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Lick and Scratch-Scratch and Lick

Posted on: July 31, 2018

Lick*Lick*Lick*Scratch*Scratch*Scratch! These are the sounds some pet owners hear on a regular basis

If you think you’re uncomfortable, imagine how your pet 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, licking, scratching or rubbing. 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 rather quickly.

 

Reasons Why Dogs Compulsively Scratch, Lick, or Chew

 

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 similar  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 bald 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 arthritis 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 skin infections.

Preventing the behavior. Because compulsive behaviors can cause serious damage and affect your dog’s quality of life, it’s important to do your best to stop your dog from chewing, licking, or scratching too much. Some ideas include using bitter sprays to discourage licking, having your dog wear a special collar to prevent access to hot spots, or keeping your dog close by your side when you’re home.

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.

 

 

Cats:

 

Most cats are meticulous groomers, but what happens when the behavior goes into overdrive? For a variety of reasons, some cat licking, scratching, and chewing behaviors become compulsive, which can annoy you and damage your pet’s skin and coat.

 

If your cat is scratching, licking, or chewing herself compulsively, it is likely you regularly catch her in the act. But if you don’t, your first clue may be the disappearance of your cat’s fur, often in strips along her back or stomach. Cats with self-mutilating behaviors may also cause red, irritated areas called hot spots to form, but they are less likely than dogs to do so.

 

Although compulsive cat scratching, licking, or chewing behaviors can develop in any animal, they are more commonly observed in Siamese cats and other Oriental breeds. Female cats are more likely than males to lick, chew, or pull on their fur.

 

Because there are a number of medical problems that may result in scratching and licking behaviors, be sure to consult with your veterinarian to help determine the cause and the best course of action.

 

 

Parasites. Fleas are often the culprits behind compulsive cat scratching or cat licking behaviors. Because cats are excellent groomers, they may actually remove all traces of fleas. If you notice your cat licking his lower back obsessively, with or without scabs on the neck, it is a sign that fleas might be causing the problem. Other parasites, including ticks, mites, and ringworm, can also prompt scratching, licking, or chewing.

 

Allergies. Just as some people develop skin irritations in response to certain foods or environmental triggers, cats may have itchy, irritated skin if they are allergic to something in their environment.

 

Dry skin. Dry winter air or nutritional inadequacies can contribute to dry, flaky skin that gets your cat started licking or scratching in search of relief.

 

 

Pain. If you notice your cat licking or biting at the same spot over and over again, it could be that he is experiencing pain or discomfort in that area.

 

Boredom, anxiety, or compulsive disorder. Compulsive cat chewing, scratching, or licking behaviors often develop in cats who are bored, stressed, or anxious. These mental disorders are more likely to occur in indoor cats, which may be due to the fact that they receive less exercise and excitement than outdoor cats. Compulsive disorders often begin when there are changes in a cat’s environment, including a new animal or baby in the house or a move to a new location. Also, behaviors that started in response to a medical problem sometimes persist as compulsions after the condition is resolved.

 

Treatment for Your Cat’s Scratching, Licking, and Chewing

 

Eliminating parasites. Because it can be difficult to diagnose flea infestation in cats, some veterinarians recommend trying reliable flea control products purchased from a veterinary office for six to eight weeks to see if it reduces the incidence of licking, scratching, or chewing. Similarly, treating mites or other parasites, if present, can eliminate your cat’s discomfort and the problem behaviors.

 

Changing foods. Putting cats that are scratching or chewing on a 6-week exclusion diet is a good way to find out whether food allergies are the problem. You may have to try several diets before you find one that works. Veterinarians may also prescribe the addition of certain fatty acids or other nutritional supplements if dry skin is to blame for your cat’s incessant scratching and licking. No other foods or treats should be offered during an exclusion diet trial.

 

Learn how you can get ahead of the pain.

Using medication. Depending on the extent of skin damage your cat has caused by licking, chewing, or scratching, your veterinarian may prescribe the use of steroids, antihistamines, and antibiotics. Additionally, some compulsive cat behaviors caused by psychological factors can be addressed with clomipramine, an anti-anxiety medication, or amitriptyline, which helps fight anxiety and also functions as an antihistamine.

 

 

Addressing anxiety or boredom. If you and your vet determine that there is no physical cause for your pet's behaviors, there are things you can do to improve your cat’s state of mind. Making sure your cat feels safe, loved, and comfortable in your home is important, as is providing adequate stimulation and exercise. You may find that desensitizing your cat by slowly and carefully exposing her to things she fears can be beneficial. Be careful to take baby steps if you try this so as not to overwhelm your cat and make the compulsive licking, scratching or biting worse. Counter-conditioning, by training your cat to associate something pleasurable, like a treat, with something he fears may also help reduce stress and anxiety. Many times, boredom licking (also known as psychogenic alopecia) is improved by adding another cat or pet. But, there is always the risk that the second cat could be a new stress in your pet's environment that could make the hair loss worse.