Does your dog’s scratching drive you nuts? Itchiness in dogs is a common problem, with the most likely causes being parasites (such as fleas) or allergies. Treating canine allergies can be frustrating but there are a surprising number of options, some old and some new. This article gives an overview of what those options are.
Atopy in Dogs is Common
Many, many dogs suffer from ‘atopy’ which is an allergic reaction to allergens (such as pollens) in the environment. Indeed, atopy holds the dubious honor of, in 2012, being the most common health problem diagnosed in dogs. It’s a sad fact that there’s no ‘cure’ for atopy, which can only be ‘controlled’. This is because it’s in the programming of the body’s immune system to overreact to allergens. Modern medications can regulate that overreaction, but there’s no magic bullet to correct it once and for all. Any pet parent with an atopic dog knows just how frustrating (and expensive!) this condition can be to control. However there are now more options for treatment than ever before, so if you feel stuck in a rut with the management of your dog’s condition; it’s time to think again.
The Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs
If you have an itchy dog but use excellent parasite control, then a vet checkup is a good idea to identify the cause. Be aware the symptoms are quite general so a diagnosis can’t necessarily be made on this alone, but suspicious signs include:
- Itchiness, especially of the paws, face, armpit, groin, and belly.
- Recurrent skin infections
- Regular ear infections
- Thickened skin that has changed color
Treatment of Atopy in Dogs
In theory, treatment is simple: Avoid the allergen and this will avoid triggering the allergy. But when those allergens include pollens, grass, molds, and dust mites the impossible nature of simple avoidance becomes clear. Treatment is therefore based on limiting exposure, improving the skin’s natural defense mechanisms, and toning down the immune system.
Limiting Allergen Exposure
The allergic reaction starts with the allergen (for example pollen) in contact with the skin. The longer the allergen sits on the skin, the more opportunity it has to trigger the allergic reaction. Also, the more allergen is present, the stronger its stimulation. The simple act of wiping down the coat and skin can help as it reduces allergen exposure.
- After a walk uses a damp cloth to wipe down the dog’s ears, paws, armpits, groin, and belly.
- Bathe the dog regularly. Use a mild, moisturizing hypoallergenic shampoo or one recommended by your vet.
- If the allergen has been identified, do your best to reduce exposure. For example, don’t let a dog that’s allergic to grass sap, play on freshly cut grass.
Improve the Skin’s Defenses
Dogs are different to people in the way allergies are triggered. With dogs, the allergen enters through the skin, so a healthy skin means better protection for the dog. Keeping the skin healthy should not be underestimated as a means of controlling allergies.
- Doggy moisturizing sprays: Spritzing the dog with sprays that restore the skin’s natural lipid balance helps to keep skin supple and strong. Your vet can recommend sprays rich in ceramides and essential fatty acids balanced for canine skin
- Food Rich is Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): Working from the inside – out a diet rich in essential fatty acids has a positive impact on nourishing skin cells at the deepest level. EFAs moisturize the skin internally and also have a mild anti-inflammatory effect.
- Skin hygiene: Atopic dogs often have poor skin immunity and are poor at keeping the growth of yeasts and bacteria in check. Washing with special medicated shampoo or wipes can wash away skin invaders before they cause a problem.
- Antibiotics: The poor skin immunity of some atopic dogs means they get skin infections which also cause itchiness. But scratching and chewing further damages the skin and allows more allergen to enter…so oral antibiotics may occasionally be needed to bring this complication under control
Tone Down the Immune System
Hopefully reducing exposure to allergens gives that hyper-active immune system less of a tickle, but what if the dog is still excessively itchy? This is when other strategies such as immunotherapy or medications are needed.
- Immunotherapy Vaccines: This is where the dog is injected with micro-doses of allergens in order to desensitize it. Around 40% of dogs respond brilliantly to this, with another 40% doing OK (perhaps needing reduced doses of meds), whilst for the final 20%, it does not make a lot of difference. The drawback to immunotherapy is it takes a while to start working and the cost…it’s expensive!
- Medications: A number of highly effective medications are now available which tone down that excessive reaction to allergens. However, all drugs have pros and cons, and although the latest medications are relatively side effect free, one drawback is the price-tag that comes with them.
- Prednisolone: Corticosteroids are potent at reducing itch and can give rapid, much-needed relief to an intensely itchy dog. Steroids are safest when given on alternate days so that the body doesn’t become ‘addicted’ to them. The good news is that they are extremely cheap, but the bad news is that there is a risk of inducing complications such as diabetes or Cushing’s disease when used at high doses in the long term.
- Cyclosporine (Atopica) or Oclanitib (Apoquel): These more modern drugs have fewer side effects and work well for many patients. However, the drawback is cost, as they are expensive especially for a large dog that needs them long term.
- Lokivetmab (Cytopoint): This is an injection rather than tablets. Strictly speaking, lokivetmab isn’t a drug but a monoclonal antibody and targets the immune system to prevent it triggering the allergic response. The injection is given once a month, with reports of 80% of dogs improving on this treatment.
But what about antihistamines? We take antihistamines as an effective way of controlling hay fever, so what about in dogs? Sadly, the response of dogs to antihistamines is disappointing. It is a rare dog indeed whose itchy problems can be sorted using antihistamines alone. Often the best that can be hoped for is the use of antihistamines may reduce the dose of other medications he needs to take.
Recognize what Works and What Doesn’t
What works for one dog, might not necessarily benefit another. The savvy pet parent monitors their dog during treatment so as to target the most effective strategy. A good way to do this is to score your dog’s itch out of 10 on a daily basis. For example, zero is an absence of itch, whilst a 10 is continual scratching. Keep a record of this and then you can see trends as the days and weeks pass. Alternatively, especially if your dog is secretive about his licking and scratching (the dog that has been told off for licking in the past, may hide from their owner to itch) then a PetPace collar can help.
The latter monitors his activity levels so if he’s awake and scratching in the night, this shows up on his trace. The collar can monitor trends which enables you to follow what’s working and what isn’t. If your dog is itchy and diagnosed with an allergy, work with your vet to control the symptoms. As well as medication, simple things like washing the dog can help. Indeed, lots of small actions can add up to one big relief from itchiness for your dog.