Everything You Need To Know About Dog Allergies
Here are the most common types of allergies in dogs and how to treat them.
If your pup’s suffering from allergies, it’s hard to watch her be so uncomfortable.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help her feel better.
The Dodo reached out to Dr. Meghan Carlton, a veterinarian at DoveLewis emergency animal hospital in Portland, Oregon, Dr. Michelle Burch, a veterinarian at Paramount Pet Health, and Dr. Lori Hammand, a veterinarian at VCA Mission Animal and Bird Hospital in California, to find out more about dog allergies — and what to do if your pup has them.
Does my dog have allergies?
“Allergies in dogs can manifest in a variety of ways, including itchy or infected skin, ear infections and anal gland issues,” Dr. Carlton told The Dodo.
The most common sign of allergies in dogs is itching of the skin, but if your dog displays any of the following symptoms, she could be suffering from allergies:
- Constant licking or scratching
- Ear itchiness or infection
- Goopy eyes
- Paw chewing or swelling
- Moist, irritated or scabbed skin
Common types of dog allergies
To put it simply, allergies are how your dog’s body responds to certain substances like pollen, dust mites and some foods. These allergens trigger their immune systems to respond in an attempt to fight off the “intruder.”
While dogs can be allergic to anything, a few common allergens include:
- Cigarette smoke
- Cleaning products
- Drugs — prescription and over-the-counter (OTC)
- Dust mites
- Foods (like corn, beef, chicken, pork, soy or wheat)
- Fleas and flea-control products
- Mold spores
- Rubber and plastic
- Soap and shampoo
“The most common allergies in dogs are fleas, food and the environment,” Dr. Lori Hammond told The Dodo. “Dogs can also have a combination of these allergies.”
To find out what’s causing your dog’s allergies, you’ll need to consult your vet for a diagnosis — but here are some of the possibilities.
Atopic dermatitis in dogs
Atopic dermatitis is an allergy to airborne pollens, molds, dust particles and other irritants. It’s common for dogs to display symptoms during specific times of the year when allergens, like pollen, are more abundant.
With atopic dermatitis, the airborne particles will gain entry to your dog's body through defects in the skin barrier and, more uncommonly, through inhalation.
“When the allergen has gained access, the dog's immune system will become engaged, resulting in inflammation, itching and scratching,” Dr. Burch told The Dodo. “The response will cause the skin barrier to be broken down further, allowing more immune responses to allergens and creating a favorable environment for secondary bacteria growth.”
Dog breeds prone to developing atopic dermatitis include:
- Golden retrievers
- West Highland terriers
- Labrador retrievers
- Cairn terriers
- Lhasa apsos
- Shih tzus
Atopic dermatitis will typically begin to appear in 70 percent of dogs between 1 to 3 years old. The seasonality of symptoms can help diagnose atopic dermatitis, but many climates have ambiguous seasons, making diagnosis difficult.
Signs of atopic dermatitis in your dog will include:
- Fur loss
- Redness and scabs around the eyes, mouth, armpits, belly, feet, legs and anus
“Ear infections are also prevalent with atopy,” Dr. Burch said. “Signs of an ear infection can include a buildup of debris in the canal, itching, redness of the canal and head shaking.”
To identify exactly what in the environment your dog is allergic to, your veterinarian might suggest doing allergy testing, which can be used to develop a more long-term treatment solution known as immunotherapy (more on that later). “Specific allergy testing is often needed to identify each dog’s specific allergy,” Dr. Hammond said.
Food allergies occur in dogs when the body creates an immune response to proteins found in the food. “The immune system will then target the skin, gastrointestinal system and other organs during the inflammatory response,” Dr. Burch said.
Dogs who develop a food allergy have usually been eating the offending food for years with no previous trouble. Food allergy symptoms will typically begin in dogs 5 to 6 years old or less than 6 months old.
“Food allergy is the itchiest of the allergens but one of the least common in dogs,” Dr. Burch said.
The most common ingredients dogs are allergic to are:
Other culprits include corn, pork and soy.
Food-allergic reactions can vary from skin allergies, like itching and hives, to gastrointestinal issues, like vomiting and diarrhea. Dogs with food allergies will display symptoms year-round, without signs of relief with changing seasons.
“If dogs have food allergies, it’s typically due to the protein or carbohydrate type in the food,” Dr. Carlton explained. In this instance, your vet will likely try to diagnose a food allergy by first placing your dog on a rigid prescription or hydrolyzed protein diet that is free of allergens until her symptoms go away — about 12 weeks.
