How to care for a dog with allergies

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Vets are seeing more and more dogs with allergies, and managing an allergic dog is both baffling and frustrating for owners, as Sue Corfield explains...

While allergic humans may suffer from runny eyes and sneezing, dogs more commonly develop skin problems as a result of hypersensitivities.

They may also exhibit less obvious symptoms, such as ear infections (like my dog, Spartacus), while some allergic dogs will develop hay fever-like signs, and these symptoms may occur with — rather than instead of — skin irritation.

For dog owners, allergies can seem complex and confusing, and treating these conditions can be incredibly frustrating. To get a clearer picture of how allergies affect dogs and the treatment options open to owners, I spoke to vet Claire McArdle, MRCVS, who provides professional services for ChesterGates Veterinary Specialists in Chester, Cheshire. Claire explains: “Allergies are a very common cause of skin disease in dogs and cats. In fact, I believe there are many pets with allergies that may not have been diagnosed. As a result, the symptoms, in some cases, may have been noticed and treated, but not the cause.”

Pets can develop allergies to a variety of substances:

  • Flea saliva via flea bites (very common in cats).
  • Food proteins (for example chicken, beef, pork, lamb, fish, egg, milk, wheat).
  • Environmental factors (house dust mites, grass, tree or weed pollens).

Allergies may show themselves in a number of different ways, some more obvious than others; the pet is often itchy and will show signs such as scratching, licking feet, shaking the head, hair loss, redness of the skin and rashes, and ear problems. The latter is often missed as a possible symptom of an allergy.

Claire continues: “Commonly, skin infections with bacteria and yeasts arise as a result of damage to the skin surface, as the pet licks and scratches himself. Allergies are a source of considerable discomfort for pets so need to be investigated and treated.

“Other diseases can cause similar signs, for example parasites (fleas, mites, and lice), infections (bacteria and yeasts), hormonal abnormalities, auto-immune disease, and, less commonly, tumours. These diseases must be ruled out before we can be sure that a pet has an allergy.”

If your dog is displaying any of the above signs, it is important to seek professional advice from your vet. He or she may want to carry out some investigations to determine the cause of your pet’s problems. These include:

  • Samples from the surface of the skin to look for parasites, bacteria, and yeasts.
  • Blood samples.
  • Skin biopsy.

If the conclusion is that a pet’s skin disease is due to an allergy, then specific tests can be performed to try to identify what the pet is allergic to. This may involve:

  • An elimination food trial for eight weeks (a special diet will be recommended and the pet must not eat any other type of food during the trial). This is known as trialling a novel protein source.
  • An allergy skin test under sedation where environmental factors are injected into the top layers of the skin. If your pet is allergic to any of these factors, then a skin reaction (wheal) will develop within a few minutes. An allergy blood test. Once you know what the pet is allergic to, there are several options to try to manage the allergy. Unfortunately, allergies in pets are not curable so often they need to be managed for the lifetime of the pet. The aim is to reduce the pet’s itchiness or other symptoms so there is less damage to the skin and they suffer from less discomfort.

It may be possible to reduce the pet’s exposure to whatever he is allergic to:

  • Flea allergy: regular flea control.
  • Food allergy: eliminate that ingredient from his diet.
  • Pollen allergy: wash your dog after exercising outside during the pollen season.
  • House dust mite allergy: vacuum frequently; wash bedding at a high temperature; keep pets out of bedrooms, and off soft furnishings. Household sprays may help to reduce the level of house dust mites. There are also treatments that aim to reduce the level of itchiness a pet experiences; often these need to be administered for the lifetime of the pet.
  • Immunotherapy ‘allergy vaccine’: this is made specifically for the pet, depending on what he is allergic to; it lowers the sensitivity of the skin. It can take the form of monthly injections or twice daily drops in the mouth. It can take several months to have a beneficial effect, but rarely causes any side effects.
  • Drugs to alleviate itchiness: these may be tablets, capsules, or in liquid form. They have different active agents (such as ciclosporine, oclacitinib, antihistamines, corticosteroids). Each drug has its own unique benefits and potential side effects that will need to be discussed with your vet to find out which treatment may be most suitable for your pet. Dogs can be treated with a mono-clonal antibody injection which stops them feeling itchy.

Food supplements (essential fatty acids, PEA-um) also help to calm down the skin. Antibiotics or anti-fungal drugs may be needed if the pet has a skin infection. There are also many topical treatments that can be applied directly to the skin to help lessen the itch and soothe as well as tackle any infections on the skin surface. These may be shampoos, wipes, gels, lotions, mousses, or foams.

Pets can suffer from allergies from an early age, and, although a cure is not currently available for pets, there are plenty of treatment and management options available to help alleviate a pet’s symptoms. In fact, the last five years have heralded fantastic advancements in the field of veterinary dermatology. The advent of drugs such as Apoquel and Cytopoint injections have given vets more options for treating itching in dogs.

It is important to consult a vet at the earliest opportunity. Remember that recurring ear infections, although less obvious than skin disorders, can also be a sign of an allergic reaction. In fact, there is a well-known adage, referred to as ‘ears and rears’, that suggests where dogs display recurring problems such as ear infections and anal gland issues, these are indicative of allergies.

As an owner, it is frustrating to explore every option to help your dog, only for the condition to remain unresolved.

Did you know?

  • The most common food allergens in dogs include beef, dairy, and wheat.
  • It is estimated that 10 per cent of all allergy cases in dogs are food allergies.