Allergies are one of the most common issues among dogs. If your pup is chewing and scratching incessantly or has regular tummy issues, there’s a good chance they’re reacting to something in their environment or diet, and it’s setting off their immune system.
Allergies generally begin to surface after the age of one but can start as early as six months. They may sometimes seem to come on suddenly when, in fact, they’ve likely been building over time after consistent exposure to the allergen. Normally, the immune system protects your pup against infection and disease, but with allergies, the immune response can be harmful to the body. Not to mention, the symptoms can impact your pup’s quality of life!
Some of the most common allergies are environment-related. But your pup’s romp through the park may not be what’s making their immune system go haywire. Household products, including shampoo and conditioner, could also be the culprit, while other times it may be due to something in their diet.
Though symptoms can vary, some are more commonly associated with specific allergies.
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What Is an Allergy?
To be a true allergy, it must cause an immune response in the body. This is when the immune system overreacts to a harmless food as though it is a harmful “invader.” The immune system releases histamines to combat the offending substance, which causes symptoms, most often itching.
Food allergies are often confused with food sensitivities or intolerances. A food intolerance is when the body just doesn’t process a food properly. Lactose intolerance is a well-known example — the body can’t process lactose, which causes gastrointestinal problems.
Intolerances or sensitivities may cause symptoms similar to an allergy, but because the immune system is not the culprit, they’re not truly allergies.
Signs of Allergies in Dogs
The majority of skin problems in dogs are related to allergies, with itchiness being the most common sign but not all are food related. Dogs with allergies often lick, chew, or scratch excessively, causing inflammation and hair loss. In some cases, excessive licking and chewing may lead to a cycle of recurring painful hot spots and skin infections.
A dog with an allergy might also experience gastrointestinal trouble like gas, diarrhea, or vomiting, respiratory issues, ear infections or other symptoms. Or they may exhibit a combination of different, seemingly unrelated symptoms.
THE 4 COMMON TYPES OF ALLERGIES IN DOGS
The most common symptom associated with allergies is itching, either localized like a hot spot (rough patch of itchy, red skin) or all over. Some unlucky pups may experience both skin and intestinal issues or suffer from more than one type of allergy. Depending on the dog and the type of allergen, symptoms can vary.
1. Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD)
Flea saliva, the most common insect allergen, causes flea allergy dermatitis (FAD). Most dogs experience minor local irritation from flea bites. However, if your dog is allergic to flea saliva, a single bite can cause severe local itching.
- Excessive chewing and scratching (especially above the tail)
- bald spots
- hot spots
- skin redness and inflammation
- secondary bacterial infection around broken skin.
Make certain your pup receives regular flea medication and guard your home against fleas. When strict flea control is not possible, or in cases of severe itching, your veterinarian may prescribe a medication to help with the itching. These will reduce the allergic reactions and give immediate relief, while you work on getting the fleas under control.
There are many effective flea medications on the market, work with your veterinarian on the right choice for your pup. Be sure to follow directions carefully on how to administer and how often. Some oral products are best absorbed when given with a meal. Topical products can lose their effectiveness with bathing; certain shampoos can strip the medication right off and leave your pup vulnerable. If a secondary bacterial infection is present, an antibiotic will be prescribed.
2. Inhalant Allergens
The main inhalant allergens are tree pollen, grass pollen, ragweed pollen, mold, mildew, and dust mites. Pollen is generally a seasonal allergen, while mold, mildew, and dust mites can affect your pup year-round.
- Itchy skin (pruritus)
- rubbing the face
- licking and chewing paws
- scratching underarms
- respiratory issues
- runny, itchy eyes and nose.
Weekly bathing, or daily for sensitive pups, is essential to remove grass, pollens, molds, and other irritants. Foot soaking and wiping paws immediately after being outside is another effective way to keep your dog’s feet infection-free.
For pups with skin infections, especially yeast infections, it’s best to avoid oatmeal shampoos. Oatmeal is a common allergen for many dogs and it also fuels the growth of yeast and other micro-organisms. Coconut oil shampoos are best. They’re rich in lauric acid—a natural anti-bacterial and antifungal fatty acid that can help combat the issue. Be sure to always use a rinse after the bath. This leaves an antimicrobial layer to protect the skin and coat, and can potentially extend the time between baths. Only use products made specifically for dogs.
Ask your veterinarian; they may have product suggestions tailored to your pet's specific needs that are also gentle on their sensitive skin. They can also make sure you have the proper flea protection—one that won't wash off with frequent bathing. Pups with skin allergies are often more sensitive to flea bites, even if they are not allergic to the fleas. Additionally, your vet may prescribe a medication to reduce the allergic reactions or an allergy shot. Ultimately, symptoms can be controlled, but a permanent cure is not usually possible.
3. Food Allergies and Sensitivities
A food allergy, where the immune system misidentifies a protein in food as an invader and mounts an attack, is very uncommon in dogs. It’s far more likely your pup has developed a sensitivity. Unlike an allergy, which is an immune response, food sensitivity is an inability to metabolize an ingredient properly. In most cases, the meat and dairy protein in your pup’s diet is at the root.
A food sensitivity is generally marked by a gastrointestinal reaction: diarrhea, vomiting, gas, lack of appetite, and weight loss. But it can also include itching and respiratory distress. A food allergy will generally result in:
- severe itching/sometimes hives
- infections such as recurrent (chronic) ear problems, particularly yeast infections
The most accurate way to pinpoint a food allergen is through an elimination trial (aka limited-ingredient diet). It is important to note that limited-ingredient diets available without a prescription are not guaranteed to be allergen-free. They may still contain trace amounts, which could cause issues for sensitive pups. If your vet suggests a prescription diet, it is important to follow their recommendations.
By placing your pup on a strict diet, you can slowly reintroduce ingredients into mealtime while watching for a reaction. Your vet will either recommend a prescription diet or guide you in preparing strict, but nutritionally balanced meals. The process can take up to 12-16 weeks to accurately pinpoint the allergen. It’s essential to work with your vet to rule out other potential health issues first. Making changes to their diet may leave the real issue undiagnosed. There are many other health-related issues that have food allergy-like symptoms.
4. Contact Allergy
This is the least common type of allergy in dogs. It results from direct contact to allergens, such as pyrethrins found in flea collars, pesticides used on the lawn, grasses, materials such as wool or synthetics used in carpets or bedding, etc. Contact allergies can develop to practically anything and at any age.
Skin irritation and itching at the points of contact, usually the feet and stomach.
Removal of the allergen, if it can be identified, often solves the problem. Weekly bathing and foot soaking will help to flush the irritant and keep your dog symptom-free. Don’t forget to follow up with a rinse.
Providing Relief for Your Pup’s Allergies
If your pup is experiencing recurring allergy issues, it’s essential to work with your vet to identify the problem. While you can take steps to soothe your pup’s symptoms, such as frequent bathing, do not attempt to diagnose the issue on your own. There are many health issues and disorders that can display allergy-type symptoms, so accurately pinpointing the problem is critical.
Taking the right steps will ensure your pup is happy, healthy, and comfortable all year round.