Every year Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) publishes a list of the top 10 medical insurance claims made for dogs and cats during the previous year. Topping the list for the first time this year for dogs is allergic/atopic dermatitis, displacing the longstanding front-runner, ear infections.
I deal with allergic skin disease almost every day, but the spring and summer months are usually the worst times of year for canine allergy patients. There are multiple possible causes of itching in dogs, out of those, we can control two, diet and flea exposure. I am always happy to find fleas on an itchy dog because there are very good products that can control fleas and make the dog comfortable. It takes more work to diagnose and treat a dog with food allergies, but once you find the right mix of protein and carbohydrate source (usually fish or venison or rabbit and potato) management is simple- feed your dog the correct diet. Atopic dermatitis (AD) is allergies to things in the environment, such as; airborne pollens, molds and dust particles. AD is one of the most difficult diseases I treat, not only because diagnosing the actual cause is difficult, but there are multiple treatment options, and many owners have a difficult time doing everything recommended. Certain breeds including West Highland Terriers, Labs, Fox Terriers, German Shepherds, Poodles, Jack Russell Terriers, and Golden Retrievers are genetically predisposed to AD.
When diagnosing skin disease we often look at the pattern of itching/skin disease. If a dog is itching on the top of his back near the tail, that dog is flea allergic until proven otherwise. Even if we don’t see a flea, only one bite can cause an allergic dog to itch, and remember, if your dog has allergies, be happy, flea allergies are the easiest to treat! Food allergy and AD can have similar skin irritation patterns: feet/legs, the underside of the body, around eyes and lips, under the tail and ear infections.
So we’ve treated fleas and the dog is on a hypoallergenic diet and is still itching, what next? Diagnostically there are two options, either referral to a board certified dermatologist for intradermal skin testing, or a blood test that can be done by general practitioner vets to test for reactivity to common environmental allergens. Using these results from skin or blood testing, serum containing the allergens is injected regularly to decrease the dog’s sensitivity to the offending allergens. Most owners learn how to give these injections themselves.
In addition to allergy serum injections, there are many other treatments available, often used in combination to control symptoms. The mainstay treatment over the years has been corticosteroids. Response to corticosteroids is often very good, but long-term corticosteroids can be harmful. I often advise my clients to use corticosteroids as much as necessary, but as little as possible to control symptoms and maintain a good quality of life. I often use the term “roller coaster therapy” when describing corticosteroid therapy, where the dose may increase at certain times of the year and other times of the year not needed at all.
Ideally, we add other therapeutics to decrease the number of steroids used. These include antihistamines, fatty acid supplements, control of secondary skin infections and applying topical shampoos/cream rinses. Low dose cyclosporine therapy (Atopica) can replace or reduce corticosteroid therapy and has very few side effects to the dog. It is more expensive than corticosteroids, so there IS a side effect to your wallet. Cost aside, if a pet needs long-term corticosteroids, changing to Atopica can increase the quality and length of your dog’s life.
Lastly, controlling environmental allergen exposure can also decrease symptoms. I always joke with clients they can build a bubble for their dog to live in. Some realistic options are: use an air filtering/cleaning system in your home, washing the dog’s bedding frequently, avoiding or washing stuffed animals, keep the pet away from a freshly mowed lawn, minimize houseplants and remove your pet from the area when vacuuming.
For everyone out there with allergic dogs, hang in there, keep up the treatments and if you have any questions, feel free to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org, through our website wildernessvet.com or go to our Facebook page. Better yet, come to visit me at the Maple Valley Farmers Market, I’ll be there July 20 and August 3.