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Allergies in Dogs and Puppies: Signs, Causes, and Treatment

6 min read

By James T

Dog allergies have the same causes as human allergies. They occur when your pet has an overly active immune system, which mistakes harmless environmental particles as disease-causing intruders. Thus, when your pet comes into contact with these substances, its immune system kicks in and an allergic reaction is the end result.

Just like people, dogs can be allergic to many different things. As such, veterinarians and pet guardians sometimes have to do some detective work to figure out exactly what is causing your pet’s discomfort. To that end, here’s a list of 12 essential facts that every pet owner should know.

1. Certain Foods can Trigger Allergic Reactions in Dogs

Like people, dogs can also be allergic to certain foods. However, it can take some legwork to figure out exactly what food causes your pet’s reaction, especially if you commonly feed your pet “people food” as a treat. However, it is important to remember that meats and other ingredients that are widely used in commercially prepared dog foods can also cause allergic reactions.

Foods known to cause allergic reactions in dogs include beef, chicken, eggs, fish, lamb, pork, rabbit, and soy. Dogs are often allergic to more than one type of food; in fact, it’s quite rare for a dog with food allergies to have problems with only one particular item.

2. Dogs Can be Allergic to a Long List of Substances

Some of the most common outdoor allergens known to trigger reactions in dogs include plant pollens (grass, trees, weeds) and fleas. Most allergy-causing irritants originate in indoor environments; this list includes dust and dust mites, mold, dander, cigarette smoke, feathers, fabrics, drugs and flea control products, artificial fragrances, household cleaning products, rubber, plastic, and some pet shampoos.

If you think your pet has allergies, make a mental note of when its symptoms occur. Does your dog have a reaction after outdoor play, or does it seem more likely that some aspect of the indoor environment is causing the irritation?

3. Many Dog Allergy Symptoms are Similar to Those Seen in Humans

Dogs with allergies frequently exhibit symptoms you’ll be familiar with if you’re allergic to something yourself: sneezing, watery eyes, and itchiness. The base of the tail is a frequent target for scratching, in cases where your dog’s allergies are caused by a flea infestation. Your dog may also develop slight swelling in its throat, which causes wheezing and snoring when your pet is asleep.

Canine-specific allergy symptoms include swollen paws, and your pet may constantly chew its paws or compulsively licks its legs or other body parts. Itchy ears can also occur, often leading to infections as a result of your pet scratching them.

4. Some Symptoms are More Serious Than Others

The hierarchy of pet allergy symptoms also includes some, more serious indicators. Many of these more serious symptoms are associated with food allergies, and include gastrointestinal disturbances such as diarrhea and vomiting. These symptoms are more serious because they can lead to dehydration if they are intense and linger for an extended period of time.

Keep in mind that all dog allergies, including food allergies, can appear at any time in pets of any age.

5. Can be a Root Cause of Other Common Dog Health Problems

In dogs, allergy symptoms can be non-specific, and if they are mild, you may not even notice them at all. However, they can be a causal factor in other common health problems that dogs experience, including issues like blepharitis and lick granuloma.

Blepharitis is a condition that causes swelling, itchiness, and inflammation of the eyelids and surrounding tissues. Lick granuloma occurs when your pet constantly licks a particular part of its body, usually the lower part of one leg. Over time, a lesion develops where the dog licks itself, which can become infected.

6. Certain Breeds Appear to be More Susceptible to Allergies

All breeds and dogs of all ages can get allergies. However, anecdotal evidence from veterinarians suggests that some breeds may be more susceptible to allergies than others. For example, skin diseases resulting from exposure to environmental allergens are more common in golden retrievers and German shepherds than other dog breeds. Many retriever breeds seem to be affected by allergies at higher-than-average rates; the same is true of bulldogs, pugs, setters, and terriers.

7. Let Your Vet do the Diagnostics

If you think your pet has allergies, or if it develops health conditions that might be related to allergies, your first step should be to make an appointment with your vet. During your visit, your vet will conduct a thorough physical examination of your dog, and will ask you detailed questions about your dog’s lifestyle, habits, and health history.

In some cases, your vet will be able to diagnose your dog’s allergy problem on the spot. This is more likely if your pet has obvious, active symptoms, and you can pinpoint a potential cause of them.

8. Diagnostic Techniques are Readily Available

If your vet can’t conclusively diagnose allergies after a physical examination, he or she may order one or more allergy tests. Dogs with skin-related allergy symptoms can undergo skin testing, which can be done by your vet, or by a type of animal medical specialist known as a veterinary dermatologist. Blood tests can also be performed to confirm the presence of allergies.

Food allergies are usually diagnosed with an elimination diet. This strategy looks at all the different types of food your dog eats, including treats and “people food.” One food is eliminated from the dog’s diet at a time, until the substance or substances that are causing the reaction can be identified.

9. Allergies Can be Treated With Medication

Many different medications can be used to treat your dog’s allergy symptoms, including antihistamines, corticosteroids, and cyclosporine. Histamines are the substances produced by your dog’s overly active immune system when your pet comes in contact with an allergen. Antihistamines for dogs function just like the over-the-counter drugs people buy to treat their own allergies, and they work by neutralizing histamine activity in the bloodstream.

Corticosteroids are injectable drugs used to reduce internal inflammation. They can be very effective, but they are not recommended for long-term use. Cyclosporine may be offered as an alternative to corticosteroids; this class of drugs often causes fewer side effects, but it is expensive and it can also cause stomach problems at the beginning of the treatment cycle.

10. Allergy Shots Can Help

Allergy vaccines may also be an option if your pet has particularly severe allergies, or if exposure to the allergen cannot be controlled. These vaccines are delivered as shots, and provide effective continuous long-term protection. Most last several months; some last for a year or more.

If frontline treatment efforts don’t appear to be helping your pet’s allergies, talk to your vet. Allergy vaccines may be an option, and they can bring about significant symptom improvements.

11. Natural and Holistic Therapies Can Also be Effective

You can try natural and holistic treatments as an alternative to prescription drugs, or as a supplementary part of your treatment strategy. Keep your pet’s bedding fresh and clean, keep any existing flea problems under control, and keep your home well-vacuumed, and free of dust and cigarette smoke.

Some skin-based allergy problems can also be treated with specialized pet shampoos and fur treatments. However, you should avoid bathing your dog with these products too often, as they can cause your pet’s skin to dry out.

12. Pay Attention to the Dog’s Environment

Some pet allergies are seasonal, and occur when certain trees, grass species, and weed species release their pollen. If your pet seems to have these types of allergies, temporarily reducing its outdoor activity can help. Keeping your windows closed can also improve things for your dog, as this will prevent airborne allergens from getting inside your home. Trying to rid your home of pet dander can be challenging, but it’s also one of the best ways to reduce allergy symptoms that affect your dog’s respiratory tract.

James T


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