Everyone has a concept of what allergies are in people, but while pets can suffer from allergies too they look and are usually managed quite differently. An allergy is an abnormal immune response the body has to something that is harmless. The immune system basically overreacts and mistakenly perceives this harmless thing as being a threat to the body. Animals can have allergic reactions to vaccinations, bee stings, a particular food, or things in the environment. In the context of this article we are going to just address environmental allergies in dogs, which the proper term for is canine atopic dermatitis or atopy. Atopy is a fairly common type of allergic condition that is estimated to affect anywhere from 3-15% of the dog population (MacDonald) and can be very challenging to manage.
Common clinical signs of atopy include rubbing, licking, biting or scratching at their feet, muzzle, ears, armpit and belly areas. The skin in these areas may be red and inflamed and some dogs will also develop secondary skin infections due to all the self trauma they’re causing. Many dogs may also have frequent ear infections or anal gland problems. Dogs may be itchy year round or seasonally.
As with anything, it’s important to rule out other medical conditions first since there are other causes for itchy skin. If your vet is starting to think your dog may have an allergic condition, one of the first things he or she will do is make sure your dog doesn’t have external parasites like fleas or skin mites. Your vet may also do bloodwork to rule out common internal diseases that can cause skin issues. An additional test may be a diet trial to rule out food allergies. This involves feeding a special prescription diet only for 8-12 weeks and monitoring for improvement of symptoms. If your dog responds favorably then that may mean he or she has a food allergy instead of environmental allergies.
Through out this entire process your vet may prescribe different medications to help alleviate the symptoms and make your dog more comfortable. The goal of most treatment plans is to manage the symptoms, rather than treat the allergy, similar to people who take allergy medication when they are especially sneezy or sniffly. Some types of medication that your vet may prescribe include antihistamines, oral steroids, topical steroids, immunosuppressive drugs, medicated baths or wipes and fatty acid supplements. If there are any signs of a secondary bacterial or yeast skin infection then antibiotics or antifungals may also be prescribed. As with any medication there can be side effects so ask your vet what side effects you should be monitoring for and notify them if you see any.
If your dog does not respond to the diet trial and is still miserable despite frequent attempts to manage the symptoms with medications your vet may recommend allergy testing and allergy shots by a veterinary dermatologist. This will help provide answers as to what your dog is allergic to so that specific injections can be given on a schedule to help desensitize your dog’s immune system to allergens. It can often take a long time for dogs to respond and not all of them do.
Now if that all seems complicated and confusing that’s because it usually is! Most of these dogs are challenging to diagnose and treat. And because it can often take a long time (weeks to months) to achieve an acceptable degree of relief from the itchiness and discomfort pet parents can get easily discouraged.
While the most important thing is to develop a good relationship with a vet you trust, YOU as a pet parent will be a key component in helping your dog through this. If your vet suspects your dog may have atopy here are some helpful things you can do:
1. Keep track of what you’re seeing. Write it down and bring it to your vet appointments so that you can provide your vet the most accurate information.
2. Pay particular attention to:
- What signs are you seeing and how severe are they?
- When are you seeing them? All the time during particular months?
- How long do they last?
- Is there any improvement with any type of treatment?
- At what age was your dog when you started noticing clinical signs?
3. Follow your vet’s treatment directions
There may be a greater number of medications with specific treatment instructions. Following the treatment plan will not only ensure the best chance for your dog to improve but provide good information to your vet. If you are unable to follow all of your vet’s directions be honest with them.
4. Discuss the goals of treatment with your vet, and understand that in many cases the treatment plan may be to manage the symptoms, rather than treat the underlying cause.
5. Understand that diagnostics and treatment may be financially more than you might expect. Be honest about what you can do and what you can’t do.
6. Be prepared to be a frequent visitor of your vet’s practice!
7. Be prepared that your vet may recommend your dog see a dermatologist. They are experts in skin conditions and may be able to better help your dog.
Written by Alison Liu. DVM
MacDonald, John M. Western Veterinary Conference. 2012. Las Vegas, NV. n.p. n.d. Web.