German Shepherds have a very thick fur coat that is designed to protect the dog from all kinds of potential perils. But GSDs also have a tendency towards skin issues and skin allergies that can cause a lot of scratching and discomfort.
You know how much it bothers you to feel itchy and not be able to get it to stop. It can be even more stressful to watch your dog constantly scratching and itching and itching and scratching and not know what to do to help your dog feel better.
In this article, we dig down deep to discover why German Shepherds might start scratching a lot, what the underlying root causes could be, and what to do to help your dog feel better.
Why Is My German Shepherd Scratching So Much? German Shepherds as a dog breed are particularly prone to skin allergies and skin issues. This is the most common reason why a German Shepherd might start scratching a lot. Where many new GSD owners get confused is how allergies affect a dog versus how allergies affect a person. In dogs, allergies most often cause the dog to lick, bite at or scratch the skin, ears, tail area, or paws.
Allergies may be caused by bacteria, fungus, pests, parasites, food, environmental toxins, pollen – many of the same triggers for allergies in people.
Learn About German Shepherd Scratching From a Canine Veterinarian
In this YouTube video, you can watch a canine veterinarian examining a German Shepherd dog patient who is struggling with ongoing itching and scratching issues.
As you will notice, the veterinarian takes a look at the dog’s skin and paws and talks with the owner about possible issues with pests, fleas, saliva allergies, seasonal allergies, and also signs of other skin issues like mange.
If you have tried to identify what might be causing your dog’s itching and scratching and you can’t see any visible triggers, it is definitely time to call in the pros to help diagnose your dog’s issues and get the right treatment.
Is Your German Shepherd Just Cleaning Or Is It Skin Problems?
As this thread on a popular German Shepherd owner forum highlights, it can sometimes be hard to tell if your dog is just doing minor self-care or cleaning or if the scratching is caused by something else.
You will probably struggle most to figure out which it is if you are new to owning a German Shepherd.
The longer you and your dog spend together, the more you will get familiar with your dog’s regular routines and begin to notice if something in those routines changes.
For example, maybe your dog suddenly starts scratching intensely at a certain area on one paw. This isn’t something you normally see your dog do, so it captures your attention.
You examine the paw more closely and see a flea clinging to the skin. This alerts you to the need for flea treatment. Soon your dog stops scratching the paw as the flea treatment begins to work.
In most cases, the reason your dog is scratching more than usual won’t resolve itself on its own. In fact, the more likely outcome is that the issue will get worse and the affected area of skin will become infected, requiring more serious treatment.
Canine Pyoderma: A Severe Skin Infection in German Shepherd Dogs
As Veterinary Practice describes, canine pyoderma is one such severe skin itching issue that won’t resolve without veterinary intervention and treatment.
Pyoderma is caused by bacteria. Veterinary researchers do not fully understand how it gets started and why some dogs are more affected than others.
Dog breeds with underlying sensitivities to food, environment, allergens such as pollen, and pests are more likely to get pyoderma, which includes the German Shepherd dog.
Canine researchers believe there may be an underlying immune system issue that causes GSDs to be more prone to pyoderma and it may also be inherited.
Pyoderma is hard to treat and may recur many times. Usually, a combination treatment approach is required.
Once your German Shepherd is diagnosed with pyoderma, you may need to administer antibiotics, apply special medicated shampoos, change your dog’s food, apply topical treatments and have your dog tested for underlying thyroid or immune issues.
The warning signs of pyoderma often begin with intense sessions of scratching and itching. Over time, this leads to skin lesions and this is when opportunistic fungi, bacteria, pests, or parasites move in and colonize the skin.
Pyoderma may be re-triggered by one or all of these issues, all of which can be present in a single dog at one time with more severe cases.
Skin Atopy and Scratching in German Shepherd Dogs
As Aubrey Animal Medical Center explains, German Shepherds as a breed are known to be particularly susceptible to allergies.
