How Springtime Allergies Can Affect Your Dog’s Skin

Acting early with medication could save your pup a lot of grief in the warmer months.

Even young pups can become atopic. By: Raffi Asdourian

At last, spring is here!

Around my way, cheery daffodils brighten the parks while, in the woods, the promise of a carpet of bluebells is not far behind.

But for many, this time of year heralds the start of months of misery for their itchy dogs and the thought of repeat prescriptions for anti-itch meds.

Seasonal Allergies

Atopy is the technical term given to an allergic reaction, which is often worse at certain times of the year. For example, this is the dog who’s fine over the winter but in the spring and summer has rust-stained paws from constant licking.

In the same way some people suffer from hay fever when exposed to pollen, dogs get atopy. But the analogy only stretches so far because instead of the streaming nose and red eyes that people get, dogs have itchy skin.

Indeed, it’s pollen settling on the skin (rather than being breathed in) that sets off the chain reaction that ends with your dog’s itch.

Allergens — the things that trigger the itch — range widely from trees, flowers and grass pollen to molds, sap and even dust mites. Which dogs react and why comes down to a combination of inherited factors, age and environment.

Most dogs don’t itch the first time they encounter a particular allergen. But when the allergen contacts the skin, a hypersensitivity reaction triggers the release of histamine and other chemicals from the cells, which causes inflammation and itchiness. It takes repeat exposure for the reaction to build, which is why the itch gets worse year after year.

When Your Dog Shows Symptoms

Signs that your dog could be atopic include:

  • A young dog: Many are between 1–3 years old when the itch first starts.
  • Worsening itch: The itch gets more intense year after year.
  • Seasonal: This isn’t an all-year problem — the dog gets relief in the winter months.
  • Face, feet and armpits: The face, paws, armpits and groin are affected the worst. If you have a white dog, you’ll know they are an avid licker from that rust-colored fur.
  • Responds to steroids: If the vet gives steroids and the itch goes away, then atopy is high on the diagnostic list.
  • Tests negative: Investigation into other causes of itchiness (such as parasites or food allergy) are negative.

If this sounds like your dog, then it’s important to act sooner rather than later.

Cold comfort: Dogs with seasonal allergies actually get relief from their itchiness in the winter. By: Mari Junnola

Act Early on Itchiness

Itchiness makes you and your dog miserable (especially if the dog sleeps on the bed and scratches all night).

But what many don’t realize is the more established the itch, the more difficult it is for the dog to stop scratching.

For those dogs who are already diagnosed with atopy, this means starting meds immediately. By settling the itch early, you can use lower drug doses in a safer way.

For example, corticosteroids are highly effective anti-inflammatory drugs, but they have significant side effects. Start them early, and only a fraction of the dose is necessary. Then, to keep the itch away, it only takes low doses given every other day.

In contrast, wait until the dog’s licked his feet sore, and he may need 2, 3 or even 4 times the dose on a daily basis for a couple of weeks. And this means more of those unpleasant side effects, including

Complications

Have you ever had athlete’s foot? If you have, you’ll appreciate just how intensely itchy it is.

Again, when atopy goes untreated, the risk of complications such as secondary yeast infections goes sky-high. It’s not hard to see why: The dog’s skin is damaged by all the licking. The normal bacteria and yeast on the surface of the skin take advantage of the skin’s weakened immunity and breed out of control.

The result? Skin infections needing treatment in addition to the underlying itchiness.

So the message is: If you have a dog with seasonal allergies, have their meds ready and waiting. And if you suspect your dog has atopy, get them checked out by the vet. But also, you don’t just have to rely on the vet.

Next, we look at what you can do at home to combat itchiness and keep your dog comfortable.

Washing allergens off regularly can help your dog stay itch-free. By: hillary h

Once you know what the problem is, what can you do to relieve your dog’s itchiness?

A realistic answer is prescription medication, but even then there are things you can do to reduce the dose or even avoid drugs altogether. How do you achieve this?

