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Ditch the Itch: Skin Allergies in Dogs

All dogs itch but how do we know when it is normal dog behavior or something more? There can be many reasons why your dog is constantly scratching all of which can cause changes with our pups and their skin health.

Skin allergies, or allergic skin disease, in dogs have many different names. It may also be called allergic dermatitis, atopic dermatitis or atopy. These symptoms are most likely to develop between the ages of 2 and 6 years of age, but can rarely develop from as early as 6 months old.


Signs of a skin allergy

  • Licking paws excessively
  • Mild to excessive itching of skin with scratching
  • Ear inflammation, secondary ear infections and itchy ears
  • Hair loss, redness or scabs on the skin
  • Dandruff and poor coat condition
  • Anal gland inflammation which can lead to scooting and excessive licking
  • Secondary skin infections (pyoderma): red, weeping areas of skin, red spots or pustules


Causes of a skin allergy

Skin allergies are associated with exposure to an allergen. Dogs may develop a variety of signs, described above, depending upon the severity of their allergy.

Some cases are related to dietary allergens. This syndrome is called cutaneous adverse food reaction (CAFR). These dogs may develop an allergy to a food they have been eating for some time, or may recently have been changed onto a new food, which triggers the onset of signs. In the case of switching your dog's usual food to something new, it is best to gradually and systematically transition them. Wean them off of their current food while incorporating the new food over a period of 7-10 days.


How can you help your dog?

If your dog has any of the signs above, it is very important to have a consultation with a vet to rule out other causes of itching, such as fleas, mites or ringworm. They may suggest skin scrapes or other tests to investigate the cause. If your vet is suspicious of allergy, they may advise a skin biopsy to gather further information. However, many cases of allergic dermatitis are treated based on the clinical signs and presumptive diagnosis alone. It will depend on your pets history, signs and the progression of their illness. If your pet has been diagnosed with allergic skin disease, the next step is to work out whether the signs are due to an environmental or food allergen. Your pet may be allergic to one or more allergens at the same time, and this can make diagnosis more complicated.


Diagnosing and treating cutaneous adverse food reaction

Your vet may firstly recommend an elimination diet to exclude cutaneous adverse food reaction. Elimination diets typically require 6-8 weeks to complete, and close monitoring to ensure that your dog does not eat anything other than their allocated food ration and water throughout the trial.


Diagnosing and treating environmental skin allergies

The most common causes of environmental allergies are pollen, flea saliva and dust mites. Signs are often seasonal due to varying levels of exposure to seasonal allergens, such as tree pollen. We can’t eliminate many of these allergens from your pets' environment. Instead, we must target our approach to managing the signs associated with exposure. Treatment usually requires medication, which is designed to reduce the inflammatory response, reduce inflammation and therefore control the itching. Other measures, such as bathing in soothing oatmeal pet shampoo and feeding essential fatty acid supplements, may also be beneficial in long term management.


What is allergen specific immunotherapy (ASIT)?

Allergen specific immunotherapy is a course of injections given once a month over an extended period of time (often months to years). The purpose of these injections is to relieve the signs of the allergy. To start, your pet will need to have blood taken to test against a wide range of allergens. If your pet has antibodies against any of these allergens, it will give a positive result. The results can then be used to make an individual vaccine, specifically tailored to your pet. This vaccine contains small amounts of the allergens, which your pet has tested positive for. The vaccine injections deliver very small doses of these allergens to your pet, with the aim of decreasing their sensitivity and reducing the immune response to them.


When to see your physical vet

  • If your dog is showing any of the symptoms listed above

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