Stop That Itching!

Does your dog itch more during the spring, summer and fall months? Chances are, it may have dog allergies.

In humans with allergies, we have more respiratory signs such as a runny nose, sneezing, coughing or sinus congestion. Dogs with allergies, on the other hand, have their allergy signs show up with skin problems. They will itch, chew at their skin, lick their paws, rub their faces causing red irritated skin, sores or lesions, hair loss, bleeding, etc.

So, how do you know if your dog has allergies and what might be causing the allergies? There are 3 different “zones” where dogs will itch and these are the “general” diagnosis for each area:

If they are itching around their tail, by their rear end or over their back near their tailhead, then they probably have fleas. In general, they are not itching from an allergy to the flea but to the fleas themselves. If the infestation of fleas is bad, they may itch other places as well, as the fleas crawl all over their body giving them that “itchy, scratching” feeling from them walking all over their skin and biting them for a blood meal!

If your dog is licking its paws, rubbing its face and digging at its ears, then your dog may have a food allergy problem – it is allergic to some type of food or treats you are giving them. If you change your food or treats, keep in mind it may take 60 DAYS to see a response to the new food or treats because proteins from those old foods can take that long to be eliminated from the body and skin.

If your dog is itching all over its body and it doesn’t have fleas or any other parasites (your vet can check by doing a skin scraping and flea combing), then it probably is due to environmental allergens from grass, trees, weeds, pollens, molds, mites, etc.

Your veterinarian can do allergy testing to determine what type of foods your dog may be allergic to and what type of environmental allergens may be causing your dog’s issues. Once you know, you can eliminate those foods that are causing issues OR if you have environmental allergens causing the problem, allergy injections with small doses of the allergens can be given to help develop a tolerance to them.

“Are there other ways to give my dog relief other than allergy injections and testing?” Fortunately, there are but again, these treatments do not help them build a tolerance to the things they are allergic to – they just help treat the symptoms or signs your dog is displaying. There are 3 different categories of treatments:

1. Anti-histamines: These don’t work as well in dogs as they work in humans. In fact, most research shows anti-histamines only work as well as the placebo effect in dogs (that is, if 1 group of dogs are given anti-histamines and the other dogs are given a sugar pill, both have the same results). Occasionally your veterinarian may reach for these first if the itching is not severe.

2. Cortisones or Prednisones: These work great on controlling allergies and itchiness but unfortunately sometimes they come with the short term side effects of drinking more, peeing more and not sleeping as well (these side effects are dosage-dependent and dog dependent), and if used long term (chronically) there can be damage to kidneys, liver and adrenal glands – again, dosage-dependent.

3. Apoquel and Cytopoint: These are a relatively new class of drugs that work very well with few if any common side effects like prednisones do. In simplistic terms, they work by “tricking” the brain into thinking the skin is not itchy, and this, in turn, helps the skin return to normal color and sores to heal again. Have you ever had a mosquito bite that the more you itch, the more it itches? This is caused by enzymes released by the skin causing you to itch more. If you “trick” the brain into thinking the skin is not itchy, you don’t itch which means you don’t release more enzymes to make the skin itchier… thus you stop the itch→scratch→itch cycle.

Again, if your dog has allergies the best way to approach their treatment is to consider allergy testing and avoiding foods they may be allergic to and doing immunotherapy (allergy injections) to build up their tolerance to the things that make them itchy. See your veterinarian and have a discussion on what may be the right answer to your dog’s itchy skin.

Dr. Jocelynn Jacobs DVM, CVC