Does your dog keep you up at night with incessant slurping noises as he chews on his back leg? Does he gross out your guests by rubbing his itchy tail end on the corner of the coffee table during your book club? Does he lie on the floor and paw at his muzzle like he’s trying to yank it off? Your dog might be a card-carrying member of the canine allergy club.
In the adult dog, an itch here or there is not uncommon, but a severe, unrelenting discomfort may be a sign of an allergy. Dog allergies are divided into three categories: flea, food and environment. Dogs may even have multiple types of allergies. Canine allergies are notoriously frustrating for owners because of the challenge of arriving at the proper diagnosis, but it’s well worth the effort to get your dog the treatment he needs.
In people, we think of allergies as presenting with hay fever-type symptoms. This is less common in the dog, who tends to present with skin problems regardless of the type of allergy. The symptoms vary widely: some dogs get recurrent ear infections, others incessantly lick their forepaws, and others end up with splotchy red rashes on their bellies. It’s important to get into the veterinarian when the symptoms first arise; secondary bacterial or yeast infections are very common, as moist, irritated skin is a perfect breeding ground for pathogens.
Places And Things That Cause Dog Allergies
Environmental allergies, known as atopy, are the most commonly diagnosed allergy in adult dogs. Most dogs tend to show symptoms by 6 years of age. Like people, dogs can be allergic to anything from grass to pollens and dust mite dander. The symptoms are often seasonal, worsening during springtime. Some dogs react directly at the point of contact with the allergen: We see this often in dogs with grass allergies who end up with red bellies and feet due to the close contact of those areas with their outside lawn.
A diagnosis of atopy is generally made on the basis of a pet’s history, though it can be confirmed with skin testing or blood tests as it is in people. Skin and serum testing allows your veterinarian to pinpoint the exact allergens your pet is reacting to, in order to come up with a customized immunotherapy regimen. In other words, to prescribe allergy shots.
Milder cases of atopy can be controlled with antihistamines, but severely affected dogs often need more aggressive treatment. Allergy shots and a medication known as cyclosporine are the most widely used treatments, with similar results. Steroids such as prednisone are effective in the short-term, but not appropriate for long-term use due to the long list of side effects. A new drug called Apoquel is also showing promise, though it is not yet widely available.
Fleas Cause Dog Allergies
Flea allergies are the second most commonly diagnosed allergy in adult dogs. While all dogs may experience minor irritation from fleabites, dogs who are allergic to flea saliva can become severely itchy all over from just one bite. Without proper flea control, these pets often get recurrent hot spots, infections and massive bald spots on their rear ends.
My first month of practice, I met a 5-year-old Golden Retriever with recurrent infections due to a flea allergy. Rather than treat the dog, the owner asked me to euthanize her because “No one would want her like this.” This is how I ended up with a new dog. Mulan was a lovely girl who lived to be 11, and on regular flea control she never had another skin infection. Before Advantage and other topical flea products, these dogs suffered through many horrible summers of misery, but between topical treatments and oral treatments such as Comfortis, the allergies of these dogs can be very well controlled.
Foods That Cause Dog Allergies
The least common allergy in adult dogs is food allergies. They are hard to predict; dogs can develop them at any point in their lives, and even dogs who have been on the same food for years can develop a sudden allergy to a food. The dog may be itchy all over, losing hair, chewing his feet or simply experiencing recurrent ear infections.
Though any food source can be the culprit, the most common allergens in dogs are chicken, beef and dairy. Arriving at a diagnosis can be time-consuming, as the only reliable method for diagnosing food allergy is getting rid of the offending food and waiting to see if the dog gets better. This takes a 12-week commitment to feeding nothing but hypoallergenic food. If the dog improves, you can challenge him with a single food each week to determine the problem ingredient.
Treating Dog Allergies
The approach to diagnosing allergies varies from vet to vet. Some like to go in steps, working up the allergy they think is most likely before going on to the next one. Others like to throw everything at the dog at once — antihistamines, hypoallergenic food, flea control — to get the dog comfortable, and then work backward to find the culprit.
Regardless of the type of allergy, many of these dogs have secondary infections requiring additional treatments. Antibiotics, anti-fungals and medicated shampoos are commonly used. Frequent bathing is thought to help dogs by removing the amount of allergens trapped in their fur, so get ready for a lot of spa days.
Yes, it’s a lot of work to have an allergic dog, but the more work you put in during the initial diagnostic phase, the easier the management becomes in the long term. Your dog, your wallet and your sanity will thank you.