When Oliver starts the all-too-familiar itching and scratching cycle, annoying dog skin allergies may be the culprit, but can dogs really get allergies? Just like humans, man’s best friend isn’t spared from the ability to develop allergic symptoms. All it takes is for his body to categorize some common, everyday substances and label them as potentially dangerous and threatening. Soon, his immune systems starts going on alert causing a full-blown allergic reaction to take place. The triggers may be several: from inhaled airborne allergens to ingested products or substances that get in contact with the skin.
Unlike humans though who typically get the sniffles and repeated sneezing fits the moment an allergy strikes, dogs instead tend to develop skin problems. Knowing the underlying trigger won’t likely stop the allergies altogether, but it can help dog owners learn how to better manage and control those annoying episodes of relentless itching and scratching.
Common Allergens in Dogs
A vast array of substances can act as allergens to dogs. Acknowledging what a dog is allergic to is the first step to relieving the symptoms. Trying to relieve the symptoms without going to the root of the problem will only be a short-term fix to an everlasting problem. The following are the three main categories of skin allergies dogs are prone to.
The most common skin allergy in dogs is flea bite dermatitis, often abbreviated as FAD. In this case, the trigger is not the actual bite itself, but the saliva of the flea which causes severe local itching. Even just one flea can suffix to make a dog miserable. The presence of flea dirt in the dog’s coat is a reliable indication of the presence of fleas. Often, affected dogs also present hair loss in their lower back area. Fortunately, this allergy can be kept for the most part at bay by investing in effective flea treatments.
As if flea bite allergies and food allergies weren’t enough, tiny particles found in the dog’s environment can also create significant problems. In this case, outdoor allergens under the form of pollen, grasses and weeds can be the culprit. These types of allergies are usually seasonal, showing up mostly in the spring and summer months. Indoor allergens though may create year-round problems. House dust, mold, dust mites, animal dander and feathers are common triggers. In other cases, allergic reactions may be triggered by direct contact with the allergen. This is seen when skin exposure to topical products occur or when dogs develop intense itching after walking or rolling onto surfaces where the offending allergen is found.
Allergic reactions to food cause bouts of non-seasonal itchiness. Food allergies though should not be confused with food intolerances. Unlike food allergies, food intolerances tend to cause digestive upset and don’t typically involve a dermatological response. Food intolerances also tend to occur when the dog ingests foods that simply don’t agree with him.
In the case of food allergies, the culprit instead consists of a protein found in certain foods. According to an article on Pet Place, a survey of veterinarians in North America found that beef, dairy products and wheat accounted for 66 percent of food allergies while chicken, lamb, soy, eggs, pork and food additives accounted for 22 percent.
Just because dog owners feed an expensive, premium food doesn’t make the dog less likely to develop a food allergy. Premium foods may contain the problematic allergens too. Interestingly, food allergies can occur at any time of a dog’s life. Dogs that have been fed the same food for years can still develop an allergy. Indeed, according to veterinarian Rosanna Marsalla, 70 percent of pets develop allergies to foods they have been fed for quite a long time, even for more than two years. How common though are food allergies in dogs? It is estimated that food allergies account for 10 percent of allergies in dogs, ranking third after flea bite allergies and inhalant allergies.
What Dogs are Predisposed?
Interestingly, despite there appears to be no sex or age predilections to food allergies, researchers have found that food allergies seem to occur more in younger dogs. According to an article published in Veterinary Technician, studies showed that 33 percent of dogs who suffered from food allergies were less than 1 year old. It also appears that certain breeds may be more likely to suffer from allergies than others. For instance, some researchers report that the following breeds were found to be more predisposed: Dalmatians, Collies, Cocker Spaniels and Springer Spaniels, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers and West Highland White Terriers, Shar-Peis, Labrador and Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Lhasa Apsos, Miniature Schnauzers, Poodles, Dachshunds, Boxers and Beagles.
Symptoms of Dog Skin Allergies
The symptoms of a dog skin allergy cannot be ignored. Most likely, Oliver will appear restless as he scratches and scratches and scratches. “Pruritus” is the medical term for this almost constant itching. The itching may be localized to one area, such as in the case of ear scratching, or it may be generalized to the entire body. The skin though can just take so much scratching so it’ll soon appear red, moist and irritated. In some cases, secondary bacterial and yeast infections may set in causing further damage under the form of hair loss, scabbing and crusting. Constant paw licking and chewing may instead lead to unsightly stains in the fur. Occasionally, some dogs may also develop respiratory problems, with coughing, sneezing and eye discharge.
Diagnosing Skin Allergies
Diagnosing skin allergies can be tricky because there are many other skin disorders that produce similar symptoms. However, it is estimated that allergies account for 70 percent of skin conditions in dogs. While these statistics appear encouraging enough when it comes to diagnostics, in reality identifying the exact allergen can prove quite challenging. The dog’s medical history, clinical signs, history of food trials and the exclusion of other pruritic disorders need to be accounted for in order to attain a correct diagnosis.
Just as in humans, skin tests may be valuable in elucidating the potential allergen. During these tests, small amounts of potential antigens are injected into the skin and the local reactions are observed. Blood tests may also be used to identify the presence of antigen-induced antibodies in the blood. However, while these tests may seem like an optimal way to identify the trigger, the drawback is that many times such tests are inaccurate and can lead to false positives and false negatives.
Treatments of Skin Allergies
Most allergies are managed and controlled through avoidance. Limiting exposure to the allergen works well; yet, this is often easier said than done since many times the allergy source is almost unavoidable. However, the good news is that several precautions can be taken. For instance, allergies to pollens can be better managed when grass is kept short. Frequent dusting and cleaning can help keep dust and mold at bay.
The treatment for dog skin allergies is based on the underlying cause for the pruritus. In the case of food allergies, a hypoallergenic diet is offered. Basically, the dog is fed a diet that includes one protein source and one carbohydrate source to which the dog has had limited exposure or was never exposed to in the first place. This often means choosing unusual protein sources such as duck, lamb, venison and salmon. Yet, it must be noted that it’s becoming harder and harder to find protein sources that are truly novel.
The diet must be fed for a minimum of 8 to 12 weeks, but improvements can be often seen as early as four weeks. The re-introduction of the potentially offending protein should bring back the allergy symptoms, confirming the diagnosis. Feeding foods containing hydrolyzed proteins is another dietary option. These diets are composed by smaller protein particles that are incapable of causing an allergy.
It’s an unethical practice for groomers, pet store owners and employees to suggest a brand of food for the purpose of curing allergies. Only a licensed nutritionist or a licensed veterinarian, who has examined and diagnosed the dog should recommend putting the dog on a specific diet.
While medications offer a short-term solution, it’s important to note that they don’t address the medical issue directly. Conventional Western medicine focuses on suppressing the immune system by using fast-acting medications. Common medications prescribed include steroids (eg. Prenisolone) and antihistamines, and in some cases, antibiotics and antifungal medications are used too when a secondary bacterial or yeast infection sets in.
Homeopathy, on the other hand, focuses on taking a more holistic approach. Rather than suppressing the over reactive immune system and palliating the symptoms, it treats the body as a whole, working on strengthening its internal vital force. This approach takes longer, but it aims at going to the root of the problem which is believed to be an imbalance of energy that weakens the immune system.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of the chosen treatment method, allergies aren’t easy to control and they can cause significant frustration and discomfort in pet dogs. The diagnosis can be challenging, and at times, costly tests may only lead to the conclusion that the allergen can never be totally avoided in the first place. Fortunately, regardless if the responsible trigger is ever found, proper therapy may lead to a better quality of life, especially when instituted early.