Have you heard someone tell you that her dog has allergies? Has your veterinarian suggested that allergies could be a problem for your dog? Do you suspect that your dog has allergies?
If so, then you’ve probably realized that allergies in dogs are not quite as simple as we might wish. For starters, there are several different types of allergies that could be causing your dog's symptoms.
Types of Allergies in Dogs
Allergies are a misguided reaction to foreign substances by the body's immune system, which, of course, people and pets can suffer from. There are quite a few different types of allergies in dogs. Skin allergies, food allergies, and environmental allergens all pose challenges for dogs and their owners, and to make things more complicated, the symptoms of all these different types of allergies can overlap.
What causes dog allergies?
Dogs secrete proteins that end up in their dander (dead skin), saliva, and urine. An allergic reaction occurs when a sensitive person’s immune system reacts abnormally to the usually harmless proteins. Different breeds produce different dander, so it’s possible to be more allergic to some dogs than others.
The allergen eventually finds its way into the animal’s fur. From there, it collects in carpets, on clothing, on walls, and between couch cushions. The pet hair itself is not an allergen, but the hair can hold dust and dander.
Pet dander can remain airborne for long periods of time as well. It can eventually find its way into your eyes or lungs.
Skin allergies, called allergic dermatitis, are the most common type of allergic reactions in dogs. There are three main causes of skin allergies in dogs:
- Flea allergy dermatitis
- Food allergies
- Environmental allergens
Flea allergy dermatitis is an allergic reaction to fleabites. Some dogs are allergic to flea saliva. This makes affected dogs extremely itchy, especially at the base of the tail, and their skin may become red, inflamed, and scabbed. You may also notice signs of fleas, such as flea dirt, or even see the fleas themselves.
Food allergies and sensitivities can cause itchy skin, as well. The most common places dogs with food allergies itch are their ears and their paws, and this may be accompanied by gastrointestinal symptoms.
Environmental allergens, such as dust, pollen, and mold, can cause an atopic allergic reactions or atopic dermatitis. In most cases, these allergies are seasonal, so you may only notice your dog itching during certain times of the year. As with food allergies, the most commonly affected areas are the paws and ears (but also include the wrists, ankles, muzzle, underarms, groin, around the eyes, and in between the toes).
All skin allergies pose the risk of secondary infection. As your dog scratches, bites, and licks at his skin, he risks opening up his skin to yeast and bacterial infections that may require treatment.
Symptoms of dog allergies
The symptoms of a dog allergy may range from mild to severe. Symptoms may not appear for several days after exposure in people with low sensitivity.
Some clues you may be allergic to dogs include:
- swelling and itching in the membranes of the nose or around the eyes
- redness of the skin after being licked by a dog
- coughing, shortness of breath, or wheezing within 15 to 30 minutes of exposure to allergens
- rash on the face, neck, or chest
- a severe asthma attack (in someone with asthma)
Children with dog allergies will often develop eczema in addition to the above symptoms. Eczema is a painful inflammation of the skin.
People used to believe that exposing a newborn to the family dog could cause a child to develop a pet allergy. Thankfully for dog owners, the opposite appears to be true. Several studies in the past few years — including one published in the Journal of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology — have found that exposing a baby to a pet doesn’t increase the risk of developing allergies or asthma. It may actually protect the child from developing them in the future.
True food allergies may not be as common as people think, according to AKC Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Jerry Klein. True food allergies result in an immune response, which can range in symptoms from skin conditions ( hives, facial swelling, itchiness), gastrointestinal signs (vomiting and/or diarrhea) or a combination of both. In some rare cases, a severe reaction resulting in anaphylaxis can occur — similar to severe peanut allergies in humans
But what about all of those dogs that are on special hypoallergenic diets?
What most people mean when they say that their dog has a food allergy is that their dog has a food sensitivity, also known as a food intolerance. Food sensitivities, unlike true allergies, do not involve an immune response and are instead a gradual reaction to an offending ingredient in your dog’s food, for example to beef, chicken, eggs, corn, wheat, soy, or milk.
Dogs with food sensitivities can present with several symptoms, including gastrointestinal signs such as vomiting and diarrhea, or dermatologic signs like itchiness, poor skin and coat, and chronic ear or foot infections.
