Atopy in dogs is also known as environmental allergies in dogs. With atopy, allergens in your pet can be inhaled similar to 'hay fever' or absorbed through the skin. Though atopy is a common cause of itch in dogs, the most common type of allergy in dogs is actually flea bite hypersensitivity. Atopy or environmental allergies in dogs makes up the second most common allergy as it is estimated that about ten to fifteen percent of the dog population have atopy.
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 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 develop secondary infections with yeast or bacteria that are very uncomfortable and even traumatize their skin with from licking or scratching.
Other kinds of dog allergies, like contact allergy or food allergy, can prompt itchy skin all year long. Atopy, like flea allergy, can be seasonal or year round.
Atopy can develop in any dog but does have a genetic component. Some breeds that are commonly affected include the small terriers, like the West Highland White Terrier, as well as Boxers, Dalmatians, Golden Retrievers, English and Irish Setters, Lhasa Apsos and Miniature Schnauzers. Most signs first develop when the dog is between two to six years old.
To get rid of the allergen, it is first important to know what's causing the problem, which 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 for those who know their dog reacts to house dust, it's nearly impossible to eliminate exposure because the puppy's fur is a magnet that attracts and captures environmental allergens.
At first sign of itch, it is important to take a trip to the vet as dogs with atopy and allergies are also prone to very uncomfortable infections that need treatment. To help determine appropriate treatment and anti-itch medication, your veterinarian may perform a cytology to determine the type of infection. They will help come up with a plan for your pet that will be geared towards managing the itch and infections or towards treating the underlying cause with immunotherapy.
Hyposensitization, or immunotherapy, can be very helpful to certain dogs. The treatment is a gradual process in which the dog's resistance to allergens is enhanced by exposing him gradually to increasing amounts of the substances. This is often done with a boarded veterinary dermatologist. After skin tests determine the culprits, the dog is placed on an allergy shots 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, allergy shots are usually continued for at least a year. Maintenance injections may be required for life.
Working to eliminate exposure to environmental allergens for your pet at home can be helpful too but working with your veterinarian as stated above is most important. 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. Some steps to do that include:
- 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. Ask your veterinarian if they recommend this for your pet.
- Regular rinsing reduces a pet's exposure and their scratching. A colloidal (oatmeal) shampoo like Aveeno will naturally soothe itchy skin but will not take away the itch or infection if present. Between trips outside, consider rinsing off your dogs feet or wiping with hypoallergenic baby wipes to reduce paw pad exposure to grass and outdoor allergens.
Again, reducing environmental allergies that your dog is exposed to at home can be helpful, but more often than not your pet will need help and a plan set forward by your veterinarian to help manage the itch.
Understanding Inhalant Allergies
If you suspect your pet has inhalant allergies, working with your veterinarian will be very important as these can often be lifelong and even lead to serious infections and discomfort in dogs. 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 a veterinarian can properly diagnose allergies in a pet.
Dogs are often sensitive to more than one thing, and allergies tend to be cumulative. For instance, if a dog is allergic to both fleas and to pollen, they individually may not cause problems, but the combination of the two pushes over its allergy threshold so that itchiness develops. 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. Although eliminating all allergens may be impossible, simply reducing the amount of exposure may substantially relieve a dog's symptoms. In other words, getting rid of the fleas by keeping your pet on a veterinary recommended flea prevention may help a dog be able to handle exposure to house dust better.