Anyone who has suffered from allergies knows they are no fun. From itching to a stuffy head, hives and even trouble breathing, the health ramifications can be nasty. Allergies aren’t specific to humans — your dog can be just as susceptible to allergies, and your furry friend can experience similar levels of discomfort.
That pain and discomfort could lead to your pet scratching themselves raw or sleeping fitfully (while dogs are our best friend, a cranky dog does not make for great sleep). Unlike you, your dog can’t pop out to the store for some Benadryl. So how do you identify and treat signs of allergies in your best friend?
Animal allergies come in many types:
- Environmental allergies are caused by something in their surroundings, like perfume, houseplants or cleaning agents. Dogs, like people, can be sensitive to everyday substances. Environmental allergies include seasonal allergies such as molds and pollens.
- Flea dermatitis is a common type of dog allergy that includes allergies to fleas and flea saliva. Flea bites, unexplained dirt and inflammation are indicators of flea activity. Fleas can cause dogs to scratch at their skin until it flakes or bleeds.
- Food allergies (and intolerances) come from diet. Common food allergies for dogs include beef, fish, chicken, lamb and dairy products. Food intolerances vary from dog to dog — some may not experience any kind of reaction to foods, while others require a restricted diet. Most food reactions are food intolerances, which cause stomach upset, dull coat and dry skin. True allergies produce symptoms that range from hives to anaphylactic shock (though the latter is rare).
- Acute allergic reactions are the most severe (and rare) form of dog allergies. Bee stings are a common cause of acute allergic reaction, as well as reactions to vaccines.
Allergic reactions are easy to spot. No matter the cause, they frequently share symptoms. Scratching is the most prominent sign of allergies, especially if your dog scratches himself raw in places. Those sores are commonly referred to as hot spots. Biting, licking or chewing on itchy spots can have the same effect. Common itchy areas include the face, feet, ears, armpits and belly. It’s important to promptly treat any inflammation that leads to open wounds (or hot spots) to prevent infection.
While hair loss is symptomatic of a lot of medical issues in dogs, including mites and hormonal imbalances, allergies can also be a cause. For dogs, allergy-related hair loss is usually due to fleas and mites or environmental allergies like mold and pollen. Hair loss can come in small spots, like hot spots, or large patches. Because hair loss can be indicative of many different issues it’s usually a good idea to take the dog to visit the vet.
Dogs suffering from an allergic reaction can also exhibit watery eyes, sniffling or sneezing. Recurrent watery eyes can lead to discoloration or tear stains in their fur, around their eyes.
Hives in dogs look similar to hives in people — inflamed, raised, red itchy spots. Inflammation occurs in all types of allergic reactions, but the most severe are associated with acute allergic reactions. Insect bites or stings can cause extreme inflammation, especially swelling of the face. Inflammation is also one of the most obvious symptoms of an allergic reaction to a vaccine. In situations where a dog’s face puffs up, an emergency trip to the vet is recommended.
Ongoing allergy issues can manifest as chronic ear infections, signaled by excessive rubbing, scratching or shaking their head. When a dog frequently scratches at their ears, it creates inflammation. That inflammation accelerates wax development. Excess wax creates the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and yeast growth. The painful infections inspire more scratching, and the cycle gets worse and worse. Without treatment, dogs can scratch themselves raw around their ears or, in worst case scenarios, risk their hearing.
Treatment at Home
Treatment methods for allergies in dogs differ based on the kind of allergy. Milder allergic reactions can often be treated from home. A little bit of sleuthing can often help you determine the source of the allergic reaction. For food allergies, replace food until you identify the culprit by the process of elimination. Check store-bought food for potentially harmful additives or meat substitutes. If you’re unsure of ingredients in store-bought food, you can make your own dog food or treats.
Some of the common culprits with food allergies or intolerance include chicken, beef, soy, corn, dairy, eggs and wheat. Try switching to a dog food made for sensitive digestion, or rotate through the ingredients in homemade dog food to see if any one item is responsible for the allergy. This method takes a while, but it’s less invasive than an allergy test. If you’re unsure about creating a healthy diet for your dog, check with a veterinarian.
For environmental or contact allergens, use wipes after a romp outside to clean off anything that may cause a canine reaction (and prevent them from spreading around your home). Check things they come in contact with frequently, like their toys, bed or blankets to see if anything there could be irritating them. Likewise, bathe dogs with sensitive skin in hypoallergenic or non-itch dog shampoo.
The same things that reduce homebound allergens in people will also help your dog — change your air conditioner and vacuum filters, clean routinely, and use an air purifier (or a humidifier for dry skin). Look for potential sources of mold and mildew.
Replace plastic food and water dishes with stainless steel or porcelain. Plastic provides a better environment for bacteria growth.
For tear stains, keep your dog’s face and eye area clean by wiping them down a couple of times a day with a warm, wet cloth. Dogs with a lot of fur around the face might need a trip to the groomer to help keep their face clean (and reduce potential for irritants to get buried in fur).
You can buy over-the-counter medications for allergies at any pet store. They vary in both dosage and form. For ingestion, allergy medicine is available in pill and treat form. Topical allergy medicine (including hot spot relief) exists as foams, sprays, creams and shampoos.
When home treatments don’t work — or when the allergic reaction seems too severe for home treatment — a visit to the vet is your best option. Diagnostic tools range from exams to tests.
Your vet’s first step will be a thorough exam, often with a lot of questions about your dog’s life, environment and eating habits. They’ll look for any signs of rash, inflammation, hives, or other common symptoms. Make sure to be prepared with information about your dog’s life, any medications they’re taking, and anything you suspect to be the root cause. Sometimes an exam is simple enough to pinpoint the source. If not, your vet might need to run a series of tests.
For dogs with ear infections, your vet might want to look at the ear discharge under a microscope to check for mites, yeast or bacteria. They may also swab the inside of the dog’s ear for testing.
If the suspected allergen is inhaled, like pollens, your vet may opt for blood tests. A blood test involves drawing blood and sending to the lab for analysis.
Allergy testing on skin is similar to tests for humans, which consists of injecting common irritants under the skin to see what reacts. The test can run from uncomfortable to painful (and often includes shaving fur in patches for best results). If a reaction appears within the next couple of hours, that allergen is confirmed, and you can move forward to treatments.
When the allergen is identified, your vet may opt for immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a series of injections designed to increase tolerance to an allergen over a long period of time — 6 months to a year. It’s usually only prescribed for dogs with serious allergy problems that affect them for a substantial part of the year. The process is thorough, and often owners will have to administer some of the shots. The beginning phases of the treatment often show increased reaction to the allergen, but as the treatment progresses, dogs will show fewer symptoms until the allergic reaction is controlled.
If your dog experiences an acute reaction to food, a vaccine or any other irritant, an emergency vet visit is probably in order. Some vaccine reactions are life threatening. Treatment for a reaction ranges from antihistamine or cortisone shots (for mild allergic reactions) to epinephrine (in life-threatening situations).
Most veterinarians will prescribe a multifaceted approach to treating your dog’s allergies: a combination of medicine (for the allergy), topical skin treatment (for the inflammation) and potentially a plan to adjust the dog’s living situation or diet.
If you’re considering medicating your dog, or are concerned about your dog’s health and behavior, always consult a veterinarian. When it comes to your furry family member, health and happiness is what is most important.
About the Author:
Devin writes from somewhere along the West Coast. He is infected with wanderlust but always tries to bring his dog, Scrummy, along for the ride. You can follow him on Twitter.