Allergies in Dogs: Common, Commonly Misdiagnosed, or Both?

Watching an itchy pet scratch to the point of self-mutilation is an agonizing and all-too-common experience for dog owners.

Allergies in Dogs: Common, Commonly Misdiagnosed, or Both?

The veterinary visits that usually (and should!) follow often result in a diagnosis of allergies.

While allergies are extremely common in dogs, owners should be aware that this very fact can sometimes lead vets to diagnose an allergy when something else is to blame for a dog’s symptoms.

First, an overview of allergies in dogs.

Dogs can be allergic to almost anything in their environment:  ingredients in food, flea bites, pollen, mold spores, dust mites, etc.  The topic of food allergy has been elegantly discussed by Dr. Schaible so I won’t go into it here, other than to say that every dog with non-seasonal itchiness needs to be assessed for a food allergy.

The importance of flea allergies also cannot be overstated.

A flea allergic dog can be driven to desperation by the bites of only one or two fleas. Owners often give their dogs a once-over, don’t see any fleas, and discount the little buggers as a cause for their pet’s itching.

But, EVERY itchy dog needs to be on an effective flea preventative medication all year long.

The good news is that many of these products also kill other parasites that cause itching in dogs (e.g., Sarcoptes mites, lice, etc.) so owners get a lot of bang for their buck.

Back to what most people think of as typical allergies – the pollens, molds, etc.

These are often called inhalant allergies, but this is a bit of a misnomer. Unlike people who typically develop runny and itchy eyes, sneezing, etc. after inhaling allergens, the cells responsible for these reactions occur primarily in a dog’s skin, which explains why dogs are itchy rather than sneezy when suffering from allergies.

The correct term for the genetic predisposition to this type of allergic reaction in dogs is “atopy.”

What does this mean for dog owners?

Achoo

Perhaps most obviously, if your dog has chronic respiratory symptoms (e.g., a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, etc.) the most likely diagnosis is NOT allergies.

If, however, your dog is itchy, atopy will be towards the top of a vet’s list of potential causes.  As tempting as it may be (especially in the middle of a busy day in the clinic or when faced with a client complaining about prices), a vet shouldn’t rush into an allergy diagnosis but, first, rule out some of the other common causes of itching including:

  • a thorough physical exam looking for fleas, lice, and other obvious causes of a dog’s symptoms,
  • a skin scraping for mange mites,
  • a fungal culture to rule out ringworm,
  • skin cytology to diagnose bacterial and fungal skin infections,
  • and sometimes empirical treatment for some of the harder to diagnose “itchy” diseases (e.g., sarcoptic mange).

Only after all this is a TENTATIVE diagnosis of atopy appropriate.

Why do I say “tentative?” Because all of the potential causes of canine itching have not yet been ruled out. Therefore, atopy is a diagnosis of exclusion.

Definitively diagnosing allergies and identifying a dog’s triggers can involve such things as skin biopsies and intradermal skin tests. However, these advanced diagnostics are not called for in every case.

It is appropriate to begin treating most dogs for allergies without these tests, as long as everyone understands that if the pet does not respond to treatment, the initial diagnosis should be reevaluated.

An allergic dog’s symptoms should quickly get MUCH better with aggressive treatment.

The treatment often consists of medications to control the allergic response such as

  • corticosteroids
  • cyclosporine
  • weekly baths using an appropriate, medicated shampoo
  • nutritional supplements like omega 3 fatty acids

Keep in mind that your dog’s symptoms will probably recur if you stop treating him, but if you are concerned that he was misdiagnosed in the first place, talk to your veterinarian or seek a second opinion, ideally with a veterinary dermatologist.

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