Dog Skin Allergies: Canine Atopic Dermatitis

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Like humans, dogs are susceptible to developing allergies such as atopic dermatitis. If a dog has atopic dermatitis, the immune system reacts too strongly to common environmental allergens that are absorbed through the skin such as mold spores, dust mites, and grass. These irritants become absorbed more easily due to a dysfunction in the skin barrier, which decreases resistance to secondary infections.

In This Article

What Is Atopic Dermatitis In Dogs?

Atopic dermatitis (or atopy) is an inflammatory, chronic skin condition associated with environmental allergies and is the second most common allergic skin condition diagnosed in dogs.

What dog breeds are prone to canine atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is a genetic condition with certain breeds, such as those below.

  • Terriers

  • Beagles

  • Irish and English Setters

  • Lhasa Apsos

  • Pugs

  • English and French Bulldogs

  • Miniature Schnauzer

  • Labradors

  • Golden Retrievers

  • Labradoodles and Goldendoodles

Signs & symptoms of atopic dermatitis in dogs

A dog with atopic dermatitis will usually show signs and symptoms between 3 months to 6 years of age. It’s not as common for dogs over the age of 7 to develop atopic dermatitis, although a new environment can trigger new allergens. Atopic dermatitis often begins as a mild condition with symptoms not becoming clinically visible before the third year.

Recognizing the sign and symptoms is relatively easy once they begin to present themselves. If your dog exhibits any of the following, contact your veterinarian immediately:

  • Scratching the skin

  • Licking of the body, especially the paws

  • Biting the skin

  • Chronic ear and skin infections

  • Foul odor

  • Hair loss

  • Rubbing against the floor

  • Watery eyes

  • Cuts

  • Scabs

  • Open wounds

The most commonly affected areas include:

  • Ears

  • Underarms

  • Groin

  • Paws

  • Around the eyes

  • Ankles

  • Muzzle

In its early stages, atopy may be mild and might not be as recognizable, but as the disease progresses, the symptoms will as well.

What causes atopic dermatitis in dogs?

Atopic dermatitis is a genetic disease that is predisposed in some breeds more than others. For that reason, dogs diagnosed with the condition should not be bred. The cause is unknown, but a general understanding of the anatomy of the skin is vital in understanding what happens to a dog when the skin becomes irritated and inflamed as a result of allergens in the environment. A case of atopic dermatitis can be painful and uncomfortable for a dog.

Knowing what has the power to irritate the skin and trigger a case of atopic dermatitis is helpful. Some things to look out for:

  • Direct contact with another animal, object, plant, or irritating chemical substance

  • Excessive rubbing of the skin

  • Allergies to food

  • Yeast or fungi

  • Infection by parasites such as fleas, ticks, mites, lice, worms

  • Skin allergies or hypersensitivity

  • Pyoderma in the dog

  • Canine acne

  • Malnutrition

Atopic dermatitis can be seasonal. Symptoms may begin showing in the spring and fall months, although approximately three-quarters of dogs are affected all year long.

Diagnosing canine atopic dermatitis

Symptoms of atopic dermatitis are similar to other skin conditions, which can make it difficult to diagnose. Uncovering the cause may take time and is often a process of elimination.

Along with a full medical examination, which includes a look at the dog’s complete medical history, additional allergy testing may be done. In some cases, your veterinarian may perform a blood test (serological allergy test) to determine the presence of an antibody called IgE to specific allergens. An increase in an allergen-specific IgE usually means there is an overreaction to that allergen in the body.

Intradermal testing (skin test), may also be done to determine the cause of the allergy. Small amounts of test allergens are injected into the dog’s skin, and the response (a red bump) is measured. When an allergy is present, an immediate allergic reaction will appear on the skin. Skin-testing often requires sedation and is typically performed by a board-certified veterinary dermatologist.

While trying to determine a cause, a veterinarian will also work to eliminate other outside causes such as parasites, food allergies, hormonal imbalances (especially hypothyroidism), or inflammatory disorders like dry skin or infections that cause a dog to scratch at the skin.

Once it is determined that a dog has atopy, the right treatment can begin. In many cases, your dog can be treated effectively for atopy, even if your veterinarian is unable to determine which specific environmental allergens are triggering the atopy.

Treatment for atopic dermatitis in dogs

The cause of the dog’s allergic reaction, the severity of the condition, and possible secondary infections will shape the course of treatment for atopic dermatitis.

One of the first steps is eliminating or reducing exposure to the allergens causing dermatitis. If you are unable to identify the irritants, use a process of elimination by removing the environmental factors that have the potential to trigger an outbreak. Diet, bedding, even the general environment in which the dog is exposed to may need to be changed.

