our pets evaluated for skin disease early can help avoid more serious skin problems, such as secondary skin infections. Many allergic diseases are treatable and have an excellent long-term prognosis, especially if diagnosed early.

Morris Animal Foundation has funded several studies looking at skin diseases in animals. Two current studies are looking at the cellular mechanisms responsible for the itch associated with environmental allergies. Both research teams are trying to discover potential new drug targets that not only reduce skin discomfort and itch, but also are safer and associated with fewer side effects than currently available therapies.

Check out our canine and feline studies and learn more about what Morris Animal Foundation is doing to improve animal health both locally and globally.