Spring in Florida is full of sun and beautiful, warm weather. It’s the perfect season to be outside. Unfortunately, it’s also the perfect season for allergen-producing foliage and pollens. Florida’s allergy season is longer and stronger than most of the United States. So, as we are all wheezing, sneezing and sniffling, dogs are scratching, licking and chewing at their skin.
Allergies in animals is termed Atopic Dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis is an inflammatory skin disease brought on by normally harmless substances like grass, mold spores, house dust mites and other environmental allergens. Dogs normally show signs of the disease between 6 months and 6 years of age, though atopic dermatitis can be so mild the first year that it is not clinically apparent. Often symptoms associated with atopic dermatitis are more apparent during certain seasons of the year but can progressively worsen with time and end up being year round. The most commonly affected areas on a dog include ears, face (particularly around the eyes), paws, underarms, and groin.
Serologic allergy testing may be performed by taking a blood sample to see what specific allergens are leading to the itch. The blood is tested for the presence of IgE antibodies against specific allergens. If it contains a high number of these IgE antibodies, an allergy is presumed to exist. Intradermal testing, whereby small amounts of test allergens are injected in the skin and wheal (a red bump) response is measured, may also be used to identify the specific allergen. This type of testing is more commonly performed at specialty dermatology veterinary hospitals.
Once specific allergens have been determined, it may be possible to desensitize the pet to these offending allergens. A specific allergy serum is produced according to the results of the allergy tests and is either given in a series of shots or as a liquid preparation under the tongue. The principle behind desensitization or hyposensitization is that the controlled amounts of offending allergens will “reprogram” the pet’s immune system and lessen its clinical response to that allergen. For about half of the treated pets, hyposensitization will result in significantly reduced itching and secondary skin disease.
If allergy testing and hyposensitization cannot be performed or does not improve the pet, then anti-inflammatory drugs including corticosteroids and antihistamines will often bring relief from itching. An oral form of the drug cyclosporine can also aid in decreasing the itch. In addition, certain omega 3 fatty acids (or fish oils) and prescription diets may provide some relief for many pets with allergic skin disease. Antibiotics may also be required as secondary bacterial skin infection is often noted in pets that are constantly licking, chewing, scratching. Unfortunately, these products treat only the clinical signs, not the underlying allergy.
75% of my patients are dealing with atopic dermatitis; some with just a mild itch and others with hair loss, ear infections, and crusts all over the skin. Allergies can make your pet miserable. As with us, pets have to live with allergies and will never be 100% cured but lots can be done to help improve their quality of life. Please be sure to see a Veterinarian to discuss your options if your pet has itchy skin.