Canine allergies: Art or science? |

Canine allergies: Art or science?

Stephen Sheldon
Vail, CO Colorado

Just like humans, dogs suffer from allergies too. In fact, researchers estimate about one in five dogs in the U.S. have some type of allergy.

Colorado certainly has a higher than national average of allergic dogs. Managing and diagnosing allergies ” atopic dermatitis as one disease is officially called ” is often difficult and frustrating. Thus many experts call it more of an art than a science.

Some breeds in which the allergy is more common as terriers, Dalmatians, Lhasa apsos, and golden retrievers. Atopy appears to affect male and female dogs equally. Symptoms usually begin in dogs between the ages of 9 months to 3 years.

Allergic reactions are biologically the same in pets as in humans, but the outward symptoms are remarkably different. People sneeze, wheeze, cough, have watery eyes, and runny, itchy noses. Pets on the other hand have skin reactions with intense itching.

Other clues in animals are feet licking, paw chewing, face rubbing, and red, irritated ears. Occasionally a pet will vomit or have diarrhea from a food allergy.

Diagnosing allergies can be difficult. What some owners consider normal activity ” scratching ears and licking feet ” may be the first signs of allergies. Other causes of itching need to be ruled out and can include flea allergies, scabies and mange, food allergies, ringworm, and skin infections.

A more specific diagnosis can be obtained by allergy testing. There are two methods of allergy testing, intradermal skin testing and blood testing. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

For years the intradermal skin test was the standard (and only) method to check for atopy. It is more difficult, requiring the pet be sedated while a large area of skin is clipped and 30 to 40 different allergens are injected. A pet also cannot take any drugs for at least two weeks prior to testing ” this can be quite difficult for a very itchy pet.

Unfortunately, intradermal skin testing can sometimes fail to identify some atopic dogs, and occasionally has false positive results in some dogs without atopy.

Blood tests are quiet easy and have some advantages over intradermal skin testing. First, they are very simple to run ” your veterinarian will draw some blood and send it to a lab. In as little as seven days he or she will have an answer.

An in-house test available to veterinarians acts as a mini-screen for fleas, molds, pollens and dust mites and can immediately identify highly allergic pets. Second, there is no risk or discomfort to the patient. And thirdly, drugs do not appear to interfere with the results.

If the pet is allergic, there is no magic bullet to cure the condition and your veterinarian should explain all the treatments and the goals. Sometimes the pet will get a series of injections, but proper diet also is important ” look for the following ingredients: fish, lamb, rice, chicken, venison and potatoes.

Fatty acid supplementation is also important and antihistamines can provide relief from itching, but it can take time to find out which one works. Topical shampoos, rinses, and sprays are also very helpful.

Antibiotics are necessary if there is a concurrent skin infection. Finally, there are corticosteroids. Used properly they are very effective and safe ” often times they are the only drug that will provide relief.

Stephen Sheldon, DVM practices at and owns Gypsum Animal Hospital in Gypsum. Dr. Sheldon welcomes your questions; he can be reached at 970-524-3647 or

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