But in dogs, allergies are more commonly called “atopy.” What many dog owners don’t realize is that when your dog scratches repeatedly, this is basically the same as if you were to sneeze repeatedly.
In other words, where your allergies make your nose run and your throat itchy, in dogs allergies make their skin itch intensely.
Dogs can’t itch and scratch as effectively as you can, however. So instead of constant scratching, you might see your German Shepherd rubbing the body part that itches, licking it, biting at it, or pawing at it.
Certain areas of your dog’s skin are more likely to feel itchy because of atopy. These areas include the paws, the ears, areas where the skin is folded over, the belly, and around the tail area.
Different types of allergens may cause different areas of your dog’s body to itch. For example, “Frito feet” is caused by a particular type of bacteria that often invades a dog’s paw pads in between the toes and gives off a corn chip-type odor.
Skin atopy is often very treatable, but only after you have been able to identify the specific trigger that is causing it.
German Shepherd owners are most likely to see their dogs suddenly start licking, biting, rubbing, pawing, or scratching at areas at ages one to three.
This is when atopy is most likely to start showing up, although it can happen at any time in your dog’s life.
But Doesn’t Scratching Mean Your German Shepherd Has Fleas?
Greencross Vets explains that a flea infestation is only one possible reason why your German Shepherd might be scratching.
It is true that fleas can irritate the skin to the point where other opportunistic bacteria, fungi, or parasites can get in and cause further irritation and itching.
But often a dog that is itching doesn’t have fleas at all. The itching is caused by something completely different.
However, if your dog does have even a minor issue with fleas and has an allergy to the bugs, this can cause more intense itching. When this happens, it is called flea allergy dermatitis.
Flea allergy dermatitis is a specific type of allergy to flea bites. While getting bitten by fleas will cause itching for any pet (or person), in affected dogs the itching becomes severe and is often concentrated around the tail area.
For dogs with severe flea allergy dermatitis, all it can take is a single flea bite to set off the itching.
Could Your German Shepherd Be Scratching Because of Mites?
Yet another cause of a sudden outbreak of scratching that doesn’t seem to have any cause is mites.
Mites are very tiny parasites that feed off the dead skin cells that your dog’s skin sheds. While they sound like they are insects similar to fleas, they are actually more like spiders, just in parasite form.
If you see little white flecks on your dog’s coat that appear to be moving, these are most likely mites carrying around their dinners of little skin flakes.
You definitely do not want to wait to get your dog treated for mites, because these parasites are what is called “zoonotic.” That means the mites can jump from your dog to you!
As well, the longer you wait to seek out diagnosis and treatment, the more likely a minor issue with mites will turn into sarcoptic mange, or scabies, a much more serious condition.
As Veterinary Partner explains, because the mites feed on dead skin, they like the more hairless areas on your dog like the ears, belly, or joints.
The adults’ mate and the females lay eggs in your dog’s skin, which hatch and cause intense itching as the young mites begin to move around.
Unfortunately, sarcoptic mange is not easy to diagnose because the symptoms are quite a lot like other skin allergies and conditions that can affect a German Shepherd. Your veterinarian may need to rule out other issues and do several tests.
Even after a firm diagnosis is made, your dog will probably need a range of treatments, including antibiotics, topical shampoos or solutions, oral treatments, dips, and topical itch-relief products.
Animal Allergy & Dermatology of Colorado presents some very disturbing “before and after” images of dogs being treated for atopy (allergies).
You can see how severe the mange issues can become and also how effective treatment can be once a proper diagnosis is made.
Demodectic Mange Can Also Cause Intense Scratching in German Shepherds
The American Kennel Club (AKC) explains that a different type of mite causes demodectic mange, or Demodex, in German Shepherds.
The big difference between scabies and Demodex is that the scabies mite is a definite invader, while the Demodex mite is always present on the skin.
Typically, as long as your German Shepherd stays healthy with a strong immune s system, the mites will live peacefully inside the hair follicles. But if there is any disruption to the immune system function, the mites may start to cause itching.
