Dogs have lots of reasons to scratch, but if your dog’s doing it more than occasionally—all dogs scratch themselves once in a while—your first call should be to your vet, who can help you figure out what’s causing the itch. There are at least three possibilities, which sometimes overlap: environmental (low humidity, dry indoor heat in the winter), allergies (food, pollen) or parasites (fleas, ticks or, less commonly, mites). An example of a two-factor reason, dogs with flea allergies are exquisitely sensitive to the presence of even a couple of the little pests on their skin.
Figuring out what’s causing the scratching can take time, but two things that may provide some relief are probably in your kitchen right now: olive oil and coconut oil. When it comes to oils that help moisturize a dog’s dry, dandruffy skin, look to one of these, and consider rotating them periodically to give your dog the benefits of each.
They’re both rich in in the omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFAs) dogs need to maintain oil production and skin hydration (and much more). The body needs EFAs to function but can’t manufacture them; they must be obtained from food.
Luckily, dogs tend to love the taste of oil, so adding it to their meals is an easy way to get it into their system. And be patient; it can take some time for the oil regimen to take effect.
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Once container has been opened, oils exposed to heat and light can go rancid, so follow the product’s suggested storage instructions. If your kitchen is routinely warmer than about 70 degrees, consider refrigerating the oil.
Adding an oil to your dog’s meal isn’t a cure-all or a magic fix, but can contribute to an improvement in your dog’s overall health—not to mention shinier fur and fewer all-night scratching sessions.
Olive Oil for Dogs
Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the best choice for dogs. Cold-pressed, unrefined and made from the first olive pressing, it’s less acid than more processed forms of olive oil, and as a result, easier on the canine digestive system. It also has higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants. Dogs who may have a hard time digesting omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids usually do well with olive oil. Aside from its ability to repair dry, flaky skin and shine up your dog’s coat, olive oil may also perk up her appetite and help with constipation.
Olive oil can go rancid quickly, which is why it’s sold in dark-colored bottles. Store it in a cool, dark place away from heat sources (not on a sunny counter or near the stove).
Daily Dose Guidelines*
Small dogs, 1/2 teaspoon; medium dogs, 1 teaspoon; large dogs, 2 teaspoons; extra-large dogs, 1 tablespoon
Coconut Oil for Dogs
You’re also likely to have coconut oil in your pantry. It’s high in saturated fat, and its medium-chain triglycerides and medium-chain fatty acids, which are quickly absorbed, are thought to help with a number of conditions.
Based on research conducted primarily with human and rodent subjects, consumption of coconut oil is thought to clear up several types of skin problems, including itchy or dry skin; minimize odor; reduce allergic reactions; and treat yeast and fungal infections.
Like olive oil, the best coconut oils for dogs are organic, virgin and cold-pressed. This oil comes in a range of flavors—bold, buttery, bland, nutty—and you may need to experiment to see which one your dog prefers with her food. (Some dogs are put off by a strong coconut flavor.)
Coconut oil can be added to food or—for a particularly dry or itchy patch—massaged directly into the dog’s skin. If applying topically, be super-conservative in the amount you use and supervise your dog afterward until the oil’s been absorbed. Your dog will probably try to lick it off, and too much coconut oil at once can have consequences (see info box). Plus, you know, the potential for stained floors and bedding.
Daily Dose Guidelines* (introduce gradually)
Note: If your dog’s prone to pancreatitis, check with your vet before adding it to her food.
Small dogs, 1/4 teaspoon; medium/large dogs, 1/2 to 2 teaspoons; extra-large dogs, 1 tablespoon.
Fish Oil for Dogs
While it’s not a common pantry item, fish oil is a go-to supplement thought to support canine heart health, reduce itching and skin flaking, and relieve allergies and joint pain. When selecting a fish oil for use with your dog, check with the manufacturer for its certificate of analysis. A blend derived from salmon, herring, sardines and other small fish will offer the most omega-3s and the longest shelf life.
Something to be aware of: fish oil can prolong blood clotting time, so if your dog requires surgery, be sure to tell your vet about this supplement; the vet may ask you to discontinue it for a few days before and after the procedure.
And finally, another good reason to talk to your vet before giving your dog supplements: In processing fish oil, a dog’s system can use up its supply of vitamin E. This can leave the dog with a deficiency, which has its own set of problems. Ask your vet if this is something to be concerned about with your dog.