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.
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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.
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
- Wetting in the house
- Weight gain
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.
In our second article, we’ll look at what you can do at home to combat itchiness and keep your dog comfortable.
Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on dogs and seasonal skin allergies. Check out Part 2, where we discuss ways to help your dog cope with itch-inducing allergies.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed April 14, 2017.