February 7, 2019 – Sneezing, runny noses and red eyes – these are common signs of allergies in people. Our pets can suffer from a variety of allergies, too, though the types of allergies and the signs noted are sometimes different from those seen in people. No matter what the signs, allergies can cause significant discomfort and decrease quality of life for our pets.
What are allergies?
Allergies are diseases of the immune system. Our immune system is designed to protect us from foreign invaders. Sometimes the immune system inappropriately identifies something – a type of food, pollen or house mite, for example – as something that is a threat to the body. The immune system reacts to repel the foreign material. Unfortunately, this can mean it is constantly reacting to a perceived threat, resulting in the signs we associate with allergies.
What are the most common allergies diagnosed in dogs?
Common allergies include fleas, foods and environmental allergens.
In many areas of the United States, fleas are a constant problem. Many dogs are sensitive to flea saliva and controlling fleas can be extremely frustrating, especially in areas of the country with moderate year-round temperatures.
Dogs can have allergies to certain foods, usually proteins, in their food. Almost any protein source can trigger a food allergy.
Finally, dogs can have sensitivities to environmental allergens (such as pollen or house mites).
What are the common signs of allergies in dogs?
The skin is where you’ll see signs of allergy. Signs can range from itchiness (the most common sign of almost all types of allergy, including food) to swollen lips, ears or eyelids, and hives.
Other signs include sneezing, runny eyes, chronic or recurrent ear infections, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea in cases of food allergy.
Although they’re rare, severe allergic reactions, also known as anaphylactic shock, can occur in some allergic dogs. Anaphylactic reactions are medical emergencies and require the attention of a veterinarian.
How are allergies diagnosed in dogs?
Although your veterinarian can have a high degree of suspicion your dog has an allergy, pinning down exactly what is causing your dog’s signs can be tough. Making matters worse, some dogs have multiple allergies that overlap. In addition, skin allergies that result in lots of scratching can lead to skin infections, which in themselves are itchy!
Some clues that can help your veterinarian identify the allergen(s) include noting if the allergy is seasonal, if there is an association between eating certain foods and the start of signs, or if your dog has signs of external parasites (such as fleas or ticks). Describing where your dog is most itchy can be helpful, too.
However, the best way to determine what your dog is allergic to is feeding a strict diet with only one source of protein and carbohydrate at a time. Different types of food are slowly added back until a reaction is triggered. Elimination diet trials can take a long time so many dog owners will opt for a hypoallergenic diet that controls their dog’s signs without necessarily precisely identifying the underlying allergy.
Rigorous flea control is required for diagnosis of flea allergy. Skin testing using different allergens is the best and most accurate method for diagnosing environmental allergies. Although it is tempting to do a blood test to look for allergies, these are prone to both false positive and false negative results.
How are allergies treated in dogs?
There are several options for treating allergies in dogs. Switching your dog’s food to a novel protein diet is the best way to address food allergies.
Flea control on both your dog and in the environment (as best as you can) is important in cases of flea allergies.
Dogs with allergies triggered by substances in the environment can get allergy shots that are custom designed for each patient based on the results of skin testing.
Antihistamines are helpful for some dogs, and soothing baths and rinses can help decrease itchiness and discomfort. Antibiotics can help if a skin infection is contributing to your dog’s discomfort.
Other medications used can include steroids, immunosuppressants and oral fatty acid supplementation.
If you suspect your dog has allergies, talk to your veterinarian. It’s important to rule out other diseases that can mimic the signs of allergy, and never give your dog any medication without first consulting your veterinarian.
Unfortunately, there are no magic bullet cures for allergies, and many treatments can take a long time before your pet feels more comfortable. However, with dedication and determination on the part of owners, many allergic dogs can have an excellent long-term quality of life.