The Pet Parent’s Guide to Dog Allergies (Part II): Environmental Allergies
If you read the first instalment of our dog allergies series, you’ll know there are three main types of allergies: environmental allergies (atopic dermatitis), food allergies (cutaneous adverse food reactions), and flea allergies (flea bite hypersensitivity).
In this second post, we’re talking about all things environmental allergies in dogs. We’ll cover what can trigger an allergic response, signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for, and what options you have as a pet parent to help your dog feel better (even when you’re not entirely sure what’s to blame).
Environmental allergies in dogs
Environmental allergies are one of the most common causes of inflamed and itchy skin and ears in dogs.
Known in the veterinary world as canine atopic dermatitis (CAD), the impact of environmental allergies on dogs depends on a range of factors. These include:
- Genetics. To an extent, your dog gets what their parents gave them. Their risk of developing CAD is dictated in large part by their genotype—50%, to be specific.
- Breed predisposition. Not that it makes us love them any less, but breeds like the pit bull, shih tzu, shiba inu, german shepherd, labrador retriever, golden retriever, boxer and West Highland white terrier are at higher risk of carrying genes that predispose dogs to environmental allergies.
- Skin barrier defects. Like ours, dogs’ skin has a natural microbiome made up of all kinds of microbes (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses) that live in and on the skin. Although this may sound gross, all of this genetic material is actually essential for happy, healthy skin. Environmental allergens like tree pollen or mold can disrupt the balance, altering or permanently damaging your dog’s skin barrier.
- Environment. Not surprisingly, one of the factors contributing to environmental allergies is the environment your dog has lived in or is currently living in. For example, urban living, spending puppyhood in a barn or shed, being adopted at an older age, or having high levels of smoke exposure may all be at play.
A note about food: Many dogs diagnosed with CAD will also have food allergies. (Talk about a tough break!) This opens up another can of worms when trying to beat the itch.
Signs and symptoms of dog allergies: Skin and ear problems
In our dog allergies basics post, we discussed which parts of a dog’s body tend to be most impacted by environmental, food, and flea allergies. To recap:
- Around the eyes
Just as important as keeping these risk areas on your radar is knowing what signs and symptoms to look for. Although these may change from dog to dog (and may in fact by the result of a different culprit or condition), the following are some of the most common telltale signs of an allergic reaction:
- Recurrent ear infections
- Chewing or licking feet
- Excessive itching, licking, rubbing or scratching
- Stinky skin or ears
- Hair loss
- Red patches, pimples, or spots on skin
- Crusty, thick patches of skin or scabs
- Flaky or scaly patches of skin
Unfortunately, CAD is not curable. However, there is plenty that can be done to minimize itchiness and suffering. Your dog may be suffering from CAD if:
- Signs appear before the age of 3
- Indoor living environment
- The Itch responds to glucocorticoid medications (prescribed by a vet)
- Pruritus without other dermal signs at onset
- Front feet affected
- Inner surface of ears (pinnae) are affected
- The edge or margins of the ears are unaffected
- Upper chest dermis is unaffected
If you’re ticking the boxes as you read this list, it’s time to talk to your vet. In fact, if you’ve checked off 5 of the above criteria, this can really help you and your vet differentiate the cause for the itch. This shifts to goal posts from trying to determine what’s going on with your dog to finding ways to help your dog feel more comfortable in their own skin.
Diagnosing environmental allergies in dogs
Once you’ve brought a list of signs and symptoms to your vet’s attention, your veterinary team will work alongside you to create an identification and management plan. We mentioned in our first dog allergy instalment that most veterinarians carry these plans out in steps based on your dog’s history and physical exam findings.
The first stop on this journey is to rule out major causes of itching that can closely mimic allergies—things like parasitic itching from fleas or other ectoparasites. Also on the hit list are secondary infections (commonly yeast or bacterial) and other underlying medical conditions that may be flaring up and triggering an immune response.
To do that, your veterinarian may recommend one or more of the following pain-free procedures:
- Cytology. A small sample of your dog’s fur or skin cells collected through a simple scrape. Sometimes vets may use a special scrape tape or Q-tips for sample collection.
- Fungal culture. Skin crusts or a small clump of your dog’s hair is placed in a container with a specific culture that can trigger fungal growth (if present). Quick and painless!
- Biopsy/histopathology. A larger or deeper section of the skin is sampled and sent to a lab for a veterinary pathologist to examine. Veterinary pathologists are specially trained to assess tissues and fluids, and while these samples may not lead to a CAD diagnosis, they’ve proven effective in ruling out allergy copycats.
- Bloodwork. Similar to biopsites, bloodwork is used more to detect similar or other medical conditions than to diagnose environmental allergies. It’s also a best practice to ensure your dog’s organs are in good working order before starting them on any new medications.
Because allergies (environmental and otherwise) are among the top reasons pet parents bring their dogs to the vet’s office, veterinarians are extremely well trained in diagnosis and management. In cases of severe or extreme skin issues, your dog may be referred to a veterinary dermatologist (a vet specialized in all things skin), but don’t worry—no matter who’s on your veterinary team, everyone is there to help you and your dog feel better.
Treating environmental allergies in dogs
Because CAD isn’t a curable disease, some pet parents assume their dog will struggle with itchiness for the rest of his or her life. Not the case! With a little patience, time, and teamwork, most dogs will find long-term, lasting itch relief.
Your dog’s treatment protocol will differ based on whether they’ve been diagnosed with acute (happens suddenly) or chronic (long-lasting) flare-ups, but there’s plenty of small changes you can make in yours and your dog’s lifestyle that can have a big impact:
Things you can do at home to help your dog’s allergies
- Keep your home as dust-free as possible (regular vacuuming, air filter replacement)
- Wipe your dog down with a cool, clean rag after they’ve been outdoors
- Bathe your dog more regularly (monthly or bi-weekly—follow your vet’s advice!) with vet-recommended shampoo and/or conditioner
- Book your dog in for regular grooming sessions
- Use vet-approved, dog-safe wipes and pads for high-exposure areas like their paws and muzzle
- Clean their ears regularly (weekly to bi-monthly—again, your vet will know best!) with a vet-grade ear cleanser
- Prevent your dog from self-harm via scratching or biting by outfitting them in booties, e-collars, or t-shirts as needed.
Things to chat to your vet about
- Effective and safe oral and/or topical supplements
- Therapeutic food options
- Prescription medications or treatments (antibiotics, antifungals, leave-on products, ectoparasite treatments)
- Medicated baths or showers
- Immunotherapy treatments
If you have a dog with suspected or confirmed allergies, we have good news: Waggle Mail dog subscription boxes are allergy-friendly! Based on the medical and other health information you share as part of your dog’s intake, we curate products that accommodate those needs and support a happy, healthy dog.
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Dr. C. Beck
Registered Veterinarian, Founder & CEO