Enter the “law of summation”: Lots of little things added together make one big thing. But it can also work in reverse: Take away little things, and the big thing gets smaller.

With this in mind, let’s look at how you can help your itchy dog feel more comfortable.

1. Better Skin Health

In allergic dogs, pollens trigger the itch when they contact the skin. So when the skin is healthy, it provides a better barrier to stop allergens in their tracks.

Simple steps such as regular grooming improve the blood supply to the skin and condition it. Brushing also keeps the coat clean and healthy so it doesn’t harbor bacteria and yeasts that drain the skin’s immune system.

Also, a good-quality diet promotes healthy skin from the inside out.

2. Food Supplements

Omega-3 oils have many beneficial effects, one of which is being a natural anti-inflammatory. They won’t reduce the itch on their own, but by strengthening the skin and interrupting the inflammatory cascade, these oils can reduce it.

  • A typical dose is 66 mg/kg each day (so a 10 kg Westie needs 660 mg a day)

3. Regular Bathing

OK, allergens contacting the skin trigger allergic reactions. So how about washing those allergens off?

If you live near the sea, this could mean a quick dip in the water (although keep the skin moisturized afterward) or regular bathing. Use a gentle shampoo, preferably one with moisturizing properties such as oatmeal or aloe vera.

This way you get a double benefit: reducing the allergen load while conditioning and hydrating the skin. In fact, the benefits don’t end there — cleansing the skin reduces the number of bacteria and yeasts on the surface, which could act as secondary invaders and make the itch worse.

Some dogs benefit from bathing every 3 days.

Ever think that grass sap could be the itch-inducing culprit? By: Helena Volkova

4. Avoiding Allergens

Many atopic dogs are allergic to things like grass sap, so exercising them on freshly mown grass is like a red flag to a bull in allergic terms. Keep them off the grass (away from the triggering allergen), or bathe them immediately afterward.

5. Consider Contributing Factors

OK, so your dog has atopy — meaning they have a sensitive immune system that’s liable to overreact.

If they react to pollens, then you can guarantee they’ll be allergic to flea bites. Make sure they are regularly treated with effective parasite products.

Also, consider the role of a food allergy. It’s not unusual to have both food and environmental allergies, so it’s worth putting the dog on a hypoallergenic diet for a couple months to see if it helps.

6. Immunotherapy Vaccines

The vet can develop a bespoke vaccine that reduces your dog’s sensitivity to allergens. There are pros and cons.

Pros:

  • A non-drug treatment
  • In 3–4 out of 10 dogs, it makes a big difference
  • Can make the difference between taking meds or not

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Not all dogs respond
  • It takes months to start working, so start in the autumn to benefit the following summer

This sweet pup wears boots to keep her grass allergy at bay:

7. Antihistamines

No article on allergies can get away with not mentioning antihistamines. However, the news isn’t encouraging: Dogs don’t respond as well as people do, and the effects are largely disappointing.

Speak to your vet about setting up a trial of 3 different antihistamines to see which works best — but don’t bet the house on it.

8. Spray Steroid

This remedy treats the skin rather than the whole dog.

Instead of giving steroid tablets or jabs, ask your vet about a steroid spray. This safe, side-effect-free option gives relief where it’s needed without entering the bloodstream.

9. Medication

And sometimes meds are the best option. These include:

  • Steroids: Inexpensive and effective, but prone to side effects
  • Atopica: Effective but expensive; fewer side effects than steroids
  • Apoquel: The golden bullet: effective and safe — but, sadly, expensive

10. Remember: Common Things Are Common

Parasites cause itching. Don’t assume all itchy dogs have an allergy. They may simply have fleas.

So save yourself a bucketful of bother and treat your dog regularly against parasites.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed April 21, 2017.

Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS

View posts by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS
Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with nearly 30 years of experience in companion animal practice. Dr. Elliott earned her Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow. She was also designated a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Married with 2 grown-up kids, Dr. Elliott has a naughty puggle called Poggle, 3 cats and a bearded dragon.

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