When your pooch paws, chews, licks and scratches like a mad dog, it doesn’t always mean he’s suffering from a swift attack from menacing invisible pixies, and by pixies we don’t mean fleas.
Though a number of things can cause a dog to scratch, more often than not, consistent bouts of the “scratchies” are the direct result of some sort of allergic reaction to an offending substance in the dog’s environment.
Dogs are so very similar to humans in that they suffer from allergies just like humans do. In fact, last year Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (VPI) reported that allergies are the No. 1 ailment that dogs have most in common with humans. Also, a skin allergy, or allergic dermatitis, is the second most common condition that brings a dog to its veterinarian, according to VPI and FindAVet.us.
So, according to these numbers, chances are that most pet parents might have to go to the frontlines with their pooches to battle those pesky invisible pixies at least once in their pooch’s lifetime.
What are Allergies?
So we’ve determined that those invisible pixies are actually allergies. But what exactly are allergies? Allergies come in various forms, including inhalant, contact, flea, bacterial and food allergies. The allergy itself is the body’s reaction to an unknown substance or substances (called “allergens”) that the immune system perceives as dangerous.
“Even though these allergens are common in most environments and harmless to most animals, a dog with allergies will have an extreme reaction to them,” explains the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). “Allergens can be problematic when inhaled, ingested or contact a dog’s skin. As [a dog’s] body tries to rid itself of these substances, a variety of skin, digestive and respiratory symptoms may appear.”
In an article for American Animal Hospital Association’s (AAHA) Pets Matter e-newsletter, Paul Bloom, DVM, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist, explains that such an internal attack by the dog’s immune system will also spur inflammation.
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Though itching is a common symptom caused by allergies, your dog might also suffer from any number of other reactions. It’s important to know all of the symptoms in order to stay vigilant and to determine whether or not your dog may be suffering from allergies.
What are the Symptoms of Allergies?
Many of the symptoms in dogs caused by allergies are very similar to those that humans suffer. Though the list below outlines primary symptoms of allergies, as the ASPCA explains, “Allergic dogs may also suffer from secondary bacterial or yeast skin infections, which may cause hair loss, scabs or crusts on the skin.”
The following is a list of potential allergy symptoms you may see in your dog, as described by the ASPCA:
- Itchy, red, moist or scabbed skin
- Rashes — red, raised, swollen areas of skin
- Increased scratching (you really need your dog’s nails to be cut effectively or else he could cause harm)
- Itchy ears and ear infections
- Shaking of the head
- Snoring caused by an inflamed throat
- Paw chewing/swollen paws
- Constant licking
- Biting skin
- Pimples, scabs, bumps, welts
- Darkening and thickening of skin from excessive scratching
- Loss of hair in patches or general thinning of skin
- Brown staining of feet due to saliva and excessive licking
Knowing that your pet’s symptoms are the result of allergies should bring some sense of relief. Once the symptoms are explained, a pet parent can take the proper steps to then help their dog be liberated from the “pixies.” But first, determining the cause of your dog’s allergies is an important next step.
What Causes Allergies?
An little-known fact about a dog’s allergies is that an allergy will usually rear its ugly head only after prolonged exposure to the allergen. As Leonard D. Jonas, DVM, MS, explains in AAHA’s Pets Matter, “Allergies are always caused by something the pet has been exposed to for a long time.”
It can take months for an animal’s body to develop an allergic sensitivity to a particular product or even a particular food. A pet parent might have fed his or her dog the same food or treats for several months or even years, but a dog can still develop an allergy despite the repeated exposure sans a reaction, says Christina Horst, DVM for AAHA’s Pets Matter.
“Wheat, soy, corn, dairy products, beef and chicken are common causes of food allergies,” Dr. Horst says. And most common in pets are flea and environmental allergies versus food and contact allergies.
The following is a list of some common causes of allergies according to the ASPCA:
- Tree, grass and weed pollens
- Mold spores
- Dust and house dust mites
- Cigarette smoke
- Food ingredients (e.g. beef, chicken, pork, corn, wheat or soy)
- Certain prescription drugs, antibiotics, or vaccines
- Flea bites
- Flea-control products
- Cleaning products
- Insecticidal shampoo
- Rubber and plastic materials
- Contact with certain plants or chemicals away from home (learn how to keep your dog at bay with these invisible dog fences)
- Allergies can also be a combination of some or all of the above causes, thus termed “multi-factorial”
In addition, according to goodpuplife.com, there are many breeds that can be predisposed to having skin allergies. These breeds include the West Highland WhiteTerrier, German Shepherd, Jack Russell Terrier, Fox Terrier, Cocker Spaniel, Pug, Shar Pei, British Bulldog, Miniature Schnauzer, Boston Terrier and Golden Retriever.
Interestingly enough, Animal Wellness Magazine, in their April/May 2010 issue, had an article entitled “Forget the Steroids.” In that piece, Jean Scherwenka writes about holistic alternatives for pet allergies, including Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM). According to holistic veterinarian Christine Bessent, DVM, “Liver Qi stagnation is the root cause of allergies.”
Noting that blockage of a dog’s Qi restricts proper circulation of the dog’s life energy, Dr. Bessent goes on to explain that such blockages create “heat or inflammation.” She continues to describe how this heat can then arise in various forms, one of which includes allergies.
This is an interesting take on the cause of allergies, and as more and more pet parents seek out holistic veterinarians and Eastern medicine for the management of their pet’s health, it might be a cause worth looking into.