In a food trial, your dog is temporarily put on an allergy-friendly diet that won’t trigger an allergic reaction, and then later fed his old food to see if his allergies return. If they go away with the new food and return after reintroducing the old food, your dog has a confirmed food allergy.
After that time, you can then slowly reintroduce old foods one at a time to determine which one was triggering the allergic reaction.
“This trial should be done under the supervision of a veterinarian so they can discuss the rules, recommend a specific prescription diet and supervise how long to continue this trial,” Dr. Carlton said.
Sometimes, pet parents feed their dogs with food allergies hypoallergenic food indefinitely, since identifying food allergens can be sort of a tedious process.
Flea allergy dermatitis (which is an allergy to flea bites) is the most common allergy experienced by dogs. “Dogs who develop flea bite hypersensitivity are more familiar with creating an allergic response to airborne allergens,” Dr. Burch said. “Proteins found in the flea's saliva will cause an immune response in a dog after a bite.”
Signs of a flea allergy can include:
- Inflamed skin
- Bald spots
- Itching and scratching
“I think for flea allergies it is important to explain that the allergy is to the flea saliva, so even a single bite can cause an allergic response — you do not need to have a flea infestation, and sometimes you may have never seen a flea on your dog at all,” Dr. Hammond said.
An allergy to flea bites will rarely occur in dogs less than 6 months old and is typically seen in dogs 3 to 6 years old. “Veterinarians and scientists have not documented any breeds more prone to developing flea bite hypersensitivity than others,” Dr. Burch said.
To diagnose a flea allergy in your dog, your veterinarian might suggest that your dog use a reliable flea and tick medication (if he’s not already using one regularly) to see if that solves the problem.
How to treat dog allergies
The best way to avoid an allergic reaction is to make sure your dog avoids the offending allergens. You can also reduce allergy symptoms with medication and even treat your dog’s immune response to allergens in some cases.
Atopic dermatitis treatment
If your dog experiences allergies due to atopic dermatitis and/or triggers in the environment, your vet will likely recommend an allergy test paired with immunotherapy shots to treat the condition long-term.
“I recommend suspected atopy dogs to have an intradermal skin test to determine what allergens they react to specifically,” Dr. Burch said. “A veterinary dermatologist typically performs an intradermal skin test. You may also have a serum allergy test performed on your pet's blood, but this may miss some of the reactive allergens.”
After determining the airborne allergies your pet reacts to, immunotherapy shots will be created. “Immunotherapy shots create a hyposensitization of your pet's immune system to the allergen,” Dr. Burch said. “The shots will require 6 to 12 months to begin working, and 25 percent of dogs will not respond.”
Beyond allergy shots as a treatment, you can help reduce your pet’s allergic reactions by keeping your home and her bedding extra clean. Wash her bedding weekly and vacuum at least twice each week.
Food allergy treatment
While you can’t treat a food allergy, you can identify the allergen and make it a point to keep it out of your pet’s diet.
Diagnosing a food allergy is accomplished with a food trial. “Your dog is started on a prescription diet with limited ingredients or hydrolyzed proteins in the diet to prevent an immune response,” Dr. Burch said. “These diets are fed for 8 to 12 weeks to determine a response of improvement or not.”
If improvements are seen, your dog can continue on the prescription diet for the rest of her life or you can slowly add back ingredients to see if your pet has an allergic reaction. “Each ingredient is fed for four to eight weeks before adding a new one,” Dr. Burch said. “If there is a reaction, this ingredient must be removed from the diet.”
Flea allergy treatment
You can’t treat a flea allergy, but you can reduce the symptoms of the allergic reaction and prevent the allergic reaction from getting worse (or happening again in the future).
The best way to prevent flea allergies is to prevent fleas from biting your dog in the first place. This is best done by making sure your dog takes a prescription monthly flea preventative.
Allergy medicine for dogs
Not every substance can be removed from your dog's environment. Often, allergies have to be controlled with one or more medications.
Airborne allergens can actually be treated with allergy injections (aka immunotherapy shots) that help your pet develop resistance to the allergen. Otherwise, you might be able to manage your dog’s allergic reactions with medication.
If the problem is severe, a corticosteroid, like prednisone, might be employed to suppress the immune system and prevent the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation.
“Overall, allergies are not cured; they are attempted to be managed long-term based on their cause,” says Dr. Carlton.
This means that if you find that your dog is suffering from allergies, it’s time for a vet visit to determine the cause. This will be your best bet in helping to find her some relief so she can go back to playing and cuddling like usual.
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