If your dog spends their days itching, biting, chewing, or scratching, then you know the frustration that many pet parents with atopic dogs feel. There are many causes for itching in dogs, including infestations with fleas or mites and allergies to ingredients in the diet or things in the environment. Here in Maine, environmental allergies are one of the most common causes for itching behaviors in dogs.
Environmental allergies (atopic dermatitis) occur in pets due to sensitivities to outdoor allergens like grasses, weeds, and tree pollens, as well as indoor allergens like molds, dust mites, and storage mites. Skin dander can also play a role, as dogs can be sensitive to cat dander or even human dander. Signs can be seasonal (just warm weather, just cold weather, intermittent), or year-round, depending on what a pet is allergic to.
While many humans with allergies have mainly respiratory signs (sneezing, watery eyes), pets show their allergy signs primarily on their skin (biting, licking, chewing, scratching, and recurrent infections on the skin and in the ears). Dogs with allergies experience increased water loss from their skin and a weakened skin barrier, making them prone to dry itchy skin and secondary bacterial and yeast infections.
Unfortunately, environmental allergies are not curable, and most dog’s allergy signs worsen with age. Therefore, if the symptoms are affecting your dog’s quality of life, it’s important to set up a plan to diagnose and manage the allergy signs proactively, as they likely will require life-long treatment.
There are many over-the-counter remedies touted to help dogs with allergies, but the reality is that many products lack reliable testing to prove they work or contain such minute amounts of important ingredients it would be hard to expect benefit.
If your pet’s quality of life is being affected by chronic itching behaviors, then the best avenue is to speak with your dog’s veterinarian, to help set up a long-term management plan. Your veterinarian will examine your pet, potentially collect cytology samples (non-invasive rubbings and scrapings from the skin) to determine if your pet has an infection and will help set up a treatment plan for short and long-term management. If your pet does not respond to therapies, your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinarian that specializes in Dermatology and Allergy cases, to further explore treatment options.
Pets can be tested for environmental allergies via skin patch (intradermal) testing, serum (blood) allergy testing, or a combination of the two. Unfortunately, hair and saliva-based allergy testing has been proven to be unreliable (as has any testing for food allergies), so these types of tests are not recommended. Following environmental allergy testing, pets can be treated with allergen specific immunotherapy.
Allergen specific immunotherapy is a custom serum formulated specifically with the extracts of the things a pet tests positive to. The goal, like with allergy injections in people, is to desensitize the patient to the things causing the allergy symptoms, by giving them back very small amounts of what they are allergic to over time. In pets, this is an at-home therapy administered by a regular oral drop or subcutaneous injection. This therapy can take months to full benefit and then is generally continued lifelong, but can provide an excellent long-term level of allergy control with minimal side effects.
There are also symptomatic treatment options. This means targeting the symptoms (ex. itching) rather than the root cause (say a dust mite allergy or a maple tree pollen allergy). There are a range of options, from over-the-counter antihistamines to prescription oral or injectable medications. Your veterinarian will be able to give you the appropriate dose of an antihistamine for your dog, however, keep in mind that dogs cannot safely take an antihistamine that includes decongestants, so make sure to avoid that option. Prescription itch medications like Apoquel ™, Atopica ™, or Cytopoint ™ all have particular roles in treating allergy in dogs, and an exam and dermatology history will help your vet pinpoint which medication would make the most sense. As many of these medications do work by suppressing parts of the immune system, we use these medications with close monitoring.
Being itchy definitely affects the quality of life of the individual pet and the humans in the household. The good news is that there are a variety of treatment options to help maximize a pet’s comfort and care.