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Itching in Dogs: Seasonal Allergies

Pet Health and Safety  •   Preston Turano, DVM  •   Mar 25, 2022

 

The spring season provides us with new opportunities to head outside with our dogs. Unfortunately, all this natural beauty and quality time spent outdoors leads to increased exposure to a variety of flowers, shrubs, trees, grasses, and weeds that are starting to grow and blossom. With them comes a higher pollen count and increased exposure, which can lead to seasonal allergies in dogs.

Symptoms of Seasonal Allergies in Dogs

Seasonal allergies are most common in dogs between the ages of 1-3 years old and breeds like West Highland Terriers, Labrador Retrievers, Pugs, and Golden Retrievers are predisposed to allergies.

Some symptoms of seasonal allergies are similar to those suffered by humans, such as sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes. Dogs commonly have additional symptoms like itching and scratching of the body, chewing at the base of the tail, and licking of the paws. We may also see them shaking their heads and pawing their ears or eyes. 

Unfortunately, the itching, chewing, scratching, and head shaking is an indicator of discomfort and can lead an escalation of symptoms or other problems. One specific problem is pyotraumatic dermatitis, commonly known as “hot spots.” These develop when our pets excessively lick, chew, and scratch at an area on the body. Hot spots may appear as severe redness, hair loss, bleeding, pain, oozing, and infection.

Seasonal allergies can also be the underlying cause of skin infections (pyoderma), ear infections (otitis externa), eye infections (conjunctivitis), and infection between the toes (pododermatitis). Left untreated, these conditions can escalate in severity and lead to hair loss, changes in fur color, and, most importantly, pain and discomfort.

Allergies are triggered by our pet’s immune system overreacting to the allergens, such as pollens, grasses, weeds, dust, or mold. One big difference between people and pets is that the allergens are not most problematic for pets when inhaled, but when they come in contact with the skin. For pets with seasonal allergies, there is a genetically inherited defect in the skin barrier that allows the allergens to irritate the immune system more dramatically, causing increased reactivity and inciting the itch cycle.

Since allergens are airborne, it is next to impossible to avoid them, even if you keep your pet indoors. And, in some cases, pets are allergic to indoor allergens like dust mites.

Allergy Treatment for Dogs

Treatment typically focuses on controlling or quieting the immune response and addressing any secondary problems that arise from the itching, such as infection or hot spots. Before a diagnosis of seasonal allergies can be made, your veterinarian will need to have a thorough understanding of your pet’s history, as well as perform a physical examination. There is no reliable or definitive diagnostic test for seasonal allergies. Therefore, the diagnosis is determined by ruling other causes out.

Other Reasons for Itching in Dogs

The number one cause for itching in pets is fleas. So, your veterinarian will first search for any evidence of flea infestation. Having your pet on monthly flea prevention will help avoid infestation and usually rule out fleas as a cause for the itching.

There are several other causes for itching, including:

  • Other parasites (such as sarcoptic mange)
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Fungal infections (roundworm)
  • Food allergies

Your veterinarian will be your best source to help navigate the cause of the itching and determine if the diagnosis of seasonal allergies fits your pet’s symptoms.

Common Prescriptions for Dog Itching

Once other causes are ruled out, treatment depends on the severity of the allergic response. Mild cases may involve bathing with a hypoallergenic shampoo to help remove the allergens from the skin. Antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can be used in mild cases to help alleviate and reduce itchiness.

In moderate to severe cases, medications tend to focus on lowering or reducing the immune response to the allergen. There are several different medications currently being used in veterinary medicine to help reduce or modulate the immune response.

These include:

  • Steroids: Steroids are one of the most common medications used for treatment of seasonal allergies. Examples include prednisone, dexamethasone, and prednisolone. These medications are anti-inflammatory and help reduce the itch. In addition, at higher doses they can suppress or modulate the immune system. Your veterinarian will discuss the short- and long-term side effects with you if steroids are necessary.
  • Oclacitinib: This oral medication works by blocking inflammatory signals from cells that cause itching. It is marketed by Zoetis and called Apoquel. It can be used for short- or long-term management of allergies.
  • Cyclosporine: This is an oral immunosuppressant that helps reduce the itching and inflammatory response. It is typically used for long-term management of allergies. It is marketed by Elanco and sold as Atopica.
  • Cytopoint: This is an injection that can be given monthly. It is a monoclonal antibody that binds to a protein that triggers itching. It is used for short- and long-term management of allergies.
  • Allergy shots (desensitization): This is a natural form of immunotherapy where either a skin (intradermal) or blood test indicates that your pet reacts more strongly to specific allergens. The blood test can be done by your veterinarian, but a board-certified dermatologist usually performs the intradermal test. Once the causative agents are identified, a solution is made with the specific allergens. These are then injected under the skin on a schedule to help desensitize the immune system. This is a long-term solution, and the closest thing to a cure, for chronic allergies in some pets. Response varies and it takes time to determine if your pet is responding well enough to continue the injections.

Seasonal allergies are one of many underlying conditions that can cause our pets to itch. No matter the cause, allergies in our pets can be very frustrating and uncomfortable, especially when the itching leads to secondary trauma.

Sadly, there is no cure for allergies, but as discussed in this article, there are numerous options to help control the symptoms. Talking with your veterinarian about the proper treatment for your pet’s allergies or itchiness will lead to the best outcome for their condition and their comfort.

Also, it's always best to be prepared for vet visits related to seasonal allergies. AKC Pet Insurance plans (underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company) offer coverage for allergies and many other common canine emergencies. Click here to create a custom plan fit for your dog and budget.

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