Scratching or Licking the Skin (Itching) in Cats and Dogs

Scratching or Licking the Skin (Itching) in Cats and Dogs

Scratching and licking the skin generally have similar causes. Excessively licking the skin is a way of scratching the skin. Skin irritation leading to itching is responsible for most instances of excessive licking and scratching.

A certain level of scratching or licking is considered normal in all animals. Also, both cats and dogs groom themselves with their tongues. Therefore, it is important to determine whether your pet is scratching or licking excessively, or whether he or she is engaging in normal behavior.

Excessive scratching or licking is often accompanied by hair loss, red skin, wet skin, bleeding, scabs, or a foul odor to the skin. When normal activities such as playing, sleeping, or eating are interrupted for scratching or licking, the behavior should be considered abnormal.

Common Causes

More common causes are listed before less common causes.

  • In areas where fleas are endemic, infestation with or allergy to fleas is the most common cause of excessive itching in pets.
  • Allergies to pollen or food cause excessive scratching or licking. Dogs with these types of allergies often lick the tops of their feet excessively. However, these allergies can cause itching anywhere on the body in both cats and dogs.
  • Skin infections or hot spots will cause itching that leads to excessive scratching or licking.
  • Trauma to the skin, a foreign object (such as a foxtail) in the skin, or tangled hair may cause licking or scratching focused on the affected area.
  • Fungal infections, including ringworm, can cause itching.
  • Stress, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, or boredom may lead to over-grooming.  Acral lick dermatitis occurs in dogs.  Psychogenic alopecia occurs in cats.
  • Parasites such as mites (including Demodex) and mosquitoes can cause itching.
  • Syndromes mediated by the immune system can lead to skin conditions that cause itching.
  • Cysts, tumors, or other skin masses can rupture or become inflamed, leading to focal licking or scratching.
  • Adverse reactions to medications may cause skin rashes or itching.

Recommended Course of Action

If you live in a flea-endemic area and your pet is showing itching over large portions of his or her body, implement appropriate flea control measures.

If your pet’s itching is focused on an isolated area, investigate the area for foreign objects such as splinters or foxtails (grass awns).

If you are unable to locate and eliminate a specific cause for the licking or scratching, contact a veterinarian.

Remember that some causes of itching, such as ringworm or mange, may be contagious to human beings.

Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.