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Phantom Scratching: Why Is Your Dog Constantly Scratching?

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There are many reasons why your poor pup could be itchy and scratchy. But is your dog constantly scratching, seemingly without cause and often without even making contact? This is called phantom scratching, but it’s no figment of Fido’s imagination. Phantom scratching is real, and it can be a real nightmare.

phantom scratching

A Neurological Reason for a Dog Constantly Scratching

Reasons for a dog constantly scratching can range from ear infections to dental disease, but severe itching in dogs is often written off as allergies. Dogs can be allergic to their environment, food, fleas… anything. This is probably why the cause of phantom scratching might be the most misdiagnosed neurological condition there is.


Chiari-like malformation (CM) is a genetic neurological condition characterized by abnormal growth of bone in the back of the skull, basically making the skull too small for the brain.

Pressure created from this tight space affects the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. This can result in fluid-filled cysts forming within the spinal cord, a secondary condition known as syringomyelia (SM). Unfortunately, as the cysts expand over time, they ultimately damage the center of the spinal cord.

Common Breeds Affected by CM/SM and Constant Scratching

These conditions are generally rare, but toy breeds are overrepresented, especially Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Brussels Griffons. In fact, CM and SM should be disclosed as top Cavalier King Charles Spaniel health issues, as they virtually all have Chiari-like malformation to some degree. However, it is important to note that not all dogs with one or both conditions will show symptoms.

dog with phantom scratching


Typically, symptoms become apparent once Chiari-like malformation results in syringomyelia. The most obvious symptom is neuropathic pain, or the abnormal processing of sensory input by the nervous system. The altered sensation usually occurs at the back of the head and neck, which is why pet parents often find their dog constantly scratching, sometimes at the air, with no relief (phantom scratching).

Symptoms vary among breeds and individuals, but these are the most common signs of syringomyelia in dogs:

  • Phantom scratching
  • Scratching at ears, neck, or back of head
  • Rubbing at face
  • Sensitive when touched around back of neck or shoulders
  • Pain when active, excited, passing stool, or simply wearing collar/harness
  • Change in behavior (lowered head, less playful, or withdrawn)
  • Limb weakness or incoordination
  • Scoliosis (curved spine)


Your veterinary neurologist will consider breed, age, history, and symptoms during physical and neurological exams, but the only way to confirm your dog constantly scratching is due to CM/SM, rule out other health problems, and decide on a treatment course is with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Medical treatment involves some combination of pain management, anti-inflammatories, and medications that reduce the production of cerebrospinal fluid. Unfortunately, studies show only about 10% of dogs improving from medical management alone long-term.

Surgical treatment involves removing malformed bone at the back of the skull to make more space for cerebrospinal fluid to flow out of the brain. Surgery can be much more effective for the right patient, with some studies showing over 80% of patients improving immediately.

treating phantom scratching in dogs


Chiari-like malformation and the subsequent development of syringomyelia are congenital diseases that cannot be prevented or cured. However, through early diagnosis, progression can be slowed, pet parents can be better prepared, and passing those traits to future generations can be stopped.

At Southeast Veterinary Neurology, we offer a heavily discounted screening package for at-risk breeds that do not currently have symptoms to identify the conditions as early as possible. This is particularly useful in responsible breeding, as we can determine whether or not a dog should be bred and even what a suitable mate’s results should look like.

Most importantly, advanced screening will help provide the best achievable outcome for your furry friend’s future.

See a Veterinary Neurologist for a Dog Constantly Scratching

Although neither condition can be cured, a highly specialized veterinary neurologist at Southeast Veterinary Neurology can not only put an end to your dog constantly scratching, but also add years of happiness to your prized pup’s life.

So if you have an at-risk breed – or a dog constantly scratching – please contact a neurologist at our Miami, Boynton Beach, Jupiter or Virginia Beach, VA locations as soon as possible. Our staff is standing by 24/7 to offer support.

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