Skin and Allergy Problems in Dogs
Cheryl Minnier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 1996 by the author.
The most common medical complaint we see in dogs is skin or ear
related. Unlike humans who react to allergens with nasal symptoms,
dogs react with skin problems. These problems may range from poor
coat texture or length, to itching and chewing, to hot spots and self
mutilation. Allergies may also play a part in chronic ear infections. To
make matters more difficult to diagnose and treat, thyroid disease may
add to the problem as well.
In order to overcome these frustrating symptoms your approach needs
to be thorough and systematic. Shortcuts usually will not produce
results and only add to owner frustration. This article will cover
diagnosing and treating; inhalant, food, and flea allergies. I will also
briefly discuss thyroid disease and immune mediated disorders.
Remember, your best source of information is your vet. Many vets
are now recognizing the need for holistic allergy treatment instead of
the tried and true (and possibly ineffective or dangerous) standby of
corticosteroids. If your vet is not helpful, keep looking until you find
someone you are comfortable with. You need to remember though, that the
success or failure of treatment will rest mainly on you. There is no
magic pill to deal with these problems. Unfortunately, there is also
no "cure", only systematic treatment options. Much of the information
below is taken from "Guide to Skin and Haircoat Problems in the Dog" by
Substances which can cause an allergic reaction in dogs are much the
same as those which cause reactions in people including pollens, dust
mites and molds. A clue to diagnosing these allergies is to look at the
timing of the reaction. Does it happen year round? This may be mold or
dust. If the reaction is seasonal, pollens may be the culprit.
Symptoms of inhalant allergies include: SCRATCHING, BITING, CHEWING
AT FEET AND CONSTANT LICKING. The itching may be most severe on feet,
flanks, groin and armpits. Dogs may rub their face on the carpet. Ear
flaps may become red and hot. Chronic ear infections may follow. Skin
becomes thickened, greasy and has a strong odor. Hot spots may develop
due to irritation from constant chewing or scratching, which is then
followed by infection. Allergies have also been implicated as a possible
cause of Acral Lick Granulomas, a frustrating, treatment resistant
condition whereby the dog creates a sore on his skin from constant
If a dog has the above symptoms and responds well to the treatment
measures outlined below, no further diagnostic tests may be needed. If
the problem is severe and does not respond to simple measures, allergy
skin testing can be done. A portion of the skin is shaved and a variety
of substances are injected into the skin to see if they provoke a
reaction. If so, an individual series of injections are formulated to
give the dog over a period of time (there are blood tests designed to
identify allergens without the skin testing, however their efficacy had
not been proven. They should be reserved for cases where skin testing is
- Symptomatic Therapy
- Treating the dogs symptoms may include; cool baths with or without
colloidal oatmeal, Epsom salts, or medicated shampoos. This can be
done frequently but provides only temporary relief. Caution should
be used with sprays and ointments because many contain potentially
harmful substances. According to Dr. Ackerman, Dermacool is a safe spray
containing witch hazel. Cortispray is a low dose, nonsystemic cortisone
spray which can be safely used for short periods of time.
- Allergy shots are very safe and many people have great success with
them, however, they are very slow to work. It may be six to twelve
months before improvement is seen. I spoke with Dr. Christine Johnson,
a veterinarian with the dermatology department of the University of
Pennsylvania, about intradermal skin testing for inhalant allergies. She
reports the average success rate is 70-75%. This rate is for dogs
showing any improvement at all. At U of P. the cost for the procedure
is $69.00 for the exam, $122.00 for the sedation and testing, and
$85.00 for the first 5 months worth of vaccine. After that vaccines
are purchased in 7 month supply for $65.00. Substances that are tested
include cats(!), feathers, wool, molds, dust, trees, insects, plants
and pollens. Before testing, your pet must be free from all steroids,
oral or injected (including those found in ear and eye medicines) for a
specified period of time in order for the test to be valid. In all about
60 different substances are tested for.
- These compounds reduce itching by reducing inflammation.
Unfortunately, they also affect every organ in the body. According to
Dr. Ackerman, steroids should be considered only when the allergy
season is short, the amount of drug required is small or as a last
resort to relieve a dog in extreme discomfort. Side effects can include
increased thirst and appetite, increased need to urinate and behavioral
changes. Long term use can result in diabetes, decreased resistance to
infection and increased susceptibility to seizures. You can recognize
steroids by the suffix "-one", such as cortisone, dexamethasone,
prednisone..etc.. In short, alternatives to steroid therapy should
always be considered.
- Antihistamines can be used with relative safety in dogs. About one
third of owners report success with them. The major drawback, as with
people, is sedation. Dr. Ackerman recommends that a minimum of three
different types of antihistamines be tried before owners give up on this
therapy. According to Dr. Johnson, the most common problem with this
type of treatment is that owners give the drugs at doses that are too
low. Check with your vet on correct dosing. Examples of antihistamines
commonly used for dogs include: Tavist, Benadryl, Chlortrimeton, Atarax
and Seldane. Personally, I have seen the best results with Atarax.
- Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
- These fatty acids are natural anti-inflammatory agents. They
reportedly are helpful in 20% of allergic dogs. My own experience puts
this figure a little higher. They are certainly worth a try because
they are not harmful and have virtually no side effects. Omega-3 fatty
acids are found in fish oils (especially krill and cod) and omega-6
fatty acids are derived from plants containing gamma-linolenic acid
(GLA), such as oil from the evening primrose. These supplements are
different from those sold to produce a glossy coat. They tend to reduce
inflammation that may lead to skin sores but are not as effective in
reducing itching. Products that contain both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty
acids include: Omega Pet, Derm Caps, and EFA-Z Plus.
