Redness, scratching, and chewing are all signs of skin problems in dogs. Allergies are a common cause of skin problem in dogs. 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 while 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, skin infections, and severe discomfort. 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. Visit your veterinarian right away if your dog's scratching persists, if hair loss occurs, or if the skin appears irritated, red, scaly, or otherwise abnormal. There are many causes for red, itchy skin so it is important to have your vet diagnose the cause before trying home remedies.
If your vet feels that an allergy is the cause of your dog's skin problem, you will likely be given a few treatment options. In cases of mild to moderate skin issues, your dog may be prescribed an anti-itch medication to ease symptoms, such as an antihistamine, or a short course of steroids in more severe cases. Sometimes additional medications are needed to treat secondary infections. Prescription shampoos can also be very helpful in soothing the itch and helping to remove surface bacteria from the skin. This may be used as more of a long-term management approach. If the vet sees evidence of fleas, the treatment will include flea protection, and this should be used year-round in allergic dogs to prevent flare-ups.
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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Flea prevention is crucial, especially for dogs with allergies. If your dog has flea allergies, it can react to just a few flea bites and will have a more prolonged and severe reaction compared to other dogs. 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 even if your dog does not have a specific flea allergy.
Whether a dog has allergies or not, all dogs should be given effective flea prevention all year long. The most effective products come in a pill, or topical "spot-on' application.
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Bathe your dog one to two times a month with a gentle, shampoo made especially for dogs. Itchy dogs may benefit from soothing 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 the ears for signs of redness or discomfort as dogs with allergies are also prone to ear infections. If your vet has advised it, be sure to clean the ears, according to your vet's recommendations.
If you suspect outdoor allergies (grasses, etc.), wipe off your dog when it comes inside so that fewer allergens will remain on its coat and skin.
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Feed your dog a high-quality diet made from healthy ingredients. As with humans, ingredient quality can affect overall health for dogs. Dogs with allergies and other skin issues can benefit from diets containing higher levels of essential fatty acids as these help to reduce inflammation and itchiness and provide important building blocks for healthy skin and coats.
If a food allergy is suspected, your vet may recommend a diet change. This recommendation usually involves changing to a special limited ingredient diet containing a novel protein (fish, duck, venison, etc.); chicken and beef are common food allergens for dogs. It is important to have your veterinarian make this diagnosis and to provide a list of acceptable foods. Some over-the-counter 'limited ingredient' diets are at risk of contamination with allergens depending how they are prepared and if the facility also prepares other diets on the same equipment.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's causing the allergy using 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 with a specialized way to identify true allergens.
After testing comes treatment with immunotherapy, also called desensitization or allergy shots. Immunotherapy is considered safe and effective. Using this therapy, a customized serum is created to expose the dog to tiny amounts of 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). The injections are sometimes followed up with oral treatments.
Immunotherapy is not a cure for allergies, but it can reduce your dog's sensitivity to allergens. It is important to understand that your dog's allergies will require lifelong management. Not all dogs will respond in the same way, but most will improve. Typically, improvement is seen in the first six months, though it can take up to a year for some dogs.
Though this type of allergy testing and treatment may seem cost prohibitive at first, it may end up costing less in the long run compared to years of treatment for flare-ups and secondary infections (not to mention the turmoil your dog goes through). Discuss allergy testing with your vet and whether or not it is right for your dog.
There are two types of allergy testing commonly used for dogs:
Serum Allergy Testing
Serum testing involves taking a blood sample from your dog and sending it to a lab for analysis. The lab tests the antibodies in the serum against an array of common allergens and measures which allergens the antibodies bind to. This test is minimally invasive to your dog and typically costs a few hundred dollars.
The accuracy of serum allergy testing is highly questionable and depends a lot on the expertise of the lab performing the test. Veterinary dermatologists usually do not recommend this type of test. Intradermal or skin testing is the standard method for testing and obtaining the most accurate results.
Intradermal Allergy Testing
A veterinary dermatologist typically does intradermal allergy testing. It generally costs more than serum testing but is considered the most precise testing method for allergies. A dog's common allergies can include dust mites, fleas, grasses, cockroaches, and even human dander.
The vet will give the dog a relaxing sedative to prevent discomfort. The dog lies on one side while hair is shaved on the chest-abdomen area. A series of injections are 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, the injection site will turn red and swell (like a hive) within minutes. The intensity of the reaction can determine its severity. Many allergic dogs will have reactions to multiple allergens.
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 skin, eye, and ear infections may arise and need treatment despite your best efforts. Work with your veterinarian closely. Address issues as they come. Don't soften your commitment to giving ongoing quality care to your dog: Your dog will benefit from 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