Help! My Dog Has Atopic Dermatitis!

Stop the endless itching 🛑

Itchy dog

Your dog is itching like you’ve never seen before, and you’re super worried about her.

There could be a ton of reasons for your dog’s sudden urge to scratch, so you’ll need to visit your vet for an official diagnosis — but one possibility you should know about is atopic dermatitis in dogs.

The Dodo reached out to Dr. Lydia Harbour, a veterinary dermatology resident at Dermatology for Animals in Phoenix, Arizona, to find out what atopic dermatitis in dogs is and how to treat it.

What is atopic dermatitis in dogs?

Atopic dermatitis is a common skin disease in dogs (and cats).

“Atopic dermatitis is defined as ‘a genetically-predisposed inflammatory and pruritic skin disease with characteristic clinical features that is associated with IgE antibodies, most commonly directed against environmental allergens,’” Dr. Harbour told The Dodo, referencing Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology.

While this might sound confusing, atopic dermatitis basically means that your dog has a genetic defect in her skin’s barrier that causes (and exacerbates) allergies to things in her environment.

In other words, her skin gets really itchy and irritated from things that wouldn’t bother most dogs.

“Skin barrier defects lead to allergens going through the small ‘holes’ in the skin,” Dr. Harbour said, which effectively increases your dog’s exposure to the allergen.

“The immune system recognizes it (pollen, for example) as something foreign — then the immune cells in the skin go to the lymph nodes and teach the cells there (lymphocytes) to make antibodies against that pollen,” Dr. Harbour said.

When your dog is exposed to the allergen on subsequent occasions, the cells create antibodies that then bind to the immune cells in the skin, which create inflammatory and itch mediators (aka microscopic substances that make you itchy).

“So essentially, these patients have eczema — we think there is a genetic basis to this, as we see in humans — and the genetic changes in the skin barrier leads to development of allergy,” Dr. Harbour added.

That’s actually the simple version, Dr. Harbour explained, “as this is a very complex topic and we are still learning about this, just as in humans.”

Symptoms of atopic dermatitis in dogs

Your dog might have atopic dermatitis if she’s showing signs of environmental allergies, which include:

  • Itching
  • Inflammation
  • Patchy, red skin
  • Secondary infections

With atopic dermatitis, you’ll see concentrations of hotspots (aka areas of inflamed skin), most likely in these locations on your dog’s body:

  • Armpits
  • Stomach
  • Paws
  • Ears
  • Face

Dogs usually develop environmental allergies around 6 months to 3 years of age, so you might notice these symptoms begin around that time period.

These signs are very similar to allergies to food or fleas, so it’s likely your vet will diagnose atopic dermatitis by process of elimination — specifically, by administering a reliable flea and tick medication to make sure it’s not fleas, and running a food trial (where potential allergens are eliminated from your dog’s diet) to rule out food allergies.

Treatment of atopic dermatitis in dogs

Fortunately there are lots of treatments available to help your dog’s allergies — including immunotherapy, steroids, prescription medication, antihistamines, supplements, creams, lotions or shampoos.


One method of treatment is allergen specific immunotherapy (ASIT) — aka allergy shots. “This works by giving the patient small doses of what he/she is allergic to,” Dr. Harbour said. “Over time, the immune system starts to change how it responds to the allergen and develops ‘tolerance.’”

ASIT actually desensitizes your dog to the allergen, and is the only way to change her immune response for good. Any other form of treatment is considered to be a Band-Aid, so to speak, according to Dr. Harbour.

Keep in mind this method is about 70 to 80 percent effective, “but that's along a spectrum,” Dr. Harbour said. “Some patients will completely improve, others will have less severe flares and we can potentially reduce their medications over time.”


Steroids are “very potent anti-inflammatories and used for acute and severe cases to ‘put out the fire,’” Dr. Harbour said.

There are potential long-term side effects associated with steroids, so vets avoid using this treatment for a long period of time.

“Sometimes if nothing else works or if financial limitations prevent the use of other drugs, these can be used for maintenance control,” Dr. Harbour said.

Prescription medication

Your veterinarian can also prescribe an anti-allergy medication, like Apoquel or Atopica (aka cyclosporine).

Apoquel manages the immune system and helps with the itch and inflammation. Atopica also manages the immune system and “does much more for the inflammatory aspect,” compared to Apoquel, Dr. Harbour said.

Your vet might also recommend Cytopoint, which is an anti-itch injection (given at the vet clinic) that lasts four to eight weeks.

Antihistamines and supplements

A dog-safe, over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine might also help with some of her symptoms.

Try this pet-friendly antihistamine from Amazon for $4.25

If you do choose that route, Dr. Harbour recommends using OTC antihistamines along with an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to help with skin issues.

Try the Zesty Paws Alaskan salmon oil supplement for dogs on Amazon for $14.97

There is also evidence that probiotics can help dogs with atopic dermatitis, which can be given as a regular supplement.

Try Zesty Paws Probiotic Bites from Amazon for $25.97

Shampoos, creams and lotions

There are also anti-itch shampoos, creams and lotions that can relieve your dog of her skin issues from allergies.

Dr. Harbour recommends products that include both chlorhexidine and ceramides — which won’t require a prescription from your veterinarian.

Try this anti-itch dog shampoo from Amazon for $29.97

Atopic dermatitis is not fun for you or your pet. So it’s super important that you see a vet if you notice symptoms. From there, you can start your dog on a treatment plan so she can be on her way back to good health!

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