The best way to diagnose and treat a food allergy is to work with your veterinarian to manage your dog’s symptoms and discover the ingredient causing the reaction.
Acute Allergic Reactions
Perhaps the most alarming of all the types of allergies in dogs is an acute allergic reaction. Dogs, like people, can go into anaphylactic shock if they have a severe reaction to an allergen. This can be fatal if not treated.
Bee stings and vaccine reactions, among other things, can cause an anaphylactic response in some dogs, which is why it is always a good idea to keep a close eye on your dog following the administration of any new vaccine, drug, or food item. Luckily, anaphylactic reactions are rare in dogs.
Your dog may also develop hives or facial swelling in response to an allergen. Swelling of the face, throat, lips, eyelids, or earflaps may look serious, but is rarely fatal, and your veterinarian can treat it with an antihistamine.
Symptoms of Allergies in Dogs
The symptoms of allergies in dogs may vary depending on the cause. A dog that goes into anaphylactic shock, for instance, will have a drop in blood sugar followed by shock, which is very different from a skin condition.
In general, however, the following symptoms could be a sign of an allergic reaction.
- Swelling of the face, ears, lips, eyelids, or earflaps
- Red, inflamed skin
- Itchy ears
- Chronic ear infections
- Itchy, runny eyes
- Constant licking
Some of these symptoms could also be a sign of another condition. Make an appointment with your veterinarian to get an accurate diagnosis and to help your dog start feeling better.
Diagnosing Allergies in Dogs
If you have ever undergone allergy testing, then you know that diagnosing allergies is often complicated.
The first thing your veterinarian may choose to do is rule out any other condition that could be causing your dog’s symptoms. If your veterinarian feels that an allergy is a likely cause, he or she may propose allergy testing to try and determine the cause of the allergen that is causing the reaction. However, keep in mind it may not always be possible to determine the cause of an allergy with testing.
Food allergies are often diagnosed using an elimination diet. A food trial consists of feeding a dog a novel (i.e. one) source of protein and carbohydrate for 12 weeks.
Flea allergy dermatitis is typically the easiest allergy to diagnose. It is usually diagnosed by identifying fleas on your dog’s body and applying a product that kills fleas before they can bite to see if that solves the issues.
How to treat dog allergies
The only surefire way to get rid of a pet allergy is to remove the pet from your home. There are, however, ways to minimize your exposure to allergens and lessen your symptoms if you don’t want to part with Fluffy.
Here are some medications and treatments that can help you manage allergies and asthma:
- Antihistamines are over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as Benadryl, Claritin, Allegra, and Clarinex OTC that can help relieve itching, sneezing, and runny nose.
- Nasal corticosteroids such as Flonase (now available over the counter) or Nasonex may reduce inflammation and control symptoms.
- Cromolyn sodium is an OTC nasal spray that may help reduce symptoms, especially if it’s used before they develop.
- Decongestants make it easier to breathe by shrinking swollen tissues in the nasal passage. These are available in oral form or as a nasal spray.
- Allergy shots (immunotherapy) expose you to the animal protein (allergen) that’s causing the reaction and help your body become less sensitive, reducing symptoms. Shots are given by an allergist and are often used in more severe cases for long-term treatment.
- Leukotriene modifiers, such as the prescription tablet montelukast (Singulair), may be recommended if you can’t tolerate nasal antihistamines or corticosteroids.
Some people with dog allergies may find that a saline (salt water) rinse daily to clear nasal passages of allergens can help. A “nasal lavage” can control symptoms such as congestion and postnasal drip.
OTC saline sprays and nasal lavage kits are readily available. You can also make your own by mixing 1/8 teaspoon of table salt with distilled water.
There are several things dog owners can do around the home to reduce allergens. They include:
setting up dog-free zones (certain rooms, such as a bedroom, where the dog is not allowed)
bathing the dog weekly using a pet-friendly shampoo (done by a non-allergic person)
removing carpeting, upholstered furniture, horizontal blinds, curtains, and any other items that may attract dander
using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) purifiers to reduce airborne allergens in the home
keeping the dog outside (only in certain climates in a well-contained area and under humane conditions)
looking into hypoallergenic dog breeds
using a trial period when introducing a new pet to the family to assess family members’ reactions to the new dog