Skin allergies in dogs: symptoms, causes and treatments

Everything you need to know about spotting a canine skin allergy, and how to help manage this common condition.

Skin allergies in dogs are fairly common, and can make our beloved pets feel pretty uncomfortable. The good news is that with a little detective work, the root cause of the allergy can usually be found, and your vet can help recommend the right treatments to help your dog.  

Skin allergies in dogs can occur when your dog comes into contact with any substance they’re allergic to. As allergens are inhaled, eaten or absorbed through the skin, your dog’s body reacts by releasing histamines. This causes inflammation and irritation, which then triggers many of the symptoms linked to skin allergies.

Common causes of skin allergies in dogs

Most canine skin allergies are associated with proteins from insects, plants or animals – read on for some of the major culprits.

Airborne allergies

These can include seasonal allergens, such as pollen, as well as other hazards like house dust mites or mould that might be present all year round. As your dog inhales these airborne allergens, they can develop some of the symptoms listed below. Dogs that are allergic to airborne allergens may also show allergies to food and flea bites.

Certain breeds, including Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Boxers, are more prone to developing a sensitivity to airborne allergens. Dogs usually start to show these sensitivities when they’re between six months and three years old.

Flea allergy dermatitis

Hypersensitivity to the antigens found in flea saliva is a very common reason for allergic reactions in dogs – and another reason to keep on top of flea treatments. The symptoms may be worse in the summer, when there are usually more canine parasites around. This type of allergy doesn’t usually develop until a dog is at least one year old.

Contact dermatitis in dogs

Contact dermatitis happens when a dog comes into contact with something that irritates their skin. This can include ingredients in shampoos or flea collars, in addition to household substances such as cleaning sprays or even grass. 

Food allergies

Many dogs may show signs of intolerance and sensitivity to certain foods, but for this to be considered a genuine allergic response, there has to be a response from their immune system. Certain breeds, including Labradors and West Highland White Terriers, are at a higher risk of developing food allergies.

The most common ingredients that trigger canine food allergies include chicken, beef, corn, eggs, soya, wheat and milk.

The key signs of skin allergies generally manifest as an ‘ears and rears, feet and face’ pattern but can also include:

  • Itchy skin and excessive scratching
  • Overgrooming
  • Redness or a rash
  • Secondary skin and ear infections
  • Weepy eyes
  • Hot spots (acute moist dermatitis)
  • Thickened or dark skin
  • Hair loss (alopecia)

If you think your dog might have an allergy or other skin condition, it’s important to get them checked out by your vet. Don’t try to treat it yourself, or assume the problem will clear up on its own.

Treatments for dog skin allergies 

Diagnosing skin allergies is tricky – but possible. Sometimes your dog’s symptoms may not be due to a genuine allergy, but irritation from mites and fleas. Think about whether their symptoms flare up at a certain time of year, or when you switched their food.

Deciding how to treat dog skin allergies will depend on their individual triggers and symptoms – we’ve outlined some of the most common options below.  

Airborne allergens

These can be difficult to avoid, but allergy testing can help identify which substances in your dog’s environment are triggering a reaction. Avoiding exposure to the allergen can help, but if this isn’t possible, controlling your dog’s itching by regular bathing with a medicated shampoo can help. 

Immunotherapy may also be offered for certain skin allergies in dogs. This means your dog will be given a custom-made vaccine containing specific allergens. The treatment is usually given monthly and your vet will be able to advise if this option will be suitable for your dog's specific circumstances. 

Flea allergy dermatitis

Treatment for flea allergy dermatitis involves carrying out regular preventative flea treatments for your dog and your home. Once fleas have been eliminated, symptoms should clear up. Your vet may also recommend supportive care to soothe your dog’s irritated skin. 

Contact dermatitis

Once the allergen has been identified, reducing or completely preventing any exposure will help to ease symptoms. If exposure can’t be limited, your vet may speak to you about options like immunotherapy, medicated shampoos or a short course of anti-itch medications, of which there are several. 

Food allergies

For food allergies, many dogs respond well to a limited-ingredient diet. This involves feeding your dog ‘novel’ ingredients that they haven’t eaten before. Once the allergen has been eliminated, symptoms should gradually reduce. Your vet can help develop a specific diet plan for your dog. Prescription diets using hydrolysed proteins can also offer a solution for dogs with food allergies.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore skin problems in your dog. Allergies can make them very uncomfortable, and often lead to even itchier secondary bacterial and yeast infections if left untreated. Once diagnosed, most allergies can be successfully managed, although you’ll probably need to continue treatment for the rest of your dog’s life.

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