- Environmental Control
- If you know which substances your dog is allergic to avoidance
is the best method of control. Even if you are desensitizing the dog
with allergy shots, it is best to avoid the allergen altogether. Molds
can be reduced by using a dehumidifier or placing activated charcoal
on top of the exposed dirt in your house plants. Dusts and pollens
are best controlled by using an air cleaner with a HEPA filter. Air
conditioning can also reduce circulating amounts of airborne allergens
because windows are then kept closed.
- While there is nothing you can do to prevent a rescue dog from
developing allergies, breeders should be aware that allergic dogs SHOULD
NOT BE BRED!!! Dr. Johnson confirmed that there is clinical proof that
allergies are inherited!
The previous section of this article dealt with atopy or inhalant
allergies. This article will deal with food allergies or to be more
precise, food sensitivities. Much of the information presented here is
drawn from "Hair and Skincoat Problems in the Dog" by Lowell Ackerman
D.V.M. and an interview with Dr. Scott Krick of the VCA Sinking Spring
Veterinary Hospital. Food allergies account for only about 10% of
allergy problems in dogs, however they are easily treated so it makes
sense to test for them if you suspect they may be the culprit of your
dog's skin problems.
Like inhalant allergies, food sensitivities primarily manifest
themselves with itchy skin. Other symptoms include anal itching, shaking
of the head, ear inflammations, licking front paws, rubbing faces on
carpeting and rarely vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence, sneezing, asthma
like symptoms, behavioral changes or seizures. Many people don't
suspect food allergies as the cause of their dog's itching because
their pet has been fed the same food all its life and has just recently
started having symptoms. However, animals can develop allergies to a
substance over time, so this fact does not rule out food allergies.
Another common misconception is that dogs are only sensitive to poor
quality food. If the dog is allergic to an ingredient it doesn't matter
whether it is in premium food or the most inexpensive brand on the
market. One advantage to premium foods is that some avoid common fillers
that are often implicated in allergic reactions.
Dogs are not allergic to a dog food per se, rather they react to one or
more of the ingredients in the food. Some of the most common culprits
are beef, pork, chicken, milk, whey, eggs, fish, corn, soy, wheat and
preservatives. Many animals are now developing allergies to lamb as
well. This was once thought to be very hypo-allergenic, but the more it
is used, the more sensitivities are springing up.
The first step in diagnosing a food allergy is to eliminate all
possible allergens and feed ONLY a homemade diet with ingredients
the dog has never eaten before. The diet should be a protein and a
starch. Good examples are one part lamb, rabbit or venison mixed with
two parts rice or potatoes. NOTHING else can be fed during this time;
no biscuits, chewable heartworm pills, chew toys or any table scraps!!
You must also keep the dog away from feces if he or she is prone to
This diet should only to be fed for a short period, while testing
for allergies. It is not nutritionally complete enough for long term
use. Check with your veterinarian before beginning the test. If the
symptoms improve during the trial diet, go back to the original food for
several days. If symptoms reoccur you know that something in the food
is causing the reaction. The next step is to return to the trial diet
and add one new ingredient a week (i.e. add beef for one week and if no
symptoms occur add corn the next week for one week).
Once you have discovered the allergen you can look for a
commercial food which does not contain that ingredient. According to
Dr. Ackerman, approximately 80% of dogs with food allergies can be
maintained on a commercial hypo-allergenic diet. Some of the common
hypoallergenic diets include "Nature's Recipe", "Sensible Choice"
and "Natural Life". "Nature's Recipe" makes a lamb and rice food, a
venison and rice diet and a vegetarian diet, none contain chemical
preservatives. "Natural Life" also makes a preservative free, lamb and
rice food called Lamaderm. "Sensible Choice" is a third brand that is
considered hypoallergenic because it contains neither wheat or corn and
comes in a lamb and rice formulation.
Note: just because a food is labeled "Lamb and Rice" do not assume it
is hypoallergenic. Many contain wheat, corn, soy, beef or preservatives.
This process of elimination is trying and time consuming. You should be
aware that it may take up to 10 weeks to see an improvement. However, it
is the best method available to test for food allergies. You may wish
to try switching your dog to one of the foods listed above for a month
as a trial. If the dog shows improvement you know you are dealing with
a food sensitivity, you just won't know which ingredient to avoid. If
there is no improvement, you will need to begin the elimination testing.
This type of reaction, again usually severe itching, is not to the
flea itself but rather to proteins in its saliva. Dr. Ackerman writes
that dogs most prone to this problem, interestingly enough, are not
dogs who are constantly flea ridden, but those who are exposed only
occasionally! A single bite can cause a reaction for five to seven days,
so you don't need a lot of fleas to have a miserable dog.
To test for flea allergies, a skin test is performed which must be
read in fifteen minutes and again in forty eight hours. Unfortunately
injections to desensitize are not very effective because it is hard to
collect enough flea saliva to make a serum!
For dogs with this problem a strict flea control regime must be
maintained. We would caution you, however, against using strong
chemical preparations on your dog. Often times the flea control program
produces more harmful effects than the fleas, including seizures and
skin problems, so please use caution.
Third section, coming soon!
Ackerman, L.: Guide To Skin and Haircoat Problems in Dogs. Alpine
Publishing, 1994: 7-19.
Skin and Allergy Problems in Dogs FAQ
Cheryl Minnier, email@example.com