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Dog allergies 101: How to spot and treat them

Crystal Lewis Brown

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Causes & Culture

Crystal Lewis Brown is a parent of two boys, a wife and lifelong writer. She is also SheKnows' director of editorial operations. You can also follow her on twitter at @c_lewisbrown

Your dog's scratching and chewing problem could signal a real health issue

A few weeks after I brought my adopted black lab home, I knew something was wrong. More often than not, she was scratching some part of her body. I knew she had allergies — her foster family told me they would give her a daily antihistamine — but I don't think I was quite prepared for actually treating it.

Thankfully, my pet had been allergy tested by her previous family, so I had an idea where to start. The problem was, she was allergic to virtually everything: grass, dust and storage mites, just to start. But is pricey allergy testing really your first step?

I reached out to Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, founder of Pawcurious and veterinary adviser to Pet360 and petMD, to get some tips on when dog owners should reach for veterinary help.

The three main types of allergies, she said, are environmental, flea and food.

The signs vary widely, but unlike human allergies, dog allergies tend to present with skin problems, no matter the cause. Some symptoms and signs are recurrent ear infections (who knew?), incessant licking of the forepaws or splotchy, red rashes. "Unfortunately," said Vogelsang, "all three of them kind of look the same from the outset."

Environmental allergies

The most common type of allergy among dogs is environmental, and most dogs show signs by the time they're 6 years old. Those allergens can be anything from grass to pollen to dust mite dander (sound familiar?). For environmental allergies, it's important to notice when the dog is exhibiting symptoms. Does it lick and chew at its paws after frolicking in the grass? Is its belly red after lying on the lawn? That could signal this type of allergy.

Flea allergies

Flea allergies are the second most common type of allergy, and Vogelsang says the easiest to treat. "I hope it's flea allergies. It's the one that's easiest to deal with." Dogs with a flea allergy — which is actually an allergy to the flea's saliva — will, well, "itch like crazy," Vogelsang says. But the itch will be severe all over, not just where the dog was bitten. Untreated, it can cause recurrent hot spots, infections and bald spots on a dog's rear end. (Tip: An itchy tail can signal a flea allergy.) This one, thankfully, is an easy fix. Be sure your pet stays up-to-date on flea-control medication.

Food allergies

Food allergies are actually the least common of all dog allergies, but Vogelsang cautions against confusing a food allergy with something else. "You can have an intolerance to food (but) that's not really an allergy." To determine whether your dog has a food allergy or intolerance, Vogelsang recommends an 8-12 week elimination diet.

Diagnosis and treatment

I'm going to be honest, having a dog with severe allergies is more than a one-visit process. You may go through various types of diagnostic tests and treatments before finding relief. Veterinarians approach diagnoses differently — some may recommend or prescribe antihistamines, allergy shots or other treatments to see if the symptoms subside before moving on to allergy testing, which can be costly. Skin testing, which can be used to confirm an environmental allergy, can be about $300, while the shots themselves are about $140. Blood testing can cost up to $300. That cost may not include exam fees or fees for sedation, which is typically necessary for a skin allergy test.

Some pet owners get frustrated with the process — and the expensive treatments. Vogelsang shares a story in which an owner came in to euthanize her dog because of her recurrent infections from a flea allergy. (It ends on a good note, though — Vogelsang adopted the dog herself). But I can say from experience that once you've found the right balance of treating the allergy and avoiding it, you and your dog will be much happier. If in doubt, reach out to your vet before your dog starts experiencing severe problems, which could include hot spots and secondary infections, which make diagnosis more difficult.

"Don't be scared to reach out," Vogelsang says. "We want your pet to get better; we've gotten really good at figuring things out."

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