What Pet Parents Should Know About Dog Allergy Testing
Stop all the itching, scratching and infections.
If your dog has been itching and scratching or dealing with persistent ear infections, he may be suffering from environment-caused allergies.
But how can you best test your dog for allergies to figure out how best to treat him?
The Dodo talked to Dr. Ginger Benham, a veterinarian from Northeast Animal Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, who broke down the basics of pet allergy testing to help us better understand what testing checks for, which tests are best, and how much we can expect to spend to get to the bottom of what’s pestering your dog.
What do dog allergy tests check for?
Dr. Benham told The Dodo that allergy tests don’t determine whether or not your dog has allergies, but instead what your dog’s allergic to. These tests are usually given to pets after a vet has diagnosed them with allergies based on symptoms, like itching, skin or ear infection, upset stomach, etc., and how frequently these symptoms occur.
After allergy testing, you’ll know what exactly is causing your dog’s allergies so you can change your environment to help relieve symptoms and develop a treatment plan.
“Once your veterinarian knows what your pet is allergic to, allergy-specific immunotherapy can be developed,” Dr. Brenham said. “This therapy is typically given in the form of allergy shots or more recently as a liquid squirted under the tongue (sublingual immunotherapy). The purpose of this treatment is to expose the body to very low concentrations of the substances that it reacts to, gradually increasing the concentration, in order to desensitize and ‘retrain’ the immune system (so that it doesn’t go haywire every time it sees pollen, for example).”
So it’s basically like exposure therapy, but done in a safe, medical setting.
Can you test for dog food allergies?
“One thing that allergy tests are NOT good at testing for is food allergies,” Dr. Benham told The Dodo, despite what some allergy testing companies may tell you. She said that studies have shown that “there is a very poor correlation between [food allergy test] results and actual food allergies.”
According to Dr. Benham, the only way to test your dog for a food allergy is to feed him a specific “hypoallergenic” food for at least 8 to 12 weeks to see if skin or gut health improves. If you suspect your pup may be allergic to a specific food, talk to your vet about which hypoallergenic formula may be best for your dog to try to figure out what ingredient is upsetting his stomach.
How much do dog allergy tests cost?
Depending on the type of allergy test you decide to get, a test can cost anywhere from $75 to $1,200, Dr. Benham said, with the more expensive tests being the most accurate.
Does pet insurance cover allergy tests?
“In general, if your pet has insurance before he/she is diagnosed with allergies, most insurance companies will cover the cost of testing and treatment,” Dr. Benham said. “However, pet insurance does not typically cover pre-existing conditions, so if you purchase your insurance after your pet has been diagnosed with allergies (or after they have been treated for an issue frequently associated with allergies such as skin or ear infections), allergy testing and treatment may not be covered.”
She suggested reading the fine print of your insurance policy before signing up to make sure you’re getting the coverage you want. “Allergies are usually a long-term issue and can be expensive to deal with, [so] having pet insurance can be a big help in getting your furry family member the treatment that they need.”
In-office allergy testing vs. at-home allergy testing
Knowing that allergy testing can vary in cost and effectiveness, it’s important to be educated on the test options available, both in-office and at-home.
Intradermal allergy testing
According to Dr. Benham, the “gold standard” of allergy testing is intradermal allergy testing, which is done via a skin prick at the vet’s office.
“In this test, an area of skin is shaved and various allergens are injected under the skin using tiny needles (patients may be sedated for this procedure). The skin is observed for evidence of reaction to the specific allergens.”
Because skin reactions are the most common symptoms in cases of dog allergies, this test often shows the best correlation between symptoms and cause. Though intradermal is the most effective test (75-85 percent of treated patients show improvement or resolution), it’s also the most expensive with tests and immunotherapy starting at around $700.
Blood sample allergy testing (RAST)
Another in-office allergy test that’s popular is one that’s done by taking a blood sample.
“A blood sample is drawn and sent off to a specialized laboratory,” Dr. Benham said. “This laboratory will then test the sample to look for elevated levels of immunoglobulins — substances secreted by the immune system when it is reacting to something. The higher the level of immunoglobulin to a specific stimulus (like a type of pollen or grass), the more likely the body is to have a reaction to that stimulus.”
A blood sample test is much more affordable and usually costs around $175-275 for the test and around $200-275 for the first few months of immunotherapy. Dr. Benham said 60-70 percent of treated patients see improvement or resolution after being tested for allergies with a blood sample and following through with immunotherapy.
During your research, you’ll also probably come across a handful of allergy tests that can be done at home using a sample of your dog’s saliva or hair. And these tests are the most affordable, often costing anywhere from $75 to $250.
“While there are testimonials that these tests have helped some pet owners, there have been no peer-reviewed, published studies that indicate these tests are accurate or useful,” Dr. Benham said. “[And] results of these tests cannot be used to develop immunotherapy to help ‘retrain’ the immune system to truly treat allergic diseases.”
Talking to your vet first about which test may be the best fit for you and your dog is the best first step you can take to begin figuring out what allergies your dog may have — if he has allergies at all! Your vet may direct you to a veterinary dermatologist for a more in-depth diagnosis and treatment plan, or let you know if your pup’s symptoms are something that can be treated at your vet’s office.
Allergies are annoying and can really disrupt your pup’s quality of life, so figuring out what’s plaguing him will lead to stopping the itching, scratching and infections for good.