How to manage allergies in dogs

Aug 10, 2022

If you suspect your dog has allergies, you are not alone. Canine allergies are becoming more common. While allergies can be irritating to your dog, you can learn how to manage them. And with careful management you’ll get your pup’s tail wagging again.

An allergy is a hypersensitivity to a substance, ranging from pollen to dust mites to food. An allergy is considered an abnormal physical reaction involving the immune system to the offending substance. Allergies may be inherited, acquired, or both.

Are allergies in dogs dangerous?

Typically, the allergies dogs experience are not immediately dangerous. Exceptions include things like acute allergies to bee stings, and adverse reactions to a vaccine. A canine equivalent of a human peanut allergy, for example, which can endanger the life of a child or extremely sensitive adult with anaphylactic shock, is extremely rare. However, chronic allergies can definitely reduce your dog’s quality of life, and can be a gateway into other physical problems. Skin allergies in dogs pose the risk of secondary infection as your dog scratches, chews and licks to soothe an itch. With this in mind, take care not to let possible signs of an allergy go untreated.

What are the most common canine allergies?

Dogs typically suffer from three basic types of allergies, with environmental allergies being the most common:

  • Flea allergy dermatitis
  • Food allergies
  • Environmental allergies

Flea allergy dermatitis in dogs

Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) in dogs is an allergic reaction to the saliva of the biting fleas. If you notice your dog scratching, biting and chewing, especially around the base of the tail, your dog probably has a flea problem.

Virtually every mammal on earth serves as host to a flea or two in the course of a lifetime. For dogs with no particular sensitivity, an occasional brush with fleas is irritating, but not especially troublesome. However, for a canine with FAD, just one bite can set off a frenzy of itching.

Food allergies in dogs

The term “food allergies” may be used casually (and incorrectly) by people who have dogs with food sensitivity. The difference is that a sensitivity does not trigger a response from the immune system, but may produce the common symptoms of indigestion and gastric distress. A true food allergy will cause skin problems, such as itchiness, dull coat, rough skin, and chronic ear and foot infections as the result of skin trauma.

Environmental allergies in dogs

Environmental allergies are the equivalent of hay fever in humans. Humans usually react to these allergens via their respiratory system, while dogs show symptoms in their skin. Direct contact with an allergen, whether inhaled, swallowed or introduced via the skin, triggers the response. Dust, pollen, mildew and mold are common allergens, as are many household products, from lawn chemicals to carpet cleaning spray. Even those lovely essential oils that you may enjoy can cause contact dermatitis and more long-term allergic responses in your dog.

What are the common danger signs for dogs with allergies?

Dog’s feet smell like Fritos

Do your dog’s feet smell like…corn chips?? And does your dog always lick their paws? This isn’t a desire to be clean: it’s because the feet itch, and your dog is trying to soothe themself.

That weirdly snack-like odor is actually a sign of a skin infection, either from bacteria (usually Staph) or fungi (usually yeast). When a topical allergy breaks down your dog’s normal cellular barrier, these opportunistic microbes move from the surface of your dog’s skin, where they are harmless, and do a deep dive into the tissue, where they cause infection.

Chronic ear infections in dogs

You’ll know when this is happening, because your doggo is always scratching their head, and the ear canal will eventually appear raw, thickened, and have a nasty, foul smell.

While ear infections may have multiple origins, many begin with an allergy. As with the feet, the fire storm of inflammation kicked up by the allergen degrades the natural protective barrier of your dog’s skin. Once that barrier is compromised, bacteria and yeast move in, colonize, and trigger infection.

Recurring hot spots

Hot spots are medically known as pyotraumatic dermatitis, and are especially common in Golden Retrievers and Saint Bernards. They are localized areas of infection on the skin started by a small wound, and can spread quickly in dogs with thick coats, especially during the heat of the summer.

