Atopy and Dog Skin Allergies

Top Tips For Soothing Itchy Puppies

West Highland Terriers, one of them winking
Tim Graham/Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Atopy is the equivalent to human "hay fever," with dogs reacting to the same things that their owners do. Flea bite hypersensitivity is the most common dog allergy, with as many as 40% of the dog population affected. Up to half of all flea-allergic dogs also suffer from atopy. About ten to fifteen percent of the dog population is allergic to something they breathe from the environment, making inhalant allergy, or atopy, the second most common allergy in dogs.

Signs of Inhalant Allergies

Pollen, mold, fungi and even the house dust mite make people cough, wheeze and have difficulty breathing, but atopic dogs more typically suffer itchiness on the front half of their body. They chew, bite, lick and rub their face, chest, armpit area, and feet. The webbing between the dog's toes can absorb allergens and make the whole body itch. Atopic dogs also commonly suffer from chronic ear infections. They can lose fur from the excessive scratching.

Other kinds of dog allergies like contact allergy or food allergy can prompt itchy skin all year long. But atopy, like flea allergy, may also be seasonal.

Atopy can develop in any dog but does have a genetic component. Breeds most commonly affected include the small terriers, especially the West Highland White Terrier, as well as Boxers, Dalmatians, Golden Retrievers, English and Irish Setters, Lhasa Apsos, Miniature Schnauzers, and Shar-Pei. Most signs first develop when the dog is between one to three years old.

Diagnosing Atopy

To get rid of the allergen, you must first know what's causing the problem, and that can be hard to determine. Although blood tests are available, they aren't always considered reliable. Instead, intradermal skin testing helps diagnose atopy. Suspect allergens are injected into the shaved skin of the sedated dog. In five to 15 minutes, positive reactions become swollen, red and elevated, while negative reactions fade away.

Dogs may react to single or multiple allergens, but even when you know your dog reacts to house dust, it's nearly impossible to eliminate exposure. That's because the puppy's fur is a magnet that attracts and captures environmental allergens.

Treating Atopy

Totally eliminating exposure to environmental allergens is impossible with dogs that are typically indoor/outdoor pets. After all, an owner can't vacuum the yard or filter the air. But reducing indoor exposure can be helpful, and cleanliness is key.

  • Reservoirs that attract and capture allergenic substances should be reduced or eliminated. Trade rough surfaces like carpeting and upholstery for linoleum or wooden floors and smooth fabrics that are easier to keep clean.
  • Water filters on a vacuum help scrub particles from the air. Avoid sweeping, which tends to float allergens rather than capture them.
  • High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter systems can be helpful, too.
  • Other treatments may help relieve your dog's symptoms, even if eliminating exposure is impossible. Veterinary prescribed antihistamines relieve the symptoms in some dogs, and cortisone-containing drugs can help reduce itching.
  • Some dogs benefit from dietary supplements of the essential fatty acids that help promote healthy skin and fur. The proper combination of these compounds appears to reduce the inflammatory skin response that results from atopy. Omega 3 fatty acids are very important to skin health and also have anti-itching properties. Because they're derived from fish oil, pets often relish them like a treat. You can buy these supplements from health food stores, pet supply stores, or your veterinarian's office.
  • The herb calendula, (Calendula officinalis) also known as the marigold flower, is very soothing to irritated skin. You can find calendula tincture at health food stores. Add 10-to-15 drops of the calendula tincture to four ounces of water; put in a spray bottle, and spritz the itchy areas as often as needed to relieve the discomfort.
  • Regular rinsing reduces your pet's exposure and the scratching. Bathe puppies two or three times a week with plain water. A colloidal (oatmeal) shampoo like Aveeno will naturally soothe itchy skin. Between baths, rinse the pup's feet after its been out in the grass to reduce paw pad exposure.
  • Hyposensitization, or immunotherapy, may also help certain dogs. The treatment is a gradual process in which the dog's resistance to allergens is enhanced by exposing him to gradually increasing amounts of the substances. After skin tests determine the culprits, the dog is vaccinated with minute amounts of the allergens in the hopes that resistance to them will build and reduce the dog's sensitivity and resulting symptoms. Because improvement from immunotherapy is slow, injections are usually continued for at least a year. Maintenance injections may be required for life.

    Allergies cannot be cured, and avoiding the allergy source is the only way to control the symptoms. To complicate matters, multiple allergies make identification of the culprit(s) nearly impossible. Only your veterinarian can properly diagnose allergies in your pet.

    Dogs are often sensitive to more than one thing, and allergies tend to be cumulative. For instance, if your dog is allergic to both fleas and to pollen, they individually may not cause it problems, but the combination of the two pushes it over its allergy threshold so that he is itchy. Every allergic dog has an individual "itch" threshold, which is the amount of allergen necessary to provoke signs of disease.

    This is actually good news, for although eliminating all allergens may be impossible, simply reducing the amount of exposure may substantially relieve your dog's symptoms. In other words, if get rid of the fleas your dog may be able to handle exposure to house dust without scratching.