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Mt. Pleasant, WI 53406
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Dog Ear and Skin Allergies

Dog Allergy Symptoms

While not usually life-threatening, allergies in dogs do cause discomfort. Most symptoms are associated with dermatologic problems but some can also lead to chronic respiratory issues in some dogs if untreated for long periods of time. Sometimes an owner will bring their dog to a veterinary appointment, suspecting a serious medical condition and end up finding out that their canine companion has an allergy.

Here are some allergy symptoms commonly found in dogs:

  • Excessive licking
  • Compulsive scratching
  • Periodic chewing on the same or different body parts or areas
  • Regularly rubbing body or body parts against the ground, walls, furniture, etc.
  • Frequent sneezing and/or wheezing
  • Skin irritation/fur loss

Most allergies develop in the second year of life for dogs. In the first year, the dog will be exposed to many types of allergens primarily through contact with the skin. A smaller number of allergies may be caused by food (usually the protein source) and inhalant (things they breathe in that are in the air). In the second year of life, the dog's immune system will overreact to the antigen(s) causing the release of immune cells which release inflammatory substances ( such as histamine) which lead to symptoms of itching. Rarely is a dog allergic to just one thing. Most allergic dogs are born with a less than optimal skin barrier which allows for antigens to enter the skin more easily. Dogs that suffer from allergies have abnormal skin and a "less-than-optimal" immune response which allows for secondary infections to occur. Typically, dogs do not suffer from a single allergy, but instead, dogs with sensitivities to allergens have a host of issues. You must understand that dog allergies are due to a complex set of issues that tends to change as the dog's environment changes.

Because these symptoms can have several possible causes, we recommend making a veterinary appointment immediately if you notice your dog exhibiting any of the above symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment of dog allergies not only increases the likelihood of your dog's treatment being successful but can also be less expensive than delaying treatment. The longer you wait, the more your dog suffers and more severe the secondary infections can become.

Dog Allergy Testing

The first step to determining the cause of your dog's symptoms is a thorough exam by your veterinarian. In addition to looking for external skin parasites such as fleas and mites, your veterinarian will want to do some diagnostics to help him/her determine what types of infections may be present. After diagnosing and treating for external parasites and infections, your veterinarian may want to discuss allergy testing. Once your veterinarian believes that allergies are the root cause of skin irritation/infections and discomfort, then they may recommend testing for specific allergens. There are many things to test for in determining what your dog may be causing the allergies for your dog. Dog allergens fall into the following groups:

  • Contact allergy - including many kinds of grasses and plants, dust mites and molds
  • Flea allergies - many dogs are highly allergic to flea bites
  • Food allergies - including different types of proteins
  • Inhalant allergy (Atopy) - allergens that are inhaled

Contact allergies such as flea, food and dust/pollen allergies are by far the most common cause of allergies in dogs. These allergens can cause an allergic reaction in the body that focuses largely on and within the epidermis, causing severe irritation. The result is a dog scratching itself to the point that skin infections and injuries can occur.

There Are Two Main Types Of Dog Allergy Testing

Blood Testing and Intradermal Skin Testing. Each type of canine allergy testing is administered differently and has its benefits and drawbacks. However, the following points hold true for both types of dog allergy testing:

  • It is best to perform these tests during the season(s) when the allergy is the worst and therefore most likely to generate an accurate result
  • Testing should come after examination for other potential causes and irritators, including:
    • Fleas
    • Mites
    • Fungal or yeast infections of the skin (common secondary invaders)
    • Chronic bacterial infections (common secondary invaders)
    • Hypothyroidism

A veterinarian might also order a 12-week hypoallergenic diet to rule out a food allergy. Food allergies are difficult to detect using either dog allergy testing method, and therefore should be determined through dietary manipulation. Once all of these possibilities are ruled out, the veterinarian will order either a blood or skin test to determine the presence of dog allergies.

What Causes A Dog To Develop Allergies?

Think of dogs skin like saran wrap. It covers and protects the dog. However, dogs with allergies are born with abnormal skin (like holes in the saran wrap). These abnormalities in the skin allow for the allergens, which are normal in all environments, to enter through the skin layer and set off an allergic response which causes itching and redness.  It is important to understand that dogs who suffer from allergies do not have normal skin or healthy immune responses. 

In addition, the inflamed skin and abnormal immune response allow for secondary invaders such as bacteria and yeast to enter the dermis (dog's skin).  Yeast and bacteria are always present in low numbers on every dog's skin. Unfortunately for dogs with allergies, their skin and immune response are inadequate to fight off these secondary invaders.

Blood Allergy Testing

Blood allergy testing has become a more common form of allergy testing used by veterinary dermatologists. It is convenient and easy to do, and there have been several double-blinded studies comparing the serum test results to skin test results in the same patient. Not all companies that offer serum testing are created equal, but the veterinary dermatologist will know which companies give consistent, accurate test results. To perform a blood allergy test, a small sample of the patient's blood is drawn and analyzed. It is then tested for a reaction to a vast array of geographically appropriate allergens, including:

  • Pollens
  • Dusts
  • Molds
  • Mites - house dust and grain 
  • Insect proteins - house flies, mosquitoes, roaches

For best results, dogs should be off of all steroids and anti-histamines at least a month before samples are drawn.  Blood allergy tests can be run for food allergies but they are not recommended because they are notoriously inaccurate. Blood tests are much less invasive and time-consuming than intradermal skin allergy tests. Blood tests are fast becoming the most popular form of allergy testing for atopy.

