I think the most common question I’m getting lately is about itching dogs, which typically takes the form of licking. I understand because I am starting to get sneezy in the morning. Of course in the time of COVID that induces a little bit of panic. However, the same thing is happening to me and our dog patients... allergies. I know as soon as I start feeling these changes that my appointments will fill up with itchy dogs. It’s our second high-test-allergy season and our dogs especially are feeling it.
Allergies present in pets differently than in people, so we must be aware to watch out for things. The most common signs of allergies in our pets are licking, chewing, itching, and hair loss. These certainly aren’t the signs that I am having with my contacts (thankfully), but human red runny eyes equate to dog itchy skin. We also do see red, running eyes but the itching is the most common sign.
Pets can be allergic to many things, but the most common are environmental allergens. This means grass, trees, and flower pollens. Right now, ragweed and goldenrod are just starting to come into their own. Dogs more commonly have environmental allergies compared to cats. They start as licking or chewing their feet. Often you will see the hair turning dark brown/rust colored between their toes from saliva, even if you don’t see them doing it. They will also lick and scratch their armpits, bellies, and sides.
There are two things (pet-related) that can wake me out of a dead sleep. The retching before vomiting (my cat almost threw up on me the other night but thankfully I woke up to move her) and itching/licking by my dog. Many people notice their dogs itching because it keeps them up at night. When the day finally quiets down and everyone goes to bed, dogs have nothing better to think about than their itchy skin. While they aren’t itchier at night, they simply aren’t as occupied with distractions, and neither are you.
You may notice hair loss, brown staining to the hair between toes, red or scaly skin spots, or little cuts. People often think the brown discoloration means yeast, but it is actually from a chemical in the saliva. That isn’t to say that yeast isn’t present though. As pets itch they break the normal skin barrier. This allows bacteria and yeast to move in, which creates skin infections and even more itching. All infections should be treated, but it is also important to break the itch cycle so the skin can heal. Allergies can also lead to more issues with ear infections.
We always scrape the skin to look for bacteria type and amount, yeast, or any mites. Each of these is treated differently and looking for them is very important. Of course, fleas are a top cause of allergies, especially in the fall, and the easiest thing to treat. Fleas should always be treated first, and ideally, pets are on prevention to avoid fleas. In some pets, one flea bite can start a cycle of itching that takes plenty of time and medication to resolve. These pets are allergic to flea saliva.
There are new medications to help treat itch that don’t have the adrenal side effects of steroids. All medications do have side effects, so determining the best course for each individual case is important. There are medications that work long and short term, and sometimes steroids are needed for break-through itching. We always recommend steroids in pill form, as the injections often last longer in the body than they help the itching. This means that they get higher and higher doses to help with the itch, but their blood levels may be high enough to cause serious side effects. These are the pets that are more at risk for adrenal disease, heart disease, and diabetes.
While shots are easier for owners, oral dosing ensures that we have tighter control over blood levels. Antihistamines are another good option for lower grade itching, but should always be dosed by your veterinarian. We do have an allergy shot that can help dogs with signs of allergies. These are new in the past couple of years and can make a big difference in comfort.
Allergy testing is the next step if allergies last more than one allergy season. Dermatologists often do intradermal testing, which means they put the allergen into the skin and measure reactions, just like in people. There is also a blood test you can do at your own veterinarian. After we find out what your pet is allergic to, we can start allergy injections. This is a mix of all of their allergens in a shot form. The shots start out with a very low concentration and get higher over time until they reach a maintenance level. The goal of these is to acclimate their body to small amounts of an allergen so they react less when they are exposed in nature. We typically see a big reduction in itching and skin problems with the injections.
There are several options to treat allergies, but the most important thing for your pet is that you do treat them. It can help your veterinarian if you have a journal with when the itching started and how often it occurs. Make sure not to wait until your pet is itching themselves raw to seek intervention. It is always simpler to treat before we have secondary infections present.