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Skin and Allergy Problems in Dogs
Cheryl Minnier, cmin...@epix.net
Copyright 1996 by the author.
Table of Contents
* Inhalant Allergies
* Food and Flea Bite Allergies
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 Lowell Ackerman, DMV.
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
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 not possible).
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.
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!
Food and Flea Bite Allergies
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
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, cmin...@epix.net