Signs Your Dog May Have Allergies

Allergy season is among us. That means many of you may be noticing your dog is itching and scratching. While allergies in humans present as itchy eyes, sneezing, and nasal congestion, dogs frequently respond to allergies with inflammation of the skin.

This inflammation causes an itch sensation as well as making the dog’s skin porous and reducing its ability to act as a barrier to the outside world. The loss of normal skin function creates an opportunity for the yeast and bacteria that naturally live on the skin in a healthy dog to invade and cause skin infections.

Signs of allergies in dogs include:

  • Red or irritated skin
  • Itching and scratching
  • Hair loss
  • Hives
  • Sores and red patches on the skin
  • Licking paws
  • Frequently shaking the head or ear discharge (ear infection)

Confirming Allergies

Allergies can start as early as birth or can develop later in life. Unfortunately, allergy problems tend to increase as a dog ages with each exposure; each one increasing the sensitization to the allergen. For this reason, it is important to not only treat the current symptoms but to create a long-term plan to manage allergies.

The first step in creating a good treatment plan is to obtain a thorough medical history. A thorough exam is also performed to determine if additional fungal or parasite testing needs to be performed, as these infections can cause similar signs to mimic allergic skin disease.

Next, we want to make sure dogs are on an appropriate flea preventative. We may not see fleas on the exam, but if a dog is allergic to fleas they can break out in an allergic reaction similar to any other allergy. It’s important to keep in mind that very small amounts of an allergen can trigger an allergic response. 

Finally, we consider if food allergies are a possibility based on the frequency of allergic outbreaks. If the symptoms are constant and year-round a food trial for 8 weeks using a hydrolyzed diet is warranted to rule out food allergies. We must also ensure that all secondary infections must also be treated.

Reducing Future Exposure and Calming the Itch

Once we have taken care of fleas, food, and any secondary infections, it is time to make a long-term plan for managing the allergy. Management includes a variety of ways to strengthen the skin’s natural barrier function and medications to reduce the inflammatory response to the allergen.

  • You can reduce allergen exposure by wiping dogs’ paws and coat with a damp towel after coming in from outside. This helps to remove allergens clinging to the hairs.
  • Weekly baths with a hypoallergenic shampoo can also remove these allergens, and some prescription shampoos contain ceramides and fatty acids to help seal the skin.
  • Adding fatty acids to the diet can also increase the skin’s barrier function and reduce inflammation.
  • Antihistamines are a safe and easy way to prevent allergies in dogs but these work best when given before exposure to the allergen. The dosages for these medications are different in dogs than in humans so make sure you get a proper dose from your veterinarian.
  • There are also several prescription medications that can be used if antihistamines are not effective.

Final Thoughts

Allergic skin disease can take many steps to properly diagnose. Treating and ruling out other types of skin infections is important and only after this step can a longer term plan be made to reduce future outbreaks. Reducing exposure includes building the skin’s natural barrier, removing exposure from allergens and medications to prevent the allergic response.