Spend any amount of time in a veterinarian’s waiting room, and one sight will be sure to greet you on a consistent basis: a dog perched on his haunches, merrily scratching and chewing away while his frustrated owner tries to get it to stop. Allergies are one of the leading causes of visits to the veterinary office: They account for up to 25 percent of visits, according to some estimates. Allergic disease in dogs has three primary causes: fleas, food and the environment.
Any fleabite will itch, as you probably know if you have had to deal with them yourself. But many dogs have a true allergic reaction to flea saliva, which causes them to experience levels of itchiness disproportionate to the amount of fleas on their body. These dogs can be miserable with only one or two fleas on their body. This fools many people who assume that unless a dog is visibly infested, fleas couldn’t be the issue. Topical flea treatments — such as Advantage, FRONTLINE and Vectra — have been the main form of treatment for the past decade, but oral flea preventives — such as Comfortis — have been an additional help for pets who cannot tolerate the spot-on treatments.
Food allergies in dogs are sneaky. Often, they will manifest as a chronic ear infection, persistent red feet, or a low-grade itch that just won’t go away. For this reason, food allergies are often overlooked or confused with other problems. The only way to accurately diagnose a food allergy is to perform an elimination diet, when a dog is put on a prescription or homemade hypoallergenic diet for a period of eight to 12 weeks. Blood tests, although available at some veterinary offices, are not considered a reliable way to diagnose the allergy. Once the source of the allergy is pinpointed, dogs can be transitioned to a diet without the offending allergen.
Environmental allergies are the most common form of allergic disease in dogs. Like people, dogs can be allergic to a wide variety of irritants — from grass to pollen to mites. This can be diagnosed with blood tests or skin tests, or simply from a high index of suspicion on the part of the veterinarian. Lucky dogs respond to simple and inexpensive antihistamines, such as Benadryl. Severely affected dogs may require stronger prescription medications, such as steroids or Atopica. Because these suppress the immune system, it is vital for pets using these medications to be taken to the veterinarian for follow-up visits regularly. Another option for your dog is to get allergy shots at your veterinarian’s office. This is the same process used for people and has similar levels of efficacy as the drug regimen.
Allergic disease is a complex medical condition to manage. Dogs with any form of allergic disease often have a secondary bacterial or fungal infection, which may need treatment that is separate from the allergy medications. The earlier an allergic pet is diagnosed, the better chance one has to minimize frustration with this chronic disease. If you think you have an allergic pet, talk to your vet sooner rather than later!