Skin Allergy Testing

Intradermal (skin) allergy testing for atopic dogs is another form of allergy testing used by veterinary dermatologists. Intradermal allergy testing is more invasive than blood allergy testing.   To perform skin allergy testing for dogs:

  • The patient is sedated
  • The patient is placed on its side
  • A large area on the patient's side is shaved
  • Small needles inject tiny amounts of each test allergen into the patient's skin in a specific pattern forming a small raised blister looking bump.  If the dog is allergic to the test allergen, the bump gets big and red (a wheal and flare reaction) Positive reactions are graded on a scale of 1-4. 

After a period of time (usually 10-15 minutes), the shaved area is examined to determine which allergens elicited a reaction. Based on what the pattern indicates, the veterinary dermatologist can prescribe the most effective treatment protocol. Skin allergy testing for dogs has been estimated to be upwards of 75% accurate in determining the presence of dog allergies. However, skin allergy tests can be inaccurate if patients have received antihistamines or steroids in the months leading up to testing. Your veterinarian can help determine if skin allergy testing is appropriate and will yield accurate results for your canine friend.

Treating allergies (Atopy) in Dogs

It is helpful to understand that allergies cannot be cured but can be successfully treated. There are many types of treatment and include the combination of oral medication, bathing, topical therapy and even injectable antigen therapy.

Prescribing the correct allergy medicine for dogs depends largely on the symptoms that the dog is displaying, the severity of the symptoms, and preexisting medical conditions. Allergy medicine for dogs may involve one or more of the following types of therapies:

  • Anti-inflammatory therapy: Treats dog allergies (atopy) with anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids, atopica or antihistamines that block the allergic reaction.
  • Immune modulators: These modify and reduce the dog's immune response to reduce the amount of itching which occurs from exposure to the antigens - ask us about Cytopoint injections.
  • Food and Dietary supplements: These include the use of prescription diets like Royal Canin Skin Support or VRS Protective or Transform. Strategic supplementation of nutriceuticals (fatty acids, herbs, vitamins) can go a long way to control seasonal allergies. These will all be discussed and considered at your consult with Dr. Limpach.
  • Antipruritic therapy (anti-itch): These include antihistamines, corticosteroids and a new medication known as Apoquel which specifically targets the itch response by blocking the substances in the body which causes itch.
  • Shampoo therapy:  Bathing can be very helpful. The appropriate medicated shampoo can treat secondary bacterial and yeast infections, provide fast relief from excessive itching,  remove antigens, dead hair, dying skin cells and rehydrate the dermis.
  • Hyposensitization therapy: If the specific offending allergens are identified by allergy testing, allergy specific immunotherapy can be prescribed. This form of allergy medicine for dogs can be injectable or oral.  Either form requires daily oral dosing or weekly injections of very small amounts of an antigen for the life of the patient (occasionally some dogs can discontinue therapy after a few years because they have become permanently desensitized. Repeated dosing helps reprogram or desensitize the patient's immune system. Approximately 50% of treated dogs will see significant improvement in their clinical signs, while approximately 25% more will see a decrease in the amount or frequency of anti-inflammatory therapy

To learn which allergy medicine and what dog atopy treatment methods will work best for your canine friend, schedule an appointment with Dr. Limapch today. Every allergy case is different and must all be approached on a case by case basis.

Choosing The Best Dog Food For Allergies

Some dogs suffer from adverse food reactions or food allergies. The best way to determine adverse food reactions/ food allergies is to do an elimination diet.  

We change your dog's diet to a prescription diet formulated for diet elimination trials.  Home cooked diets can be a viable alternative but they need to be formulated with the assistance of your veterinary dermatologist. Home cooked diets are more labor-intensive and less convenient. 

We can determine whether or not your dog has an adverse food reaction/ food allergy by prescribing one of the following strategies: 

  • Limited/Novel ingredient diet: These are prescription diets formulated with 2 main ingredients...for example, white fish/white potato or alligator/coconut.
  • Hydrolyzed protein diet: These are prescription diets that are "pre-digested" so the proteins in the food are broken down into the amino acid components.  In theory, the immune system cannot identify the nutrients as allergens. ex. Purina HA, Hills Z/D, Royal Canin Ultamino
  • Nutriscan test: This is a saliva test (that can be controversial) that checks for higher than normal amounts of immunoglobulins to 24 different common diet ingredients.  It has been helpful in many of our patients and for some animals has provided definitive food items to avoid.

It is important to remember that only about 10% of all dog allergies are true food allergies.  There are many diets that are pro-inflammatory which results in the more common adverse food reaction category.

Schedule a dermatology appointment and allow us to help your dog live a more comfortable life.

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