For dogs with a severe case of atopic dermatitis, removing and changing specific factors might not be enough. Oral corticosteroids can be given to control or reduce the itching and swelling, but there are side effects associated with steroids, so it’s important to administer as directed by your veterinarian. There are also other non-steroidal drugs that your veterinarian might prescribe to alleviate the discomfort.

Oral antihistamines are another commonly prescribed medication for dogs diagnosed with a mild case of dermatitis. An antibiotic or antifungal medication might also be prescribed if a secondary infection is suspected. Yeast infections are also common.

Immunotherapy is also another option available for dogs. It’s a series of allergy shots that contain the allergens your dog is sensitive to and is administered with the intention of building tolerance to the allergen. The treatment can reduce the symptoms, especially in dogs who start treatment when they are younger. But results usually are not immediate. It can take anywhere from 6-9 months for noticeable results.

When treating atopic dermatitis, consider natural, at-home remedies, including:

  • Diet: Food allergies can increase the amount of itching and scratching. Feeding a quality diet high, recognized brand of dog food is helpful. Avoid soy-based products, chemicals, and impurities. Supplements should not be added to your dog’s food unless directed by your veterinarian. It is important to note that food allergies are typically caused by proteins, not by grains. Do not change your dog’s diet or offer a grain-free food without first consulting with your veterinarian.

  • Probiotics: Incorporating probiotics into a dog’s digestive system will put back the “good” bacteria and aid in overall health.

  • Cleanliness: Good grooming is essential, especially for a dog with allergies. Brushing the fur daily will remove dander and dandruff. Bathing once a week with a gentle shampoo can also help to eliminate allergens on the skin. In addition to bathing, frequently cleaning the areas in which your dog occupies will remove excess hair, dirt, and dust.

  • Vitamin E oil: Vitamin E oil is a powerful antioxidant that acts as a moisturizer on a dog’s skin. Atopic dermatitis can cause dry skin, so massaging some of this into the skin can be helpful. Do not, however, give your dog oral Vitamin E unless directed to do so by your veterinarian.

  • Environment: Be conscious of the weather, and avoid early morning or afternoon walks, especially during springtime, since the pollen count is usually higher during this time.

At what age can dogs get canine atopic dermatitis?

Dogs will typically show signs of atopic dermatitis between one to six years of age. However, it generally takes a couple of years before signs become apparent since in the first year the disease will be relatively mild.

Is there a cure for atopic dermatitis in dogs?

There is no actual cure for allergies, but finding ways to reduce or eliminate the symptoms will improve the overall quality of life.

Is canine atopic dermatitis contagious for humans and other pets?

Atopic dermatitis is not contagious to other humans or pets. Dogs with a family history are predisposed and can pass it down from one generation to the next, but others who come in contact with a dog with atopic dermatitis are not at risk.

What is the cost of treating atopic dermatitis in dogs?

The cost of treating atopic dermatitis depends on the severity of the disease and the types of treatment required. Some dogs respond well to a daily antihistamine, which might not be as costly as other prescription medications, allergy injections, treatments for secondary infections, and frequent visits to the veterinarian. At that point, costs can average a couple of hundred dollars every month.

For example, Cytopoint, an injection designed to help control itching in dogs with skin allergies, is a prescription-based medication with a cost that varies on factors such as your veterinarian, geographic location, and required dosage. On average, a vial can cost between $35 to more than $130. For dogs larger than 80 pounds, more than one vial will be needed, thus increasing the cost.

Recovery and management of atopic dermatitis in dogs

Atopic dermatitis is a lifelong condition, and will not resolve on its own, which is why it’s necessary to manage your dog’s environment and stay on top of daily health routines, including diet, clean living space, and weekly baths to remove any allergens that have attached themselves to the skin.

Once treatment begins, frequent visits to the veterinarian are necessary to determine how well your dog is responding. Some treatments work better than others, so it may involve some initial trial and error to find the one that works best. The goal is to have the least amount of side effects in the long term, and still allow for a good quality of life. As the symptoms start to subside, veterinary visits will become less frequent, but checkups are still needed to ensure your pup’s health.

How to prevent atopic dermatitis in dogs

It’s impossible to avoid allergens completely (your dog will have to go outside at some point), but they’re controllable through the use of medical and home remedies, especially when inside. Keeping the air fresh will minimize the risk of an allergic reaction.

Is there a vaccine for canine atopic dermatitis?

No vaccine will prevent this skin condition from developing.

Summary of atopic dermatitis in dogs

Atopic dermatitis (or atopy) is a common skin allergy in dogs, resulting in scratching, licking and recurrent skin infections. A lifelong condition, it’s important to identify the allergens causing dermatitis, to eliminate or reduce exposure to them. While not curable, the symptoms are manageable with medical treatment and sometimes require adjustments to diet, lifestyle and hygiene practices.

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