Common canine allergies that produce skin inflammation are typically flea, environmental (mold, pollen, grass) or food allergies. Telltale signs that a dog is suffering a skin allergy include:
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- Constant scratching and biting at “hot spots” (sometimes accompanied by sneezing, coughing and runny nose)
- Sores, scabs and eczema-like skin irritation
- Widespread hair loss
- Chronic ear infections
- Gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, irritable bowel syndrome)
Depending on what type of allergy is causing skin irritation, veterinarians usually prescribe antihistamines, hydrocortisone, cortisone or a combination of medications. Unfortunately, these drugs only treat the symptoms and not the source of the allergy–a poorly functioning immune system and GI tract. To avoid medicating their dogs with drugs that often cause unhealthy side effects, pet owners are now relying on supplementation with beneficial bacteria instead, a natural, healthier method of treating the root cause of painful, itchy skin inflammation.
Why Do Dogs Suffer Skin Allergies?
In both humans and dogs, allergy symptoms emerge when the immune system essentially attacks itself because it perceives something–food, living organisms or air particulates–as dangerous to the body. In an attempt to rid the body of a foreign substance that may or may not be harmful, the immune system initiates an inflammatory response that produces coughing, sneezing, rashes, vomiting and a host of other distressing symptoms.
Scientists aren’t sure why animals suffer allergies but think it may be related to faulty genetic coding that makes white blood cells (lymphocytes) unable to distinguish between non-threatening and threatening proteins, as in the case of food allergies.
Although hypersensitivity to mold and pollen is not well understood, either, veterinarians do know that if a dog suffers seasonal allergies, the immune cells immediately begin releasing protein antibodies that transport allergen molecules to mast (white blood) cells. Once mast cells encounter allergens, they release large amounts of histamines that induce those symptoms that make dogs miserable–itching, sneezing, skin rashes and hair loss.
Skin allergies may be exacerbated (or even initiated) if the dog’s digestive system is not functioning as it should be. Having a healthy GI tract is essential for dogs because this is where all food nutrients are absorbed and assimilated by the body. Undetected GI disorders can cause chronic mild dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, susceptibility to infections and interfere with the ability of the immune system to work properly.
Flea Bite Hypersensitivity
Symptoms of a skin allergy due to flea bites include:
- Extreme itching on the thighs and at the tail base (a flea allergy usually does not affect the front of the dog’s body or face)
- Constant chewing and biting (dogs with a flea bite allergy often become “frenzied” when bothered by acute itching and pain and may whirl around and around as they try to relieve the itching around their tail and on their thighs)
- Patchy hair loss that reveals inflamed, swelled and/or scabbed skin
- Bacterial infections caused by bacteria entering open sores
Of course, the presence of fleas is necessary to correctly diagnose a flea bite allergy. However, dogs that are hypersensitive to flea bites need only one flea bite to produce allergic symptoms.
Testing for flea bite hypersensitivity includes detection of fleas and a blood test that combines flea allergen with a sample of the dog’s blood. Another test involves injections of flea allergen samples under the dog’s skin and examining the immune system response to the allergen.
Treatment for canine skin allergies caused by flea bites includes:
- Eliminating and preventing fleas from biting the dog by using a flea shampoo and flea dip
- Trimming hair around “hot spots” to facilitate healing of dermatitis sores
- Applying a healing topical salve such as aloe vera or hydrocortisone cream to relieve pain and itching of skin irritation
Veterinarians may prescribe antihistamines for dogs if flea bite skin allergies do not improve within a few days following flea shampoo/dip treatment.
Canine Atopic Dermatitis
Dogs suffering seasonal allergies that produce skin irritations may be suffering from canine atopic dermatitis, or atopy. Allergens responsible for dog atopy include:
- Weed pollen (August to October)
- Tree pollen (late March to April)
- Grass pollen (May through early August)
Instead of suffering the runny noses, congestion and sneezing common to humans allergic to pollen, dogs present atopic symptoms through their skin. Severe itchiness attributed to atopic dermatitis typically affects their belly, armpits, face and feet. Some dogs may lick and bite their feet so much that the pads become inflamed and infected, making it difficult for the dog to walk without experiencing pain.
Certain dog breeds are also prone to suffering canine atopy:
- Bichon Frise
- English Bulldogs
- Cairn, White HIghland and Boston Terriers
- German Shephards
- Cocker Spaniels
In addition to skin irritation, open sores and scabs, dogs with atopy will sleep more, be less energetic and seem less interested in eating and drinking due to sinus congestion.
Veterinarians treat canine atopy with allergy shots that reduce the dog’s sensitivity to seasonal pollen by mediating the immune system response. However, allergy shots are not always 100 percent effective, especially in breeds susceptible to atopy. In these cases, vets may prescribe oral cortiscosteroids to reduce itching and skin inflammation.
Skin Allergies from Food
Proteins in non-meat food are primarily responsible for food allergies in dogs. Symptoms of a possible food allergy include:
- Non-seasonal skin itchiness and irritation
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Flatulence/loud gut sounds
- Fungal and/or bacterial skin infections
- Raised or swelled flat areas called plaques visible on skin
- Pustules or hives that seep
- Hair loss/sores
- Bark-like, leathery patches of skin
- Chronic ear infections
Diagnosing food-related skin allergies require a veterinarian perform several tests, such as an intradermal skin test (IST) or ELISA, a type of blood test that detects levels of antibodies in the blood.
Treat the Cause with Probiotics
Prescription medications and home remedies only provide temporary relief (if any) for dogs with skin problems due to allergies. What needs to be addressed is the health of the dog’s gastrointestinal system, where nearly 70 percent of a dog’s immune system is centralized.
Providing extensive support to the optimal functioning of a dog’s digestive system are certain beneficial bacteria necessary for preventing “bad” bacteria from proliferating. When an imbalance of “good” and “bad” bacteria exists in the canine intestines and stomach, dogs suffer can suffer from a wide variety of illnesses, from chronic ear infections and accelerated tooth decay to irritable bowel syndrome and painful skin allergies.
Probiotics offer effective, gentle relief for dogs suffering skin allergies by restoring balance to bacteria levels in the GI tract which can directly and significantly improve immune system functioning. Containing none of the harsh, synthetic chemicals found in prescription medications, probiotics eliminate allergies by improving the health of the GI tract with the natural, fresh bacteria needed to maintain a dog’s overall good health and well-being.
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Disclaimer: the advice and information in this article is not intended to be used as a replacement for seeking medical attention if your dog has skin allergies or other health issues.