Why Is My Dog Itchy in the Winter?

If your dog is scratching a lot, there may be a problem.
Photos courtesy Katherine, Kansas City

Not long after the winter season’s first frost, comes the dry, itchy skin—for people and their dogs. Although it is possible for your dog to get fleas and mange in the winter, there are a variety of more common reasons your dog is scratching more than usual from December through March. It’s most likely that your dog is itchy in the winter because their skin dries out in the drier, colder air (like our own skin). Though you can’t slather moisturizing lotion on a thick coat of fur, there are other ways to help. Read on to learn why your dog often scratches through the winter months, and how you can minimize her discomfort.

Causes of Dry Winter Skin in Dogs

Winter brings drier air, outdoors and indoors, which is highly drying for skin. Outside, the colder air simply holds less moisture than warm air. Dry skin is exacerbated when the wind blows frosty blasts of air, or temps are frigid. Indoors, you have the same dry air plus heat, which pulls even more moisture from the air.

Dogs who are sensitive to indoor allergens, such as dust mites and mold, may experience worsening symptoms when they are cooped up inside the house. These responses may be more common in older dogs, some of whom are extra sensitive to allergens and irritants.

Keep in mind that dry skin is also a symptom of many canine skin conditions unrelated to winter, including fungal infections, bacterial infections, parasites, reactions to medications, hypothyroidism, and autoimmune diseases. If your dog is scratching excessively or focusing her scratching on one spot, or you notice skin issues beyond just dry, flaky skin, take her to the veterinarian.

Tips for Preventing Dry Skin in Dogs

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and the same goes for your dog’s skin in winter. The best way to treat your dog’s dry skin in winter is to prevent them from getting itchy skin in the first place. Even if they already have dry skin you can follow these steps and their skin should naturally return to normal:

  • Keep your dog hydrated
  • Sheild your dog’s skin from snow, water and road salt or ice melt
  • Reduce bathing
  • Brush your dog’s coat daily
  • Provide a humid environment within your home
  • Consider fatty acid supplements

Keep Your Dog Hydrated

Refilling the water bowl is top of mind in summer because you can clearly see the heat’s impact on your panting dog. When it’s frosty outside, however, it’s all too easy to forget. But it’s important to keep that bowl filled with fresh, cool water all year long. Even though it’s not as apparent, your dog’s body is working to maintain a normal body temperature in winter as well as in summer. In fact, evaporation of moisture from the body happens faster in the winter than in the summer because of the drier air both indoors and outdoors—making it possible your dog needs even more water in winter to avoid dehydration.

Shield Your Dog’s Skin

Some cold-weather dog breeds, such as American Eskimo Dogs, Alaskan Malamutes, and Samoyeds, have thick, double coats that offer natural protection from frosty conditions. If your dog’s ancestors don’t hail from the Arctic, however, she’ll probably require extra protection outdoors in winter. In addition to providing warmth, dog jackets offer a buffer between your dog’s skin and the cold air. Just ensure it’s a properly fitting dog jacket that won’t let in cold air because it’s too loose.

Inside the house, it’s important to remember that your dog spends most of her day close to the floor where it’s coldest. Dog beds provide important protection from drafts and elevate your dog away from cold floors, both of which can aggravate dryness.

Rethink Your Dog’s Bath Routine

You should only bathe your dog once a month (if possible) during the winter, including at home and at the groomer’s. Bathing your dog strips the natural oils that protect and moisturize her skin from dry air and harsh winter winds. If you have a dog who enjoys getting messy no matter the season, try to keep the muck to a minimum in winter. Walk her on leash and rub her down with a towel at the end of her walk, paying extra attention to her paws, which can collect harmful deicing salt.

When there’s no avoiding a winter bath, protect her skin from drying out by using a dog-safe moisturizing shampoo that’s free of any harsh ingredients. After the bath it’s important your dog is fully dry before you let her outdoors in cold weather.

Brush Your Dog’s Coat Daily

If your dog’s skin is prone to dryness in winter, daily brushing will help. The brushing increases circulation to the skin, which is good for skin health. It also helps distribute the natural oils in your dog’s coat, which is moisturizing and protective. A daily brushing is also a great opportunity to bond with your dog.

Provide a Humid Environment

You can’t control the humidity outdoors, but you can up the humidity inside your home. Consider running a humidifier in the rooms where your dog spends most of her time. This will counteract the dryness caused by winter air and your home’s heating system.

Consider Fatty Acid Supplements

If your dog suffers from dry skin every winter, talk with her veterinarian about increasing her intake of fatty acids. Many dog foods contain some omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, but it’s possible your dog needs a bit extra. The healthy amount will vary based upon your dog’s size, age, and any other medical conditions. Nutritional needs for older dogs change, so if you have a senior dog her veterinarian may already have started her on fatty acid supplements.

From bracing cold-weather hikes to playing games with your dog in the snow, winter is a time to relish. Take care of your dog’s skin and she’ll be happier and more comfortable through the winter season. (And P.S., many of the above tips help prevent winter dryness for people too.)

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