Helping a dog with allergies can really tug on a dog lover’s heart.
Allergies can be tricky to diagnose and difficult to treat. Symptoms can include itching, constant licking, digestive upset, coughing, wheezing or other distressing symptoms.
Mindy Berman’s miniature poodle Lucky was allergy-free until he turned seven.
“Lucky’s overwhelming symptom was that he constantly bit himself all over,” she recalled. “He had some ear infections, too, as part of the allergies. His ears always had a lot of ‘gunk’ in them. His symptoms continued, so it was pretty clear that it was an ongoing issue, and not a short-term one.”
After several trips to the vet and to a canine dermatologist and allergy specialist, it still wasn’t totally clear what was causing Lucky’s allergies.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is the reaction a dog has when its body treats common things it is exposed to as dangerous. It’s an immune system reaction to substances that may never have bothered the dog in the past or which cause other dogs no problems at all.
Because allergens — the irritating substances — can come from air, food or contact with the dog’s paws or skin, the symptoms vary widely. Some even appear to be behaviors, like constant licking or chewing on a paw. Others include:
- Hot spots. The irritation can be so bad the dog chews open sores on his skin, often on his back or at the base of his tail. The sores can become infected by bacteria or yeast, making treatment more complicated.
- Itchy or runny eyes.
- Itchy ears or repeated ear infections.
- Digestive upsets such as vomiting or diarrhea.
- Coughing or wheezing. Snoring sometimes occurs if a dog has an inflamed throat.
- Constant licking.
- Swollen paws.
Although any dog can develop an allergy at any time in her life, some breeds — terriers, setters, retrievers and flat-faced dogs such as pugs, bulldogs and Boston terriers — are more likely to get allergies than other breeds. This doesn’t mean that dogs of these breeds will get allergies; it just means they are more likely to.
What do dogs get allergies from?
There are two types of allergens:
- Environmental. Dogs can be allergic to tree, grass and plant pollens just as we can. Other allergens in this group include dust, household mites, fleas, cleaning products, perfumes, cigarette smoke and feathers.
- Food and medications. This could include allergies to chicken or certain grains like corn, wheat or soy that are commonly added to dog foods. These types of allergies are highly individual. We commonly think of a food allergy causing a digestive upset, but it can cause itchy skin, irritate eyes, coughing or sneezing, irritated ears and other symptoms.
Treating dog allergies
The first step is to find what is causing the irritation and eliminate it as much as possible. A common first step is to put the dog on a special diet for several months, gradually adding foods back to see if the allergic reaction goes away.
In trying to solve Lucky’s problems, Berman recalled, “We ruled out food allergies, but the vet suggested I still put him on a dog food diet for dogs with allergies. Going to the extreme to remove as many environmental triggers as possible, I actually had all the carpet in my house ripped out and put in wood floors.”
Although Lucky was given several medications, including prednisone and topical medications, Berman said they had only minimal benefit.
“He really continued to have the symptoms on an ongoing basis. Maybe sometimes they’d get a little better, but they never went away completely.”
If you have a dog that may have allergies, this tips may help:
- Keep a log of when symptoms appear or get worse. It can help identify whether an allergy is seasonal or associated with certain treats or activities.
- Be serious about flea control. Reactions to flea bites are one of the most common allergies dogs get. (It is the flea’s saliva rather than the bite itself that causes the itching.) Even a single flea bite in a sensitive dog can cause a major reaction. The dog may not even appear to have fleas when the allergic reaction occurs. More frequent baths, daily combing to help remove fleas and more intensive flea control even when it’s not flea “season” can help prevent or lessen a flea allergy.
- Avoid environment or environmental allergens or pollen. Again, bathing more often may help. Be sure to consult with a veterinarian about the best products to use. Using the wrong one could make make an allergy worse.
- Clean house thoroughly. This means regular dusting and vacuuming, cleaning the dog’s bed more often and using less toxic household cleaners. An air purifier may help. Berman said that she switched to an allergen-reducing bed cover because Lucky slept on her bed.
- Purchase dog foods that are grain-free. Corn and soybeans can cause a problem for some dogs. Others have problems with certain meats, such as chicken. If you change dog foods, be sure to do so gradually to avoid upsetting the dog’s digestive tract. Periodically changing dog foods or supplementing them with home-cooked broth and vegetables can help prevent allergies some times.
If these steps don’t work, supplements or prescriptions drugs can be used including fatty acid supplements, antihistamines, antibiotics or corticosteroids. Steroids come with potential side-effects and are generally only used in severe cases.
Helping a dog with allergies takes patience and consistent monitoring.
Consult your veterinarian
Your veterinarian is your best partner in diagnosing and treating dog allergies. The more information you can provide through logs of symptoms or reactions to changes made in your dog’s food or environment the better. Talking to your vet about the best foods, supplements and grooming products can help avoid complications.
Allergies are complex and highly individual. Effective treatment can save your dog from discomfort or suffering from allergies.