When spring arrives, many of us humans are reaching for the tissues and allergy meds. Turns out our dogs may be suffering, too. Instead of respiratory symptoms, most dogs with seasonal allergies have dermatological reactions — irritated skin, ear or paw infections and a tendency to lick, bite or scratch the affected areas.
In fact, skin allergies are the top reason dogs require medical treatment, veterinarians report. While many of those reactions start out seasonal, without treatment, the allergies and the problems they cause can last all year long.
That’s what happened with Henri, a 7-year-old French bulldog who lives with Nori and Lori Morimoto in St.Petersburg, Fla. When Henri was a little more than a year old, the couple noticed welts in his armpits and on his paws. Some became so inflamed they bled. “It was horrible,” Lori recalls.
They took Henri to the vet, and he was prescribed oral medications. In the short term, the prescriptions helped, but “we were in and out of there all the time,” Lori says. “We’d start (the medication), and it’d get under control … come off of it, and it’d start up again. It was just a vicious cycle.” They were referred to a veterinary dermatologist who administered an allergy test to pinpoint Henri’s allergies.
In addition to seasonal pollens, he was reacting to human dander and horsehair (difficult to avoid, as the Morimotos live on a horse farm). With that knowledge, the veterinarian developed a shot for Henri that the Morimotos give him every five days, and he gets another injection at the dermatologist’s office every six weeks. A potato and whitefish-based diet, an antihistamine and oral medication to minimize itching are now part of his daily routine, and the Morimotos treat him with baths and a topical spray when he has flare-ups.
Challenging to Diagnose, Treat
If all that sounds like a lot of work, it’s because allergies in pets are a bit trickier to treat than they are in humans, says Dr. Chris Cook, a veterinarian specializing in dermatology at several BluePearl pet hospitals in Michigan. While dogs are allergic to most of the same things we are, the ways they’re exposed to the allergens are different, he says. For the most part, we breathe in our allergens, which means air filters and deep cleaning can make a big difference. Dogs, however, pick up allergens through their skin.
“That’s their world. They’re living in the biggest concentration of allergens — on the floor or outside on the grass — and they’re walking on it and lying on it all day long,” Cook says. “So I think because of that, it’s a different presentation and probably why it seems to be a lot harder to control in many cases than with people.”
He adds that typically, at an initial appointment for allergy symptoms, a veterinarian will first rule out other causes of itchy skin, such as fleas, infection and food allergies. If seasonal allergies are diagnosed, and shortterm solutions like antihistamines, immunosuppressants and topical remedies aren’t working, the next step is an allergy vaccine. “What you’re doing with a vaccine is you’re trying to retrain the body in essence to learn to not be allergic to these substances,” he says. “You’re retraining the immune system to react to them in a nonallergic way.”
When to Seek Treatment
Even if a dog only suffers for part of the year, you don’t want to wait it out, Cook stresses. Left untreated, a small allergy problem can become more serious. “Once you make that diagnosis, this is a lifelong condition,” he says. “You’re going to be talking about management with something for the rest of that animal’s life. It’s very unlikely that the dog’s going to outgrow those allergies down the road.”
The good news is that with professional help, seasonal allergies can be managed, making everyone happier. It’s certainly worked for Henri. “He is a completely different dog,” Lori says. “He looks beautiful … he’s much more comfortable. You can tell he’s a lot happier dog; he has a little more spunk in his step than when he was sick.”