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What is an allergy?
An allergy is a state of over-reactivity or hypersensitivity of the immune system to a particular substance called an allergen. Most allergens are proteins from plants, insects, animals, or foods.
Exposure to the allergen, usually on multiple occasions spanning months to years, sensitizes the immune system, and a subsequent exposure to the same or related allergen causes an over-reaction.
Normally the immune system protects the dog against infection and disease, but with allergies, the immune response can actually be harmful to the body.
Allergies may be thought of as an unnecessary normal immune response to a benign foreign substance.The immune reactions involved in allergies are quite complex.
Most reactions involve allergen protein molecules combining with antibodies in the blood, then attaching to a type of cell called a mast cell. Mast cells are found in many tissues throughout the body.
When the antigen and antibody react with mast cells, the mast cells release potent chemicals, such as histamines, that cause local inflammation such as redness, swelling, and itching. This inflammation causes the various signs associated with an allergic reaction.
What are the symptoms of allergies in dogs?
In the dog, the most common symptom associated with allergies is itching of the skin, either localized (in one area) or generalized (all over the body).
In some cases, the symptoms involve the respiratory system, with coughing, sneezing, and/or wheezing. Sometimes, there may be runny discharge from the eyes or nose. In other cases, the allergic symptoms affect the digestive system resulting in vomiting and diarrhea.
Can All Dogs Have Allergies?
Yes, every dog is unique and dogs can have allergies to a wide variety of things.
As the Baker Institute for Animal Health at Cornell University says, “Allergies are damaging responses by the immune system to environmental substances or by foods that are normally harmless.”
What Causes Allergies in Dogs?
Your dog may be exposed to the allergens through her food, insect bites, inhaling pollen or fungal spores, or even from brushing up against or lying down on a particular surface.
When your dog is exposed to an allergen, it triggers an immune response that leads to the release of histamines.
Histamines are naturally occurring chemicals in your body, but too many of them can cause your dog a lot of discomfort, including inflammation, itching, and swelling.
Depending on the source of the allergen and the severity and location of the response, the inflammation can cause a wide variety of symptoms in the affected dog.
Allergies can affect dogs of any age, breed, or mix. Some allergies are inherited, so allergies and other immune disorders in relatives are always a good thing to ask about when getting a puppy from a breeder.
Types of Allergies in Dogs
Allergies are a misguided reaction to foreign substances by the body’s immune system, which, of course, people and pets can suffer from. There are quite a few different types of allergies in dogs.
Skin allergies, food allergies, and environmental allergens all pose challenges for dogs and their owners, and to make things more complicated, the symptoms of all these different types of allergies can overlap.
Flea allergy dermatitis
Flea allergy dermatitis is an allergic reaction to fleabites.
Some dogs are allergic to flea saliva. This makes affected dogs extremely itchy, especially at the base of the tail, and their skin may become red, inflamed, and scabbed.
You may also notice signs of fleas, such as flea dirt, or even see the fleas themselves.
Food allergies and sensitivities can cause itchy skin, as well.
The most common places dogs with food allergies itch are their ears and their paws, and this may be accompanied by gastrointestinal symptoms.
Environmental allergens, such as dust, pollen, and mold, can cause an atopic allergic reactions or atopic dermatitis. In most cases, these allergies are seasonal, so you may only notice your dog itching during certain times of the year.
As with food allergies, the most commonly affected areas are the paws and ears (but also include the wrists, ankles, muzzle, underarms, groin, around the eyes, and in between the toes).
All skin allergies pose the risk of secondary infection. As your dog scratches, bites, and licks at his skin, he risks opening up his skin to yeast and bacterial infections that may require treatment.
True food allergies may not be as common as people think, according to AKC Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Jerry Klein.
True food allergies result in an immune response, which can range in symptoms from skin conditions (hives, facial swelling, itchiness), gastrointestinal signs (vomiting and/or diarrhea) or a combination of both.
In some rare cases, a severe reaction resulting in anaphylaxis can occur—similar to severe peanut allergies in humans
But what about all of those dogs that are on special hypoallergenic dog food diets?
