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Dog allergies

Saturday February 21st, 2009

Believe it or not, dogs can suffer from allergies as well as cause them--in fact, allergies are all too common among canines. They can't be cured, but they can be treated, both with medication and by protecting your dog, as much as possible, from whatever's making him sick.

Causes

As in humans, allergies are caused by an immune system that overreacts to an everyday substance, such as fleas, pollen, or a certain food. The following are the three most common culprits.

Atopic dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is genetic. An affected dog inherits a tendency to develop skin problems from pollens, grasses and trees, dust mites, or mold spores.

It usually begins with a seasonal reaction to pollen when the dog is young, and progresses until the dog is allergic to many different substances year-round. Skin irritation usually shows up around the eyes and mouth, armpits, stomach, and anal area. Ear infections are also common.

Your vet can run a skin or blood test to see what's causing the problem, although these aren't always totally accurate and medication can interfere with the results. (Your dog shouldn't have prednisone for a month before the test, or antihistamines for 10 days before.)

Your vet may give your dog steroids for short-term relief from the itching, and immunotherapy (allergy shots) to lesson your dog's sensitivity to allergens long-term.

Flea allergy

An allergy to blood-sucking fleas--or rather, to their saliva--is the single most common skin disease in dogs. In allergic dogs, a flea bite can cause extreme itching, red bumps, and inflamed skin that lasts for days. The more an allergic dog is bitten, the worse the allergy gets.

Steroids and antihistamines can make your dog less itchy, but the only real treatment is tight flea control in the house and yard, as well as on the dog. Luckily, the newer generation of flea control products is very effective.

Food allergy

Dogs can be allergic to several types of food, but the most common triggers are chicken, beef, corn, or wheat--all typical ingredients in commercial dog food. The allergy usually shows up as a skin problem, such as itching, rashes, and hot spots (warm spots of infected skin). Some dogs may have stomach upset as well, with chronic diarrhea or vomiting.

To find out what your dog's allergic to, work with your vet to try an allergy elimination diet. This diet involves giving your dog a special food (which you'll get from the vet), and over three or four months, gradually adding other foods back to your dog's diet. When he starts itching again, you've found your culprit and can keep it out of your dog's food bowl for good.

When it's time to see a vet

A visit to the vet is in order if you spot these allergy warning signs:

  • Frequent scratching, licking, and chewing
  • Recurring skin or ear infections
  • Red, thick, or flaky skin
  • Hair loss
  • Chronic stomach upset
  • Reverse sneezing (sounds a bit like the dog is inhaling sneezes)

How to treat allergies

Treatment plans vary depending on the allergy, but they usually involve medication, managing the environment to remove the allergen, or both. Not every dog will need all these measures, so talk with your vet once you know what your dog is allergic to.

  • Antihistamines, steroids, and other medications may relieve itching. Steroids aren't a long-term solution, however, since they can cause serious health problems. Antihistamines are safer, although they may make your dog drowsy.
  • Immunotherapy may make your dog less allergic, although it doesn't work for food allergies (see below).
  • Air filters cut down on airborne allergens, and air conditioning makes it harder for allergy culprits like mold to grow.
  • Essential fatty acids supplements help relieve symptoms in some dogs.
  • For dust mite allergies, wash the dog's bed (even if it's your bedspread) in hot water every other week or even weekly. If he's allowed on furniture, put down a towel or blanket on furniture that you can wash in hot water.
  • Avoid going outside in the early morning and late afternoon, when pollen levels are at their peak. After walks, wipe your dog down with moist towelettes to remove pollen.
  • To keep an allergic dog's sensitive skin from drying out after bathtime, bathe with hypoallergenic dog shampoos and crème rinse only, and rinse with water thoroughly.
  • Follow a strict flea control program. Fill dog beds with cedar to discourage fleas from taking up residence.
  • Don't leave with your dog in a humid part of the house, such as the basement, laundry room, or bathroom.

Immunotherapy may help

Dogs can get immunotherapy (often called "allergy shots"), just like people. Unlike drugs designed to ease symptoms, immunotherapy may make your dog less allergic by regularly exposing him to tiny amounts of whatever he's sensitive to. It's not effective for food allergies, though.

Not all dogs respond to immunotherapy. About 60 to 80 percent do very well with the shots, about a fourth get some relief, and another fourth don't respond at all. It takes weeks, months, or sometimes even a year to know if it's working. Expect the pay-off next allergy season, not this one.

If it does work, your dog will probably need regular shots for the rest of his life. Your vet or a veterinary dermatologist will teach you how to give the shots to your dog at home, although if you have a tough time doing this, the vet can do it for you. Rarely, a dog will have a serious reaction to the shots, so you'll need to schedule them when you'll be nearby for a half hour or hour afterward to keep an eye on your dog.

One final tip: buy the best darn treats you can find to give your dog after the shot, as it will ease the process.

What's next

You're in for management control for the life of your dog. Even if your dog is taking medication or getting allergy shots, chances are you'll still need to minimize his exposure to whatever he's allergic to. The good news is, it's much easier once you've figured out what's triggering the allergy.

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