Spring seems to be arriving early this year, and with the change of season, we are already seeing an uptick in visits from itchy dogs. Atopy, also known as atopic dermatitis or seasonal allergy, is a common diagnosis and affects quality of life for both dogs and their owners. There are many misconceptions about allergies and how to manage them, and owners are often frustrated by seeing their dogs constantly scratching, chewing, getting hot spots, and shaking their ears with no end in sight.
Atopy is caused by an inappropriate immune response to something in the environment that the dog has become sensitive to. The most common allergens for dogs are pollens from trees, grasses, and weeds. Mold spores, dust mites, grain mites, feathers, wool, cat dander, ants, and mosquitoes can also trigger an itchy response from your pup. Most dogs start to show signs when they are young adults, and the signs can get worse each year especially if there are multiple allergens involved. Many dogs with atopy are also allergic to flea bites, so consistent flea control for allergic dogs is a must.
Certain breeds are genetically predisposed to atopy including Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Pugs, West highland White terriers, and Bulldogs; but any breed or mixed breed can be affected. Symptoms include itching, hair loss, licking and chewing at the front feet, and swelling and redness of the ears. The pattern of skin lesions usually involves the face, ears, feet, armpits, underside, and legs. Bacterial and yeast infections, hot spots and ear infections, (in one or both ears), are extremely common secondary problems caused by allergies. Many dogs start out with a spring and fall pattern of symptoms, which can become a year round problem as time goes on. Atopy is a life-long condition with no cure, which is why dog owners become frustrated with seeing the same signs coming back over and over again.
Fortunately, there are a lot of effective ways to manage and stay ahead of canine atopy. Your vet may recommend blood testing for allergies to help identify what your dog is sensitive to, and desensitization with allergy injections can reduce the symptoms over a 6-12 month period of time. Prescription medications may include steroids such as prednisone, antihistamines, medicated shampoos and sprays, and immune modulators such as Apoquel, Atopica, and Cytopoint. Secondary bacterial and yeast infections must always be treated, otherwise the itching and discomfort will not go away.
Bathing your dog regularly is one of the most beneficial and inexpensive things you can do to help manage atopy. Bathing washes away allergens like pollen and mold, reduces bacteria and yeast on the skin, can help repair the skins protective barrier, and helps remove crusts and flakes that can harbor infections. A gentle soothing bath can make an itchy dog feel so much better! Another easy remedy is to wipe your dogs feet and coat off with a damp towel when he comes in from outside. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are a natural anti-inflammatory and can reduce the symptoms of atopy. Decreasing exposure to allergens by keeping your pup out of tall grass, dead leaves and mulch, and washing bedding and stuffed toys can also help reduce symptoms.
Successful allergy management requires commitment, teamwork and communication with your veterinarian. Every patient is different and there is no one magic treatment, but there are plenty of tools available for you and your vet to keep your dog happy and comfortable!