It’s a lovely spring or summer day, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and the flowers are in full bloom. What could be better? ... The serenity is suddenly interrupted by the dull “thud”, “thud”, “thud” of your dog’s leg hammering away at that reoccurring itch, and the constant slurping as they give their paws the go over repeatedly like it’s their favourite popsicle. Unfortunately, it’s not all sweet smelling roses at this time of the year for pets who suffer with the allergic symptoms of atopic dermatitis (also known as atopy, dog allergies, or airborne allergies).
Atopy causes these symptoms of intense itchiness by a systemic reaction to inhaled airborne pollens, dust, mould, and other particles. Direct skin contact with allergens can also contribute to the problem.
Here are some of the signs that may indicate allergies could be a problem for your dog:
- The first itchy episodes started between 1 and 3 years of age (in 70% of dogs diagnosed with atopy).
- The itch reoccurs each year during spring and/or summer and, in a lot of cases, seems to settle in winter.
- The most common area of itchiness is the front feet (in 80% of dogs diagnosed with atopy).
- Other itchy areas can include: around the eyes, ears, mouth, belly, paws and anal area.
- Your dog regularly gets ear infections around this time of year as well.
- The itch responds quickly to steroid or cortisone based medications.
- They react to intradermal allergy testing.
Figure 1 & 2: The classic distribution pattern for itchy areas of atopic dogs.
Unfortunately, there is currently no miracle cure for atopic allergies in dogs, and frustratingly this means it often involves lifelong management each year for the allergy symptoms, involving one or more of the treatments below.
i) Hyposensitisation Injections
If your pet is insured against skin disease, or the cost is not prohibitive to you (normally a few thousand dollars at a specialist centre), we recommend pursuing intradermal testing for your pet. Testing involves injecting small amount of a wide panel of common allergens under your pet’s skin to work out what may be causing them to react.
Figure 3. Intradermal dog allergy testing for itchy areas of atopic dogs.
Once the main offenders are identified, low doses of these allergens are formulated into injections which are repeatedly given to your pet to try and help their system develop a tolerance for that substance.
Hyposensitisation injections represent a drug free way of dealing with atopy and therefore side effects are rare. However, not all dogs will respond and respond completely. Approximately 25% of atopic dogs will not respond to hyposensitisation, and 25% will also require steroids or cortisone occasionally during bad flare ups.
ii) Steroids / Cortisone Medication
No, we aren’t talking about the bodybuilding steroids here; these are corticosteroids, which basically help suppress the immune system from over reacting to an allergen. They are by far the cheapest and most effective treatment for atopic dogs. The only down side is that they have the potential to cause a wide range of side effects if given at high doses or repeatedly long term. Some possible side effects include:
- Excessive thirst
- Excessive hunger
- Excessive urination
- Suppression of the immune system to other diseases, and the potential to bring out latent infections (especially urinary or respiratory tract infections)
- Increased blood sugar
- Premature aging
- Potential to negatively affect the liver and kidneys
For short term treatment, steroids definitely have their place to bring intense itching under control quickly, and if used at low doses have a relatively low potential for negative side effects. However, I would advise that if your pet needs corticosteroids either at high doses, or for more than 4 months out of the year, each year, that you need to be looking for alternative options.
iii) Cyclosporine (Atopica for dogs)
Cyclosporine, or Atopica for dogs, is a drug that modulates the immune system, and has been used in humans to help with preventing rejection of organ transplants. It can be as effective as steroids in a lot of dogs, and without most of the side effects. The only problem is that it is often prohibitively expensive, unless you have pet insurance that will cover it.
There is hope on the horizon, in the form of a new drug called Apoquel. Apoquel has recently undergone trials in Australia and by all reports is set to be released here in mid-2015. Apoquel provides fast relief without the extensive side effect profile of steroids. It is also claimed that it has the unique ability to target the skin itchiness, without negatively impacting the immune systems other normal functions. The good news is also that the price, although yet to be confirmed, is said to be a lot more affordable than cyclosporine.
Antihistamines are far safer in terms of side effect profile than steroids, however only 10-20% of atopic dogs will respond to any given antihistamine. Sometimes it is worth cycling through different antihistamines sequentially to see if one can be found to be effective in your pet, but the response is very individual, and there is no one particular antihistamine which is best for all dogs.
vi) Omega 3 Fatty Acids
There are many supplements containing these essential oils which are designed to interrupt inflammatory chemicals in the skin. They are often a useful additive to an atopic pet’s diet to help reduce the amount of medication required to get itchiness under control. Beware that it usually takes a good 6 weeks or more for the essential oils to build up enough in the skin to see a noticeable difference. One of our most popular products for this purpose at the moment is a WA made product called Omega Magic, which is available in our pet store.
vii) Shampoos & Conditioners
As mentioned before, atopy in dogs is caused by both inhaled allergens, as well as through direct contact with allergens on the skin, so regular bathing is very useful. Also, healthy skin is a much better barrier to allergens than dry, cracked, flaky skin. So if your pet has airborne allergies, one of the best things you can do is to take care of their coat with a good quality shampoo and conditioner.
The conditioner is the crucial step which is often missed by a lot of pet owners. A leave in conditioner is best as it will restore moisture as well as act as a temporary barrier to allergens.
The products I most often recommend for atopic dogs are Aloveen shampoo AND Aloveen leave-in conditioner. These products contain soothing oatmeal and aloe vera. But definitely get the leave in conditioner as well!
viii) Reducing allergen contact
Since offending allergens are distributed through the air and inhaled by your pet, other ways of minimising your dog's allergy symptoms are some environmental controls such as:
- Use an air purifier
- Clean pet bedding and toys regularly
- Avoid giving your pets stuffed toys that can accumulate dust
- Keep your pet separate when you mow the lawn or vacuum or dust the house
- Minimise plants and flowers inside the house
If you live in Carnarvon or the surrounding Gascoyne region, and your pet develops an itch this season, be sure to contact us here at Carnarvon Vet Hospital and we will be happy to help you with this often frustrating condition.