Understanding dog allergies and managing the itch

Whether it's pollen that's got your pooch’s fur in a twist or a bit of kai that's not quite agreeing with them, allergies can give our canine companions the grumps. But don't worry, along with Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc, MVM, MANZCVS), we're here to take you through the ins and outs of dog allergies, how to spot them, and what to do to help your furry whānau member feel right as rain again.

Common allergies for dogs in New Zealand

Allergies can appear and effect our dogs from many varying sources. In general, allergies can be broadly divided into two main types – environmental (or contact) allergies, and food allergies.

According to Dr Holland, “Allergic skin disease is common in dogs and can be triggered by a number of different environmental allergens including proteins in food, inhaled allergens such as pollens, or contact with grass or fleas.”

Environmental allergies (Atopy)

Environmental or contact allergies, in layman's terms, are like your dog's immune system throwing a hissy fit. The immune system is designed to protect the body from harmful invaders like bacteria and viruses.

But in the case of allergies, it overreacts to harmless substances like grass, dust mites, or pollen, treating them as hostile invaders. This overreaction results in the release of histamines, causing various allergic symptoms such as itchiness, redness, and swelling.

Let's look at some of the most common allergens:

  1. Flea Allergy Dermatitis: This isn't just a fancy term for a flea infestation, it's when a dog is allergic to flea saliva. Even a single flea bite can lead to intense itching, skin inflammation, and hair loss.
  2. Atopy (Environmental Allergies): These allergies are caused by environmental factors like pollen, moulds, dust mites, and other microscopic nasties. It's like hay fever for dogs!
  3. Contact Dermatitis: This one's a reaction to something that's come in contact with your dog's skin such as certain types of grasses, plants, carpets, or cleaning products.

Food allergies

Food allergies are less common than environmental flea allergies. The science behind food allergies in dogs is indeed fascinating and a bit complicated. In essence, a food allergy occurs when your dog's immune system mistakenly identifies a particular food ingredient as harmful. The immune system produces antibodies to fight the perceived invader, which binds to cells in the body and prompts the release of chemicals, including histamine, which cause inflammation and other allergic symptoms.

The most common food allergens for dogs include these proteins:

  • Beef
  • Dairy products
  • Chicken

But here's the twist, the first time your pup eats the "problem" food, there may be no reaction at all. This is because the immune system is being "sensitised" to the food, and it's on subsequent exposures that the allergic reaction kicks in. So, theoretically, your pet could eat a particular food for years without any trouble, and then one day – BAM! – allergies.

How to identify allergies in your dog

You know your pup better than anyone else, so you're the best judge of when something is slightly off. Look out for any unusual behaviour and physical changes that could be indicative of allergies. This includes:

  • Constant scratching and licking at their skin or paws
  • Red, itchy, inflamed skin
  • Hives 
  • Hair loss or bald spots (especially around the face, neck, and feet)
  • Excessive licking of their feet, or between their toes
  • Hot spots (swollen patches of skin that are red, moist, and itchy)
  • Skin pimples
  • Signs of ear canal discomfort: scratching at the ears, or shaking of the head
  • Runny eyes and/or nose
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea after eating

Your vet will carry out a thorough investigation to get to the root cause of your pet's allergies. This usually includes:

  • Examining your pup for any physical signs (such as skin irritation or hair loss)
  • Taking a detailed medical history, including asking questions about diet, lifestyle and activities
  • Performing blood tests and/or skin tests to identify allergens
  • Performing a strict elimination food trial (feeding your pup limited ingredients and then reintroducing ingredients to see if any reactions occur)

Finding relief: Allergy management strategies for your dog

If your pup is diagnosed with allergies, then it’s important to work with your vet to come up with a plan for managing the symptoms. This could involve changing their diet (to avoid foods that trigger reactions) or prescribing medication such as antihistamines, antibiotics, antifungals, steroids, or medicated shampoos.

Severe cases may require more intensive treatment options, such as immunotherapy. Thankfully, as Dr Holland informs us, there are a lot of newer medication options out there with “fewer side effects than some of the traditional treatments. The specific medications prescribed will depend on how severe the discomfort is, any infections present, and other individual circumstances”.

Dr Holland reminds us that allergy management looks different for every case. For easily removed allergens, such as dietary proteins, management can be as simple as a diet change. Alternatively, allergens such as dust or pollen can be more challenging to manage.

Tips for reducing allergen exposure

  • Regularly groom your pup: Regular brushing and baths can help reduce the amount of allergens that cling to their fur.
  • Keep on top of fleas: Flea-related allergies can be particularly tricky to manage, so make sure you're using the appropriate flea control treatments. Even when the allergy isn’t flea-related, Dr Holland tells us that flea bites can make inflamed skin worse.
  • Dust and vacuum: If your home is cluttered with dust and other allergens, it’s going to be harder for your pup to avoid them. So keep their living areas as clean and as clear as possible.
  • Avoid potential triggers: If you know which environments or activities trigger your pup’s allergies then it can be helpful to keep them away from these. You may find that environmental allergens, such as pollen, are seasonal. This might mean avoiding certain areas of the park.
  • Monitor their environment: Keep a careful eye on your pet's environment, and check for sources of allergens, such as pollen, dust, etc. It is often helpful to keep a journal to record any triggers that you need to be aware of.

Knowing when to reach out: Signs it's time to contact a vet

Your vet should always be consulted with any signs or symptoms of allergies. Many of these symptoms could have other, more serious, underlying causes which should be ruled out before investigating allergies.

Dr Holland reminds us that it is not possible to “cure” allergies, but proper management can ensure your pet's health and well-being going forward. Allergy testing can also be a great option as it “helps to identify substances that the dog is allergic to, so these can be eliminated from the environment”.

While many allergic reactions range from mild to moderate, more severe cases can be a cause for emergency. If your pet is suffering from a severe allergic reaction, you should seek veterinary attention immediately. 

Relief for you and your fur-friend

With SPCA Pet Insurance, you could rest easy knowing you're covered for an unexpected trip to the vet. Not only will you be able to seek professional help promptly, but you'll also have the financial support to make the best choices for your pet's health.