The most common warning sign besides intense itching is patchy hair loss. Some dogs may develop the condition in puppyhood, but in most cases, it only occurs if there is an underlying serious illness that weakens your dog’s system, such as diabetes.
Your veterinarian may recommend clipping your dog’s fur close and using dips and medicated shampoos or solutions as well as oral antibiotics or allergy medicines.
Food Allergies Can Cause Skin Itching in German Shepherd Dogs
As WebMD for Pets highlights, food allergies in canines is becoming an increasingly common issue for dog owners today.
In fact, current estimates indicate as many as 10 percent of all dogs alive today may be suffering from some degree of food allergies.
Interestingly, food allergies in people are also on the rise. While researchers are not completely sure what is causing this uptick in interspecies food allergies, there are several suspects, from GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to global toxins.
Certain foods are known to be more prone to causing food allergies in German Shepherds and other dog breeds. Chicken, fish, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, wheat (gluten), rabbit, pig (pork), and lamb are some of the most frequently cited food-based allergens.
However, a German Shepherd may also have sensitivities to additional foods. For example, peanuts are known to be more prone to fungus, which can cause intense allergies in some dogs.
It is important to identify which foods are triggering the scratching because you will need to make sure to eliminate these foods from your GSD’s diet.
Veterinarians who specialize in allergies and immunology are not sure exactly why dogs have sensitivities to foods that might ordinarily be a big part of their diets such as chicken and lamb.
Even if your dog previously was able to eat the food item, over time sensitivity can develop and it may be necessary to remove that food from the diet going forward.
One theory is that commercial livestock operations often give breeding animals and young animals antibiotics to try to ward off illness and infection.
When your dog eats the meat, the antibiotics kill some of the “good” beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract and create digestive issues.
Some breeds are also naturally more likely to have food allergies and German Shepherds are one of those breeds.
The best approach is to work with your dog’s veterinarian to identify what foods your GSD is allergic to and eliminate those from the diet. Your veterinarian will likely do some allergy testing to narrow down the search.
Another option many veterinarians prescribe is to adopt a limited ingredient diet to see if the symptoms clear up on their own.
Figuring Out What Is Causing Your German Shepherd’s Scratching
The German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County explains that it is important not to make any assumptions when your dog suddenly starts scratching.
Rather, it is important to rule out both behavioral as well as environmental causes to see what causes the itching to clear up.
Behavior reasons why your GSD might be scratching
Some German Shepherds may actually just need more enrichment, exercise, activity, or playtime. Because the GSD is such a sensitive and intelligent dog breed, these dogs can start to self-harm by chewing at the skin if they get bored or lonely.
Systemic reasons why your GSD might be scratching
Problems with thyroid function, endocrine disruption or immune system malfunction can also cause skin that dries out and becomes itchy.
Sometimes testing reveals a hidden metabolic or systemic disease or sensitivity that is the real cause of the itching.
Environmental reasons why your GSD might be scratching
German Shepherds can be very sensitive to environmental toxins, including exposure to herbicides or pesticides or insecticides, toxic house or lawn plants, air pollution, seasonal pollen, mold or mildew, and similar triggers for scratching.
It can be worth taking a second look at your lawn care and gardening products as well as what may be growing in and around areas where you and your dog walk regularly.
Other reasons why your GSD might be scratching
Earlier here you learned about the impact of parasites such as mites, insects like fleas, and food-related sensitivities or allergies that could lead to a lot of skin itching.
The German Shepherd coat is so thick and camouflaging it can be hard to figure out what is going on under that thick double layer of fur. Regular brushing and grooming can help you spot developing problems before they get out of control.
Going forward, when you brush your dog each week, take time to examine the skin, ears, paw pads, tail, and belly areas, joints, and face for any signs of skin redness, hot spots, irritation, or inflammation.
As well, it often helps to keep a journal so you can record what happened just before your dog experienced a bout of scratching. Does your dog seem to itch more after meals or yard time? These are valuable clues that can help quickly diagnose and treat the scratching issue.