What most people mean when they say that their dog has a food allergy is that their dog has a food sensitivity, also known as a food intolerance.
Food sensitivities, unlike true allergies, do not involve an immune response and are instead a gradual reaction to an offending ingredient in your dog’s food, for example to beef, chicken, eggs, corn, wheat, soy, or milk.
Dogs with food sensitivities can present with several symptoms, including gastrointestinal signs such as vomiting and diarrhea, or dermatologic signs like itchiness, poor skin and coat, and chronic ear or foot infections.
The best way to diagnose and treat a food allergy is to work with your veterinarian to manage your dog’s symptoms and discover the ingredient causing the reaction.
Acute Allergic Reactions
Perhaps the most alarming of all the types of allergies in dogs is an acute allergic reaction. Dogs, like people, can go into anaphylactic shock if they have a severe reaction to an allergen. This can be fatal if not treated.
Bee stings and vaccine reactions, among other things, can cause an anaphylactic response in some dogs, which is why it is always a good idea to keep a close eye on your dog following the administration of any new vaccine, drug, or food item. Luckily, anaphylactic reactions are rare in dogs.
Your dog may also develop hives or facial swelling in response to an allergen. Swelling of the face, throat, lips, eyelids, or earflaps may look serious, but is rarely fatal, and your veterinarian can treat it with an antihistamine.
Treating Dog Allergies
Dog allergies can be treated with standard allergy drugs. Your doctor might recommend:
- Antihistamines, which block the effects of a chemical that triggers dog allergy symptoms; they’re sold over the counter — like cetirizine (Zyrtec), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), fexofenadine (Allegra), and loratadine (Claritin) — or by prescription.
- Some antihistamines such as azelastine (Astelin) are available as nasal sprays.
- Decongestants, which reduce swelling in the nose and relieve congestion; examples are over-the-counter Sudafed and Allegra-D
- Nasal steroids, which are sprays that relieve allergy symptoms by calming inflammation, are a first-line treatment for allergies.
- Budesonide (Rhinocort Allergy), fluticasone (Flonase), and triamcinolone (Nasacort Allergy 24HR) sprays are available over-the-counter, while others are available by prescription.
Your Environment and Dog Allergies
Most allergists agree that although medication may help, the best way to control dog allergies is to avoid contact with dogs. Here are some tips:
- Keep your distance. Don’t touch, pet, or kiss a dog. As best you can, avoid going to homes with dogs. If you have to stay in a house with a dog, ask if it can be kept out of the room in which you’ll sleep for a few months before your arrival.
- Use your medicine. If you know that you’ll be coming into contact with a dog soon, start taking your medicine a few weeks ahead of time. By taking medication preventatively, you might stop an allergic reaction before it starts.
- Be wary of visitors who own dogs. Dog dander can cling to clothing and luggage. So even if your house guests leave their dogs at home, they can bring the dander with them — and that can cause you a lot of trouble.
Of course, some of the above advice won’t help that much if you already have a dog in your home. Even then, there are still things you can do:
- Clean fanatically. Dog dander can get everywhere. So you need to sweep and mop the floors, vacuum rugs, and clean furniture regularly. If possible, get a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Regular vacuum filters can’t catch the allergens and just send them back into the air.
- Make your home easier to clean. Pull up the carpet. Get rid of the rugs and drapes. Ditch the dusty, overstuffed furniture. Reducing the number of items that can catch dust and dander can help with your dog allergy symptoms.
- Filter the air. Central heat and air conditioning can push dog dander into every room in your house — even those that the dog isn’t allowed in. A central air cleaner — as well as filters on the vents themselves — can help.
- Keep the dog out of your bedroom. Since you spend a third of every day in the bedroom, it’s key to keep it as free of dog dander as possible. A closed door won’t completely seal out the allergens, but it will help.
- Don’t give the dog free rein. Protect yourself by making other areas of the house dog-free too. Depending on the climate and surroundings, you can also consider keeping the dog outside as much as possible.