Puppies do lots of things to get themselves in trouble, most of which have to do with chewing. They chew your shoes, your tables, your junk mail, electrical cords and anything else you forget to tie down. But what do you do when your puppy starts chewing on himself? Could it be allergies? Do puppies even get allergies?
Unfortunately, sometimes they do. Though rare, allergies can occur in dogs as soon as they’re weaned, leading to no shortage of frustration for an owner who just wants their puppy to be comfortable.
The three most common allergies in dogs are fleas, food and the environment (which we refer to as atopy). The prevalence of each varies widely based on criteria such as age and breed, but in young puppies the most commonly diagnosed allergy is to food.
Puppies And Food Allergies
“Wait a minute!” you might be saying. “I thought food allergies took time to develop. I thought they had to be older before their immune system was sensitized to the point that a dog would become allergic to a food.”
I thought that, too; it’s what most of us have been taught, and it makes sense. It took a bald Shar-Pei puppy I met my first year out of school for me to realize puppies get allergies, too.
Ranger was an adorable, wrinkly, 14-week-old Shar-Pei who would eventually be black when his fur grew in, but presented to me the red-purplish hue of a raisin. He had been chewing himself nonstop for two weeks, and the owners were understandably concerned.
Now, here’s the kicker when it comes to itchy dogs: It’s just about impossible to tell what the problem is without a full exam, lots of questions and usually some tests. I started with the most obvious assumption in a young puppy: perhaps he has an ectoparasite. We checked Ranger for mites, treated him for fleas and worms, and nothing changed. We gave him a trial run of antihistamines and steroids, to assess for a response. Again, nothing changed. This sequential series of tests and trial-and-error is not uncommon when teasing out the causes of allergies, but owners understandably tire of multiple visits with no improvement for their pet.
Finally, I wondered out loud if Ranger might have food allergies. The owners were as dubious as I was. My colleagues agreed this was probably not the case. Short on ideas, I suggested an elimination diet, which is 12 weeks on nothing but hypoallergenic food, just in case he was an outlier. The owners demurred, and had me refer them to a dermatologist.
A month later, Ranger came back in to say hello, his fur starting to grow back a glorious deep black. He was relaxed and confident now that he no longer had to gnaw on his feet all day. The owners thanked me for the referral and told me the dermatologists were geniuses (which they are).
“What was the diagnosis?” I asked.
“Food allergies,” they answered.
That’s when I learned that even young puppies can react to food. In fact, up to 30 percent of dogs diagnosed with food allergies are under a year of age at the time of their diagnosis. As dogs get older, environmental allergies and flea allergies become much more common, and can be very hard to tell apart just from appearances.
Dog Allergy Complications
Owners of itchy puppies might be tempted to just skip the vet and go straight to the hypoallergenic food aisle, but it’s a bad idea to do that.
First, if the puppy has something relatively easy to treat, like fleas or mites, it would be a waste of time to attempt a food trial.
Second, the majority of allergic dogs have secondary problems that need their own treatments. All that inflamed skin, wet from saliva and raw from constant licking, is a breeding ground for bacteria and yeast. Even if you address the root cause of the allergy correctly, the pet will get no relief from his itchiness unless those secondary problems are treated as well.
Lastly, and this is particularly important with puppies, it’s worth the time and effort to figure out exactly what the root cause of the itchiness is, because an allergic puppy is going to be living with that his whole life. Investing some time and effort into isolating a food or flea allergy early in life is going to be a lot easier than spending years treating recurrent infections, trying different antihistamines, and getting no improvement.
Ranger’s owners were committed to keeping him healthy from the get-go, and he went on to live a long and comfortable life. If your puppy is showing signs of allergic disease, don’t wait to get a diagnosis — it may be something he needs help with for the rest of his life, so the sooner the better.