If your pup suffers from itching, hair loss, skin infections, or ear infections, she may have allergies. But does she have a food allergy, seasonal allergies, or both? The symptoms may be similar, but they require different treatments, so read on to learn more about how to identify and deal with canine allergies.
Allergies in dogs
Just as they are for people, allergies in pets are an exaggerated immune response to something in the environment that shouldn’t trigger one.
People with seasonal allergies often sneeze and get runny noses, but allergies generally don’t affect dogs’ respiratory systems. Instead, canine allergies cause lots of skin problems, such as atopic dermatitis. It’s common for dogs with allergies to suffer from chronic ear infections and itchy skin, especially on the face, paws, armpits, and lower belly. Unfortunately, because dogs tend to scratch and chew on their itchy spots, they can get secondary infections when bacteria or yeast come into contact with irritated skin.
Seasonal and environmental allergies
Environmental allergens for dogs include pollen, molds, grass, trees, and dust mites. Another common allergen is flea saliva, which causes a disease called flea allergy dermatitis.
If you notice that your dog suffers from itching and scratching during a particular time of year, or in response to being in a specific place, keep notes. Diagnosing allergies tends to involve a lot of trial and error, so having as much information as possible will be helpful for your veterinarian.
Diagnosing allergies tends to involve a lot of trial and error, so having as much information as possible will be helpful for your veterinarian.
Food allergies account for about 10% of allergies in pets. Although it may be surprising to hear, since you probably think of your dog as the ultimate carnivore, the most frequent allergy culprit is a protein, usually chicken or beef. But certain dogs can also be allergic to carbohydrates, preservatives, or food dyes. In addition to chronic itching, food allergies can cause gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea.
Can I get allergy testing for my dog?
Yes! In fact, as it’s very difficult for owners to differentiate between environmental and food allergies themselves, a vet visit should be the first step in treating your dog’s allergies.
Once you bring your pup into the clinic, the veterinarian will ask you some questions about your dog’s diet and medical history. Then the vet may recommend intradermal skin testing and/or serologic (blood) testing to try to identify what, exactly, is triggering your dog’s allergies.
Intradermal allergy testing is a highly specialized and complex process, so dogs requiring such testing are almost always referred to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist. Because intradermal testing can be uncomfortable, dogs are typically sedated for this procedure. It involves injecting a small amount of a pure allergen under the skin and measuring the allergic response. Intradermal testing is the gold standard when it comes to diagnosing environmental allergies, but it doesn’t test for food allergies.
Serologic testing uses a blood sample to test a dog’s response to environmental allergens, so it is less invasive and does not require sedation. This test can be performed by your regular vet. However, the downside is that the results are not always as accurate as intradermal testing.
When it comes to food allergies, the only truly accurate way to figure out if your dog is allergic to a certain food is to put her on a veterinarian-supervised hypoallergenic food elimination trial. While some laboratories offer blood testing for food allergies, they tend to be pretty unreliable, and the results must be interpreted cautiously.
How can I treat my dog’s allergies?
You can alleviate your dog’s allergy symptoms by treating them with anti-allergy medication, preventing exposure to allergens, and treating secondary skin infections with antibiotics, antifungals, and/or ear medications.
Allergic responses like itching can be reduced with antihistamines, steroids, or other immune-modulating drugs. Your vet will prescribe the best treatment based on your particular dog’s needs and considerations. Another option? Allergy shots, just like people get! Vets can use the data from allergy testing to create a custom treatment that helps desensitize your dog’s immune system.
Preventing exposure to allergens can be a little more involved than simply giving a pill to your pup. It may mean limiting walks through woods or parks when pollen levels are high, dusting and vacuuming more thoroughly to minimize dust mites, and cleaning your dog’s bedding more often. A monthly flea preventative is the best way to eliminate fleas as an allergy vector.
Food allergies are more complicated. Identifying a food allergy and changing a dog’s diet to treat it takes time. First of all, remember that easing your dog to a new type of food needs to be done gradually to minimize gastrointestinal distress. Dogs that are allergic to chicken or beef may need to eat a novel protein, such as rabbit, venison, or turkey. It can take up to 12 weeks for symptoms to resolve themselves after changing your dog’s diet.
In general, changing your dog’s diet to try to rule out food allergies should be done only under your veterinarian’s supervision. Randomly switching your dog’s diet around can actually do more harm than good, and a true “hypoallergenic” diet can be obtained only from a veterinarian; over the counter diets that claim to be ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘novel protein’ do not have the same quality control as veterinary prescription diets where there is absolutely no cross-contamination during the manufacturing of the diets.
It’s tough and frustrating to see your dog suffering from allergies. It takes time to figure out what is triggering your dog’s allergies, and how best to treat her: what works for one dog may not work for another, so patience is key. But by being a knowledgeable advocate for your dog—and with a lot of help from your vet!—you can figure out how to prevent your pup’s allergies from being a pain in the paw.