Allergies are quite common in dogs of all breeds and backgrounds and occur when their immune system has a hyper reaction to a foreign substance such as pollen, flea saliva, vaccines, spider bits, bee stings or even certain foods that normally would cause little or no reaction in most dogs.
We suspect certain allergies such as atopy or allergies to pollens and plants are primarily hereditary in basis. Most of these dogs begin to show allergic signs between 1-3 years of age, often after they have previously been exposed to the underlying cause. While most allergies can’t be cured, the goal is to manage them with treatments that can help relieve or control a dog’s allergic symptoms.
SIGNS THAT YOUR DOG MIGHT HAVE ALLERGIES
The signs of allergies vary depending on the type of allergic reaction a dog is experiencing and can vary from dog to dog. Most allergic signs in are dermatologic, which can range from itching and inflammation of the skin, feet and ears, to hives, and possibly swelling of the face. Some allergic dogs can have clear watery eyes and nose as well as sneezing. Gastrointestinal signs can also occur such as vomiting and/or diarrhea with or without blood. In rarer cases, a much more severe and different allergic reaction called an anaphylactic reaction can occur. This is an immediate type of hypersensitivity and leads to a potentially life-threatening situation where a dog can acutely collapse due to shock and a severe drop in blood pressure.
TYPES OF ALLERGIES YOUR DOG MIGHT HAVE
There are several common types of allergies in dogs:
- Fleas: reaction to the protein in flea saliva, not the actual fleas. Therefore, a dog with only one flea can still have an extensive systemic allergic reaction due to their body’s reaction to just that one flea’s saliva.
- Canine Atopic Dermatitis: also known as atopy or atopic dermatitis (AD) is a very common canine allergy. This is usually an inherited predisposition to develop allergic symptoms after exposure to relatively common substances or allergens in the air such as pollens, grasses, weeds, molds, or fungi. Common signs of atopy are itching and inflammation in a dog often seen in the underarms, groin, face and feet. Atopy is often seasonal.
- Food allergies: allergies to food can manifest with a chronic skin condition such as flaky, itching skin, chronic licking or biting of the paws, chronic ear infections (often with secondary opportunistic bacterial or yeast infections). Dogs can develop allergies to a food or substance over a period of time, so though they may have had no previous issues with that food substance or protein, initially.
- Contact Allergies: Contact allergies are found when a dog has direct contact to a caustic surface or chemical causing severe irritation to the skin. Household cleaners, carpet cleaners, fertilizers, topical medication and essential oils may all potentially cause a contact allergy.
- Bacterial hypersensitivity: Bacterial hypersensitivity occurs when a dog’s immune system overreacts to their normal bacterial flora on their skin. This often occurs when other health conditions are present such as hypothyroidism, inhalant allergy and/or flea allergy are present.
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT OF YOUR DOG’S ALLERGIES
The best method of controlling allergies is to know what the allergen is and to avoid it or control it. Your veterinarian can perform an extensive examination with history to try to help determine the most likely cause and formulate a practical treatment plan. The gold standard for diagnosing allergies in dogs is immunotherapy or allergy testing to determine the actual cause of the allergic response and to tailor an allergen specific immunotherapy (ASIT).
There are several options for treating your dog’s allergies:
- Flea Prevention: flea prevention is obvious and relatively easy and will help dogs who suffer from allergies to fleas. Eradication through an extensive anti-parasitic protocol may be necessary to improve the allergy sufferer.
- Antihistamines: this treatment is generally inexpensive and safe with little side effects, but different types can have variable effects and don’t work on all dogs.
- Medications: Cortisone products have been commonly used in the past with good effects on allergy sufferers, but these types of medications are not without side effects, so they need to be used judiciously and only for shorter periods of time. Newer medications such as cyclosporines (Atopica), Apoquel, an immunomodulator, and Cytopoint, an immunotherapeutic, are currently being used extensively by clinicians with good results to minimalize the severe itching response the dog gets from allergies.
- Dietary Changes/Hypoallergenic diets: Dairy, beef, and wheat can be responsible for up to 80% of food allergies in dogs. Hypoallergenic diets utilize one “novel” protein (or only one new protein in a diet) as the protein source. Most pets with food allergies respond well when switched to a store-bought hypoallergenic diet, but occasionally an animal suffers from such extreme allergies that a homemade diet is the only option. In this case, the diet should be customized with the aid of a veterinarian, veterinary dermatologist or veterinary nutritionist.
- Environmental and external aids: Air-purifiers can help reduce certain molds. Dusts and pollens are best controlled by using an air cleaner with a HEPA filter. Air conditioning can also reduce circulating amounts of airborne allergens because windows are then kept closed.
- Medicated Baths and Supplements: Many medicated shampoos have compounds in them that are aimed at soothing the injured skin and skin barrier and calming inflammation. In addition, frequent bathing (weekly to every other week) can remove allergens from the coat, which may contribute to skin allergy flare-ups. These shampoos are often prescribed by your veterinarian and directions for use should always be read completely and followed explicitly.
- Supplements: Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acid supplements can be considered by your veterinarian. These fatty acids are natural anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative agents.
- Antibiotics and Antifungal Medications: Antibiotics are frequently needed to treat secondary skin infections. Anti-fungal medications are frequently needed to treat secondary yeast infections.
Each possible allergy treatment has its advantages and drawbacks. Finding the source of your dog’s allergy and discussing a specific treatment plan with your veterinarian is recommended.