Dog has itchy, red, runny eyes

The eyes may produce white discharge, and your dog may squint and paw at his face. These symptoms could be a sign of allergic conjunctivitis, similar to the itchy eyes that humans with allergies experience. (The conjunctiva is the soft, wet, thin shield of tissue that normally protects the eye from microbes.)

Inflammation of exposed tissue

Swelling of the face, ears, lips, eyelids, or hives (sometimes visible under the fur as bumps) or inflamed skin anywhere on your dog’s body, signals a potential allergic response. The furrier parts of your dog may be more difficult to examine, but if you see signs of dermal distress, check between the toes and in the “armpit” (what vets call the axillae) for signs of redness and inflammation.

Constant licking

Most mammals groom using their tongues. But if your dog repetitively licks throughout the day, or frequently licks the same area, she is probably trying to soothe an allergic skin response.

What are the potential treatments for allergies in dogs?

Are your dog’s symptoms an allergy?

The first step is to have an in-person visit with your veterinarian, who will determine whether your dog is experiencing an unpleasant sensitivity or a true allergy. Many allergic conditions have multiple symptoms, so a bit of detective work may be needed.

Reducing inflammation due to allergies in dogs

To help reduce inflammation in your dog, your veterinarian may recommend any of the following:

  • Medicated shampoos, topical sprays and conditioners to help alleviate itching.
  • Antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or cetirizine may be recommended, to knock down the excessive amount of histamine in your dog’s skin.
  • Antibiotics or antifungals can be prescribed if your dog has developed a secondary skin infection.
  • A “Janus-kinase inhibitor” may become your dog’s new best friend. These comparatively new drugs reduce the production of cytokines, which are the molecules that cause irritation in dogs’ skin. The most commonly prescribed is Apoquel, an oral tablet.
  • Another new class of drugs are the monoclonal antibodies. The most common is Cytopoint, an injectable medication that mimics the immune system’s response to the offending antigen.
  • Prednisone or another fast-acting corticosteroid may be recommended as an initial step, for a brief duration. The steroids are prescribed less frequently than they used to be, since the newer options have fewer side effects.
  • Allergy shots or drops may be an option. This treatment consists of injecting your dog with a very small quantity of the identified allergen every week. This repeated dosing often is successful at reprogramming the immune system to prevent the overreaction that causes allergic symptoms.

Evaluating your dog’s diet

You’ll probably need to evaluate your dog’s diet. It may surprise you to learn that many common proteins can lead to allergic reactions in your dog including beef, chicken, eggs, lamb, soy and milk. This may be doubly surprising if your dog has enjoyed these foods in the past. Dogs, like people, can develop new sensitivities even to those things that were once our favorites. Food allergy in dogs or food hypersensitivity can develop in response to almost any protein. Allergies to carbohydrates are uncommon, despite what the marketers of grain-free diets advertise.

Elimination diets and allergies in dogs

Dogs with food allergies do not typically respond well to medication. Instead, you may be urged to try an elimination diet and/or try using a hypoallergenic diet. These diets require that your dog eat the special diet your vet prescribes (without cheating!) for 8-12 weeks. Your vet may recommend that you stop using treats and supplements during this experimental time. Improvement will be the proof of success, and from there your vet will help you plan your dog’s future nutritional strategy.

Testing your dog for allergies

Your vet may conduct allergy testing to identify the offending substances and determine whether your dog is a candidate for desensitization. This can be done by a blood test or a skin test. If your dog comes up as positive to several types of environmental allergens, a laboratory can make up dilute solutions of them. They are then given either injectably or under the tongue weekly over the course of several years, just as is done in humans. The goal is to retrain your dog’s body to respond more normally to the substances, rather than overreact whenever they are encountered.

As always, attention and observation are the keys to keeping your dog healthy. Any significant changes in your dog’s skin or digestive habits may be evidence of an allergy or something else. If you have concerns, please get in touch with Airvet. We’re here to answer your questions about your dog 24/7/365 and to help keep a minor nuisance from escalating. Haven’t downloaded the app yet? It’s free and easy.