Ask the Vet

SCRATCH, SCRATCH, SCRATCH. If this is a familiar sound in your home, you know all too well that the allergy season started early this year. Record-breaking temperatures this past March meant a much more prolific blooming season this Spring. While I loved the bountiful of blooms that the weather brought, I disliked the extra allergens that they released, as I too have a dog affected by allergies. If your dog has been diagnosed with Atopy (seasonal allergies) this article is for you. If you think that all that scratching your dog is doing might be allergies too, check with your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis before you try anything at home.

For those readers that do not know what Atopy is, the proper definition is specifically “an allergic reaction in the body resulting
from inhaled or contact allergens such as pollen, mold or dust”? Other causes of itching could come from a food sensitivity, a skin infection, a parasitic infection (such as mites or fleas) and other less common problems. A condition like Atopy can also be complicated by a secondary skin infection, or your dog may even have multiple causes of scratching going on all together. While some causes of these allergies occur year-round (like dust), many of them are seasonal and most dogs will get a break from the symptoms for at least part of the year. Certain years can be worse than others depending on what the allergen is and how well it is blooming.

Treatment for seasonal allergies will usually include a variety of modalities. My first line of itch control will usually be some sort of anti-histamine. There are a variety of types and strengths available and some of them are even available over the counter. Your veterinarian will let you know what medication and what strength is best for your dog. Medicated bathes and topical sprays are another aspect of treatment that will be used commonly to help calm the itch. You should not use any shampoos designed for humans as they will be particularly irritating to a dog with a skin condition. Unless your dog has fleas, I would also avoid the use of flea and tick shampoos. If you are bathing your pet frequently, you may want to ask your veterinarian about some of the medicated conditioners that are available. This will help control the drying out of the skin that happens with frequent baths and can also be used to help relieve itching in-between baths. When the basic anti-histamine medications aren’t enough, your veterinarian may prescribe some drugs that work to lessen the body’s immune system’s response to the allergens.
Steroids, such as prednisone or Temaril-P, or a wonderful alternative named cyclosporine, may be used in the more advanced cases of allergies. Treating secondary skin infections that can flare up during the season may also be needed. Supplements or even diet changes to less irritating food ingredients may recommended for your itchy dog. I am always a big fan of supplementing Omega-3 fatty acids into a pet’s diet. In a few cases this supplement alone has markedly decreased the dog’s scratching and brought them great relief (and a great coat as well!).

For dogs that don’t seem to respond to the basic allergy controls and medications, allergy testing and desensitization is the next step. Much like people, there are both skin and blood tests that can be performed on your dog to determine what allergens are the culprits. Once those are known, special shots that have low levels of those allergens in them will be prepared specifically for your dog and then a program of injections is set up. This is known as desensitization and can bring great relief to about two-thirds of the pets that receive them. Occasionally, a few animals are “cured” of their allergies, but in most cases these injections are carried on the rest of your pet’s life. Some owners have pursued allergy testing without taking the desensitization step, and that is fine too. It at least allows you to know what things are making your pup itch and may be things that you learn to avoid.
If your dog is scratching away and you don’t know if it is allergies or not, please talk to your veterinarian and see what is going on! If it is allergies there are actually a lot of things that can be used to bring some needed relief to you canine companion.