By Marion Fischer DVM
Allergies in dogs are a very common and frustrating problem. Just like in people, dogs can be allergic to a wide variety of environmental components and food proteins. People with hay fever usually have itchy, watery eyes and sneezing. In contrast, allergic dogs often have very itchy skin, and can scratch until they lose their hair or cause wounds. Reducing the allergic response and controlling the itch are key points for treatment.
There are three major groups of allergens in dogs: fleas, the environment, and food.
- Fleas: the Pacific Northwest is a haven for fleas! They’re everywhere around here, and some life stages can persist in the environment for up to 9 months. Some dogs are allergic to flea saliva, and can get extremely itchy with just one flea bite. Treating for fleas every month all year round is the safest way to protect your pet, and is particularly important if your dog is allergic to fleas. There are a wide variety of flea preventatives available depending on your dog’s lifestyle and your preferences.
- Environment: the trees are one of the most beautiful parts of the scenery in this area, but dogs can be allergic to tree and grass pollens that can make them miserable during pollen season in the summer. Dogs can also be allergic to molds and dust mites, which are present in the indoor environment year-round. There are blood tests available to help pinpoint a patient’s specific environmental allergies.
- Food: sensitivity to food is most often to the protein in the diet (chicken, beef, or other meat) rather than grains. Signs of food sensitivity include licking and chewing at feet, ear infections, and itchy skin. There aren’t any valid blood tests for food sensitivity – diagnosis requires performing a food trial with a specific prescription diet.
Treatment for allergies involves two pathways: reducing the allergic response, or helping block the symptoms. The only way to reduce the allergic response is to re-train the immune system to not respond as dramatically to the allergen. This is called allergy immunotherapy, and involves giving the patient injections of specific allergen components tailored to the individual patient. A specialist veterinary dermatologist can help with skin testing, or blood tests are an option. Immunotherapy is available as injections or as drops under the tongue. It can take at least a year to determine if the treatment is helping, and often patients need to continue to get the treatment for longer. About 80% of dogs show improvement on the injections, ranging from no need for additional medication to less medication needed to stop the itch.
If we don’t choose to modify the immune system, there are a variety of medications available to help stop the itch and keep patients comfortable. Some need medication only during the summer when the pollens are the strongest, and others need medication all year. Dogs with food sensitivity benefit from a specific prescription diet where the proteins are processed so that they don’t cause the same kind of reaction. If you feel your dog is itching excessively, let us know and we can help you determine the best options for treatment for your pet.