Itching, scratching, and chewing are all signs of skin problems in dogs. The most common skin problem in dogs is caused by allergies. Fortunately, there are several ways to manage itching and allergies in dogs. Sometimes you can do certain things at home to prevent or ease mild itching before a secondary infection occurs. In other cases, you will need to consult with your veterinarian. Failure to manage your dog's allergies can lead to other issues, such as hair loss and skin infections. Here are the best ways to manage allergies in dogs.
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Work With Your Veterinarian
Contact your vet at the first sign of itching. In some cases, an over-the-counter antihistamine can be recommended before an exam is needed. Visit your veterinarian right away if your dog's itching persists, if hair loss occurs, or if the skin appears irritated, red, scaly or otherwise abnormal.
If your vet feels that an allergy is the cause of your dog's skin problem, you will likely be given a few options. In cases of mild to moderate skin issues, your dog may be treated with anti-itch medications to ease symptoms (and possibly other medications to treat secondary infections). If the vet sees evidence of fleas, the treatment may be as simple as using flea prevention.
Be sure to comply with your vet's recommendations. Finish all courses of medications, follow instructions for all treatments, and return for follow-up visits as recommended.
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All dogs should be on effective flea prevention all year long. For dogs with allergies, flea prevention is even more important. Dogs with flea allergies can react to just a few flea bites. As the flea population grows, the reaction gets more severe. To make matters worse, dogs allergic to fleas will often chew the fleas off of them, so you may never even see fleas. Flea bites can also exacerbate other allergies that affect your dog's skin.
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Bathe your dog one to two times a week with a gentle, soap-free shampoo made especially for dogs. Itchy dogs may benefit from shampoo ingredients such as oatmeal and aloe.
Your vet may prescribe a medicated shampoo for more serious skin issues. When bathing, don't forget to check and clean the ears, as secondary infections often occur there.
If you suspect outdoor allergies (grasses, etc), try to wipe your dog off when it comes inside so that fewer microscopic allergens will remain on its coat and skin.
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Feed your dog a high-quality diet made from healthy ingredients. This may mean different things for different dogs. Some dogs do best on grain-free and/or natural diets As with humans, the quality of the ingredients one eats can really affect overall health.
If a food allergy is suspected, your vet may recommend a diet change. This usually involves changing to a special limited ingredient diet that contains a novel protein (such as fish, duck, venison, etc.) Chicken and beef are common food allergens for dogs.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Consider purchasing foam dog beds as they are less likely to harbor common allergens such as dust mites. Replace dog beds yearly, regardless of material. In case of environmental allergies, wash dog bed covers weekly with a detergent free of fragrance and dye. Place a hypoallergenic liner on pet beds.
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Is It Time for Allergy Testing?
If your dog's skin issues seem severe or are not responding to treatment, your vet may want to find out what your dog is actually allergic to. In order to do this, your dog will need allergy testing.
Your vet will likely refer you to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist if your dog's symptoms are severe. Dermatologists recommend and perform skin testing for allergies. This is a specialized way to isolate true allergens.
Based on the results of the allergy test, a special serum is custom-made for the dog. Regular injections are given to the dog for a specific period of time. The injections are sometimes followed up with oral treatments.
Though this type of allergy testing/treatment may seem cost prohibitive at first, it may end up costing less in the long run compared to years of treatment for secondary infections (not to mention the turmoil your dog goes through). Ask your veterinarian for more information about allergy testing and whether or not it is right for your dog.
There are two types of allergy testing commonly available for dogs.
Serum Allergy Testing. This involves a simple blood collection from your dog with the sample sent to a lab for analysis. This test is minimally invasive to your dog and typically costs a few hundred dollars. The lab analyzes the serum against an array of common allergens and measures the type and severity of the allergic reactions.
The problem with serum allergy testing is that the accuracy is questionable. This is why serum testing is not recommended by veterinary dermatologists. Skin testing is the preferred method for accurate results.
Intradermal Allergy Testing. This type is typically done by a veterinary dermatologist. It generally costs more than serum testing but is considered much more accurate.
Skin testing requires the administration of a sedative first in order to relax the dog and prevent discomfort. The dog is then positioned to lie on one side while hair is shaved on the side of the body that is up (chest-abdomen area). The testing itself involves a series of injections placed just under the skin with a tiny needle. Each injection contains an allergen. Most dermatologists test approximately 60 to 70 allergens. If the dog reacts to an allergen, a small area at that injection site will turn red and swell (like a hive) within minutes. The dermatologist can see the actual reaction, if any, and determine its severity. Many allergic dogs will have reactions to multiple allergens.
Intradermal allergy testing is considered to be the most precise method of testing for allergies.
Common allergies in dogs include dust mites, fleas, grasses, cockroaches, and even human dander.
Allergy testing allows you to find out what a dog is allergic to, but it does not treat the dog's allergies. The next step in the process is immunotherapy, also called desensitization or allergy shots. A customized serum is created to expose the dog to the allergens over a long time period, slowly increasing the amount of exposure. These injections can be easily given at home by most owners (it's similar to administering insulin to diabetic dogs).
Immunotherapy is considered safe and effective. Not all dogs will respond in the same way, but most will ultimately improve. Typically, improvement is seen in the first six months, though it can take up to a year for some dogs.
Immunotherapy is not a cure for allergies, but it can significantly reduce your dog's sensitivity to allergens. It is important to understand that your dog's allergies will require lifelong management.
One of the most important things to remember is this: there is no "magic bullet" for the allergic dog. Managing allergies in your dog is an ongoing process that will most likely last your dog's entire life. Secondary infections of the skin, eyes and ears may pop up and need treatment despite your best efforts. Don't lose heart. Commit yourself to giving ongoing quality care to your dog. Work with your veterinarian closely. Address issues as they come. Your dog will appreciate your dedication.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis. Veterinary Manual
Lavan, Robert et al. Dog Owner Flea/Tick Medication Purchases In The USA. Parasites & Vectors, vol 11, no. 1, 2018. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1186/s13071-018-3142-8
Allergies In Dogs. Veterinary Manual
Veterinarians With Specialized Training In Skin, Ears, And Allergy. American College of Veterinary Dermatology