How are Allergies Diagnosed?
If you’ve noted your dog’s symptoms and have eliminated potential allergens you should bring your pet to a veterinarian. While there, your dog’s veterinarian will take a complete and detailed history of your pet’s health and perform a thorough physical examination to rule out other potential causes of your dog’s symptoms.
A veterinarian might do a skin scraping to look for mites in the dog’s skin, says iLoveDogfriendly.com. They may also exam skin cells microscopically to check for bacteria or yeast. If none of these reveal any information concerning your dog’s symptoms, then your vet might recommend performing blood tests to determine the cause.
If the blood tests don’t bear results, then your vet might suggest performing an Intradermal Skin Test (IDST) in which purified allergens are injected directly under the dog’s skin to see which ones your dog has a reaction to. The ASPCA explains that this is usually the “diagnostic test of choice” for most veterinary dermatologists, and it has many similarities to the allergy testing performed on humans.
“Because of the large number of possible allergens, however, your dog may need repeated IDSTs,” says VetInfo.com.
Prior to having such a test, VetInfo.com says that preparations will need to take place. Before testing your pooch’s skin, all skin infections must have cleared up. “This is to ensure that dermatological symptoms are due to allergies and not infection,” says VetInfo.com. The next thing your vet will do is make sure that your dog is on a hypoallergenic diet beforehand for at least the duration of three or so months. This helps to rule out food allergies before doing the test.
The process of ruling out food allergies takes time in and of itself. Horst, who is a veterinarian at an AAHA-accredited veterinary hospital in Colorado, tells AAHA’s Pets Matter that most veterinarians will begin with food trials.
Dr. Jonas says the hypoallergenic diets he puts his patients on have protein and carbohydrates that are new substances to the animal that they’ve never been exposed to before. “For example, he may suggest duck, venison, and potatoes, for up to 12 weeks. If an allergy is food related, improvement will be noted during that time,” says Pets Matter.
The ASPCA adamantly encourages that pet parents not feed their pets anything other than what’s prescribed by their veterinarians in this special diet. Pet parents must be watchful to make sure no one slips their pooches any unexpected treats, scraps from the dinner table, or even flavored medications. The diet will continue until all of your dog’s symptoms have gone, that is, if the symptoms are due to food allergies. Your vet might then have you introduce different foods into your dog’s diet one at a time, for a week at a time, to see if your pet has any reactions.
All of these tests and trials will help you and your veterinarian determine the exact cause of your dog’s allergies, so that you both can more easily manage your dog’s symptoms.
How are Allergies Treated?
Treatment of allergies, depending on your dog’s level of severity, can be an easy process or can get somewhat complicated. The easiest way to treat allergies is to eliminate any potential or
confirmed allergens from your dog’s environment or diet.
The ASPCA gives the following tips for managing your dog’s allergies by using conventional ways of omitting allergens from your dog’s life:
- If fleas are the problem, start a flea control program for all of your pets before the season starts. Remember, outdoor pets can carry fleas inside to indoor pets. See your veterinarian for advice about the best flea control products for your dog and the environment.
- If dust is the problem, clean your pet’s bedding once a week and vacuum at least twice weekly—this includes rugs, curtains and any other materials that gather dust.
- If it’s grass, have your dog avoid long or freshly cut grass that might cause contact allergies.
- Weekly bathing may help relieve itching and remove environmental allergens and pollens from your dog’s skin. Discuss with your vet what prescription shampoos are best, as frequent bathing with the wrong product can dry out skin.
- As previously mentioned, if you suspect your dog has a food allergy, she’ll need to be put on an hydrolyzed protein diet. Once the allergy is determined, your vet will recommend specific foods or a home-cooked diet.
Prevention will go a long way in soothing your dog’s allergy symptoms, but there are some allergens that can’t be completely taken out of your animal’s world. Airborne allergens, for example, might be completely out of your control. In this case, your veterinarian might recommend immunotherapy, which involves injecting your pet to build its resistance to environmental allergies.
“If we do immunotherapy (allergy shots) based on blood work, that takes a while to kick in and assess if we are successful,” Horst tells Pets Matter. The article also discusses how improvement in allergies symptoms can take anywhere from “six to 12 months after allergen-specific therapy is started.”
Since allergies are a result of the immune system’s reaction to offending allergens, there’s no actual cure for allergies, but they can be managed. The following is a list of other potential treatments that will help you manage your pet’s allergies, as noted by the ASPCA and goodpuplife.com (always consult with your vet first):
- Antihistamines such as Benadryl can be used, but may only benefit a small percentage of dogs with allergies.
- Histamine-blocking supplements might help relieve your dog’s itchy skin.
- There are shampoos that may help prevent skin infection, which commonly occurs in dogs with allergies. Sprays containing oatmeal, aloe and other natural products are also available.
- Use topical anti-inflammatory or antibacterial creams.
- An immune modulating drug may also be helpful.
- Treating for bacteria, yeasts and other parasites that contribute to the problem can help.
- If the problem is severe, you may have to resort to cortisone to control the allergy. However, these drugs are strong and you should use them with caution, and only under the guidance of your veterinarian.
“To effectively treat an allergy, you must first address the underlying disharmony that has caused it,” Dr. Bessent tells Animal Wellness.
Though conventional treatments were futile for Stanley, it seemed that holistic alternatives gave Stanley his life back. Again, if all else fails, it might not hurt to look into other alternatives to ensure your pet’s ultimate health.