Itchy skin allergies in dogs linked to problem behaviour likely indicate significant stress burden

New research has found a direct link between dogs who suffer from a common skin allergy that causes chronic itching and problem behaviour.

In the paper, published in the journal Animals, experts from the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine found that the severity of the itch in dogs with canine atopic dermatitis (cAD), was directly linked to behaviour that is considered problematic. This could include – mounting, chewing, hyperactivity, eating faeces, begging for (and stealing) food, excitability, attention-seeking and excessive grooming.

cAD is a common allergic skin condition in dogs that causes chronic itching. The overall quality of life in dogs with cAD is reduced, and humans with a similar condition - atopic dermatitis commonly referred to as eczema - report significant psychological burdens from itching that increase stress levels.

The team at the University tested the theory that dogs with cAD would display more problem behaviours, than a healthy dog.

Behavioural data was gathered directly from owners as part of the Itchy Dog Project – an online study designed to help researchers examine the possible genetic and environmental causes of cAD.

343 dogs with a diagnosis of cAD and 552 healthy dogs were recruited, scores were also provided for the severity of the itching experienced by their dog.

The results showed that itch severity in dogs with cAD was associated with more frequent problem behaviour, which could suggest a link between the severity of the itching and psychological stress in dogs suffering from cAD.

Dr Naomi Harvey, from the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine led the study, she said: “Our study clearly showed a relationship between the occurrences of problematic behaviour in dogs and chronic itching. This can have a knock-on effect and impact the relationship between owner and dog, which means it’s important for owners to know that their dog’s behavioural problems could be due to the itching, rather than the dog themselves. It is possible that severe itching causes an increase in stress in dogs with skin allergies, which lead to these problematic behaviours, however there may be other factors involved so we need to conduct further research to fully determine this.”

The results from the survey showed that dogs with cAD displayed more comfort-seeking and grooming related behaviour and were less trainable than dogs without the condition, all of which were directly associated with the severity of the itching.

The team have theorised that chronic stress may be secondarily associated with chronic itching and further research is now needed to establish whether chronic stress is a cause of the itching.

"Whilst further investigation is needed, given the large amount of evidence already available demonstrating the impact of stress in skin barrier function, and the increased stress reported by human patients with AD, it is more than plausible that psychological stress experienced by dogs with cAD could prolong and exacerbate allergic flares,” says Dr Harvey.

The research supports calls for the treatment of dermatoses in dogs and other animals to include management of environmental stressors, and to reduce the overall stress burden.

"Given the potential importance of stress in cAD development, and the implications of the behavioural problems we have found for dog and owner bonds, further studies need to be carried out.” Dr Naomi Harvey

Press release written by Charlotte Anscombe - Media Relations Manager - Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Nottingham

Harvey, N.D.; Craigon, P.J.; Shaw, S.C.; Blott, S.C.; England, G.C. Behavioural Differences in Dogs with Atopic Dermatitis Suggest Stress Could Be a Significant Problem Associated with Chronic Pruritus. Animals 20199, 813.

Full article / DOI can be found here.