Tracking down dog allergies is complex but a dog’s love in return is worth the struggle

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My dog Oliver is a sensitive soul. And by sensitive, I mean that both emotionally and physically. He’s got a gentle nature about him that just makes you want to scoop him up and cuddle him for hours. And he’d let you!

But he’s also got a lot of physical sensitivities that put him in the “high maintenance” category of animal care, bless his expensive heart. He’s prone to every allergy under the sun, so over the years I’ve had to get really creative with how to manage his food and skin sensitivities. Just when I have the right mix of medication, food, and grooming regime, he surprises me with a new allergy – and we have to start the exploration process all over again.


Since I like to write about what’s happening in my own life in this column, you’re going to travel with me down my research rabbit hole on pet allergies. So the following is a bit of what I’ve learned.

First a little about allergies.

Allergies are sensitivities to things found in our everyday environments like dust and pollen, according to the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC). Typically, these things aren’t harmful to dogs (or humans).

Yet, your immune system may feel differently and react to an otherwise harmless substance as dangerous. Normally, the immune system protects your dog from infection and disease, but when it comes to allergies the immune system can actually be harmful to the body.

When this happens the immune system responds by releasing histamines that can cause inflammation, swelling and itching. Inflammation then causes the various signs associated with an allergic reaction.

So what’s causing the allergic reaction?

Just like humans, a large number of substances can be allergens, and each dog is allergic to different things.

Some common environmental allergens are pollen, grass, weeds, mold, fungi, and flea saliva.

Also, just like humans, dogs can have food allergies too.

What might cause an allergic reaction doesn’t tend to change with age, but certain breeds are more predisposed to allergies than other breeds.

What are allergy symptoms?

Dogs often react to allergies by scratching or biting to try and relieve itching which can then lead to redness and inflammation.

Here are symptoms to look for:

  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Respiratory congestion
  • Itchy flaky skin (pruritus)
  • Hair loss
  • Itching
  • Ear infections
  • Shaking their head and scratching one or both ears
  • Smelly and/or “dirty” ears
  • Licking of the paws and anus
  • Patchy skin or skin irregularities

According to the American Kennel Club, skin allergies are the most common type of allergic reactions in dogs. And as it turns out, environmental allergens are one of the main causes.

Dust, pollen, and mold are all environmental allergens (among other triggers) that can cause allergic reactions or atopic dermatitis. Oftentimes, these are seasonal. So you may only notice your dog itching during certain times of the year.

The most commonly affected areas are the paws and ears, but the wrists, ankles, muzzle, underarms, groin, eyes and in between the toes may also be affected. Ollie tends to have reactions on his belly and down near and around his butt. His ears can get pretty itchy too.

One concern with skin allergies is that they can lead to secondary infections – which has been an issue in the past for Ollie. This can get expensive to try and get in front of, so it’s best to try and get an allergic reaction under control as quickly as possible.

Your dog may try to scratch, bite or lick his or her skin for relief which can then make him or her susceptible to yeast and bacterial infections. Ollie, please raise your paw!

How to tell if your dog has seasonal allergies versus food allergies?

Seasonal allergies tend to be a certain time of year, historically spring or fall. However with severe changes in our weather pattern, we’re seeing a continuation of seasonal allergies here in Southern California.

Food allergies tend to be year round, but the sudden onset of symptoms, can make it hard to tell.

Plus, when it comes to food, even if you haven’t changed anything in your dog’s diet, there’s always the chance that your food manufacturer may have changed their formula. The new ingredients could be causing a reaction.

How are seasonal allergies diagnosed?

Identifying seasonal allergies can be difficult because both seasonal and environmental allergies can have similar symptoms. Dogs with food allergies can have symptoms that manifest in the skin and in the gastrointestinal tract (i.e. diarrhea).

There are different ways that seasonal allergies can be diagnosed, according to PetMD. One common method is an intradermal skin test.

Very similar to allergy testing in humans, with this method, a small amount of test allergens are injected under your dog’s skin. Allergens are then identified by which injections cause redness, swelling and hives.

Using those results, your vet can create a specialized serum or immunotherapy shot that can be administered by the vet or at home.

Your vet may recommend other ways to diagnose the cause of your dog’s allergies depending upon their symptoms.

With environmental/seasonal allergens it can be difficult if not impossible to identify and remove triggers.

So how can you help your dog feel better in the short term?

Over the counter antihistamines such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine), Claritin (loratadine), Zyrtec (cetirizine) may be used. Frequent bathing can help as well, and of course, for severe allergic patients, prescription medication is used for itching like Prednisone, Cytopoint, Apoquel and antibiotics/anti-yeast medication for secondary infections. Ollie has been on all of these at some point. Don’t get me started.

If you want to give your dog an antihistamine, like Benadryl, here are some things to consider:

While typically safe, every dog reacts differently to antihistamines, according to the VCA. They may cause drowsiness in some dogs and hyperactivity in others.

If you purchase an over the counter medicine for your dog, check the label to make sure it doesn’t contain any other ingredients like decongestants or pseudoephedrine, which are NOT safe for dogs.

It’s also important to note that dosage for humans and dogs will not be the same.

I recommend talking to your veterinarian before giving your dog any over-the-counter medication to ensure the dose is accurate and that there are no adverse reactions with any other medications they may be taking.

As for Ollie’s most recent allergic episode, I’ll keep you posted. He’s a delicate, sensitive soul who really doesn’t give a flying fig how much it costs me to address his many health issues. The cuddles make it worth it though.