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Does My Dog Have Allergies? If So, How Can I Help?

The battle to stop your dog’s itching is a lifelong one, but I believe in you

My dog has always been an itchy boy. His diagnosis: An undulating case of doggie allergies. One vet said he was probably allergic to chicken, so we started feeding him salmon instead. A second said his allergies were perhaps more seasonal, so he now gets an occasional injection to control his itching.

One way or another, his allergies always seem to make a fierce comeback. So, what should we do? 

Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club, has come to our rescue, agreeing to help us all learn everything we need to know about dog allergies. (Worry not, my beloved pup: I shall soothe your itching soon.)

How to Know if Your Dog Has Allergies

For one, a lot of dogs have allergies — estimates sit at around 10 percent — and your dog may very well be one of them. “Allergies are rather common in dogs of all breeds and backgrounds, and occur when their immune system has a hyper reaction to a foreign substance,” Klein explains. “Common allergy causes include pollen, flea saliva, vaccines, spider bites, bee stings or even certain foods.”

How these allergies manifest themselves really depends on the severity of your dog’s individual case. “The signs of allergies vary depending on the reaction and can differ from dog to dog,” Klein confirms. “Most allergic signs are dermatologic, which can range from itching and inflammation of the skin, feet and ears, to hives and perhaps swelling of the face. Similar to seasonal allergies in humans, some allergic dogs can have clear, watery eyes and noses, as well as sneezing. Gastrointestinal signs can also occur, such as vomiting and diarrhea — with or without blood. In rarer cases, a much more severe and different allergic reaction, called an anaphylactic reaction, can occur. This is an immediate type of hypersensitivity and leads to a potentially life-threatening situation, where a dog can acutely collapse due to shock and a severe drop in blood pressure.”

The trouble with allergies in dogs is that they can be pretty hard to pin down and solve  for the everlasting future. Therefore, if your dog has allergies, you should expect to treat them regularly. “While most allergies can’t necessarily be cured, managing them with treatments that can help relieve or control a dog’s allergic symptoms is important,” Klein says. “The best method of controlling allergies is to know what the allergen is and to avoid it or control it. Monitoring a pattern in what your dog has been exposed to and his or her reaction can be helpful in narrowing down the source of the allergy. Your veterinarian can perform an extensive examination with their history to try to help determine the most likely cause and formulate a practical treatment plan. The gold standard for diagnosing allergies in dogs is immunotherapy or allergy testing to determine the actual cause of the allergic response and to tailor an allergen specific immunotherapy, or ASIT.”

The cost of allergy tests done by a vet is usually around a couple hundred dollars, or if you suspect that your dog has a food or environmental allergy, you could try at-home allergy tests, which are a little cheaper.

How to Help Dog Allergies, and Allergy Medicine for Dogs

Obviously, figuring out the exact cause of your dog’s allergies — and helping them avoid whatever that is — is the best way to treat them. But even then, you should probably keep up with preventative measures to stop your pup’s itchiness for good. “Finding the source of your dog’s allergy and discussing a specific treatment plan with your veterinarian is recommended,” Klein says.

Here are the ways in which dog allergies are most often treated:

Antihistamines: Yeah, like Benadryl — vets often use it for dogs with mild allergies. “This treatment is generally inexpensive and safe with little side effects, but different types can have variable effects and don’t work on all dogs,” Klein says. Just make sure to contact your veterinarian before giving your dog any form of medication, so they can guide you on the right dosage and whatnot.

Flea Prevention: “Flea prevention is obvious, relatively easy and will help dogs who suffer from allergies to fleas,” Klein says. Seriously, flea prevention is super easy to keep up with — even if only for the sake of keeping your home free of fleas — and there are tons of great products out there.

Dietary Changes/Hypoallergenic Diets: “Dairy, beef and wheat can be responsible for up to 80 percent of food allergies in dogs,” Klein says. “Hypoallergenic diets utilize one ‘novel’ protein — or only one new protein in a diet — as the protein source. Most pets with food allergies respond well when switched to a store-bought hypoallergenic diet, but sometimes creating a custom diet with the aid of a veterinarian, veterinary dermatologist or veterinary nutritionist is necessary.” As for my dog, I do think switching to salmon has helped calm down his allergies, at least a bit.

Medications: “Cortisone products have been commonly used in the past with good effects on allergy sufferers, but these types of medications need to be used judiciously and only for shorter periods of time to prevent significant side effects,” says Klein. “Newer medications, such as cyclosporines (Atopica), Apoquel, an immunomodulator, and Cytopoint, an immunotherapeutic, are currently being used extensively by clinicians with good results to minimize the severe itching response dogs gets from allergies. Both have advantages and drawbacks.” In other words: See your vet.

Medicated Baths and Supplements: “Many medicated shampoos have compounds in them that are aimed at soothing the injured skin and skin barrier, and calming inflammation,” Klein explains. “In addition, frequent bathing — weekly to every other week — can remove allergens from the coat, which may contribute to skin allergy flare-ups. These shampoos are often prescribed by your veterinarian, and directions for use should always be read completely and followed precisely.”

Environmental and External Aids: “Air purifiers can help reduce certain molds that may trigger allergies in dogs,” Klein notes. “Dusts and pollens are best controlled by using an air cleaner with a HEPA filter.” An added bonus of having an air purifier: You get to breathe fresh air, too!

Antibiotics and Antifungal Medications: You may need these if your dog has a bad case of allergies that has evolved into something even worse — for instance, my dog’s allergies sometimes develop into nasty ear infections. “Antibiotics are frequently needed to treat secondary skin infections,” Klein says. “Antifungal medications are frequently needed to treat secondary yeast infections.” But once again, these are things your vet should lead you through.

So, as you can see, dealing with dog allergies is half keeping up with routine maintenance — flea medication, baths, keeping a clean home — and half doing what your vet tells you to do. If your dog is itching like crazy and you’re not sure where to start, get them an allergy test. It may cost a bit, but it will make stopping their itching so much easier… as long as you can stick with the meds, washing, cleaning and food changes.

Anything for our pups, right?