Allergies can be one of the most frustrating problems for dogs, their owners, and their veterinarians. Whether it’s a little foot licking, ear infections, or severe hair loss and secondary infections, many dog’s lives are made miserable by this all-too-common problem. Most veterinarians try to think of allergies as having three separate causes: parasites, specifically fleas; food; and the surrounding environment, both indoors and outdoors. In the past, a lot of treatments we have used have been either ineffective, inconvenient, or cause side effects that are often intolerable for dog and owner alike. Fortunately, there are some new treatments we can add to our traditional arsenal used for combating the “the itch.”
Flea allergies are still all too common. The introduction of topical flea medications has given many pets relief, but recently these medications have become less effective. There are some new, very effective oral products available to kill fleas given either once a month or even once every three months, and any dog with any type of allergy should always be on flea-control protocol. Now you don’t have to worry about that greasy spot that topical medications leave on your dog and rubs off on furniture, or more importantly, on your kids. These oral medications also eliminate the need to time your dog’s bath just right. It is important to remember, however, that even if you kill the fleas, if the dog is truly allergic, he may continue to itch, and additional allergy medications are often required. Talking to you veterinarian about new advanced flea products could be a saving grace for the whole household.
Food is often blamed for dogs’ allergies, although interestingly enough, some veterinary dermatologists think that only about 5 to 10 percent of allergic dogs are truly food allergic. Traditionally, diets for food allergies were based on novel proteins, i.e., one’s dogs have not been exposed to before, such as venison, rabbit, or even kangaroo. These days most veterinarians are going to prescribe one of these newer hydrolyzed protein diets. These diets contain the proteins that induce allergies to be broken down into small pieces so that the body cannot react to them. Diagnosing food allergies can be difficult since most dogs need to be on a new diet, and nothing else, for up to 6 to 8 weeks to see if they really work. There is a difference between prescription diets and over the counter diets as well, so discuss with your vet whether your dog would be a good candidate for a food trial.
Allergies that are the most difficult to treat are ones that are environmental. The scientific word for this type of allergy is atopy. For severely allergic dogs, traditional treatments have either been ineffective (antihistamines) or have come with a plethora of side effects (steroids). Although these treatments can still be effective for mild cases or for short-term use, there are some revolutionary new treatments now available to veterinarians and their patients. A newer drug approach is to target the enzymes in the body that activate the itch receptors alone, without activating other hormones in the body, thereby eliminating side effects. Your veterinarian now has medications (Apoquel is one, for instance) that will do exactly that. There is also an injectable medication (such as Cytopoint) that uses new monoclonal antibody therapy to target and block specific molecules that activate itching. This shot can be given every 4 to 8 weeks as needed and has been shown to be very safe. This is my new favorite allergy medication.
Your veterinarian can test for what your dog is allergic to, whether it’s grass, trees, dust mites, or even you. Blood or skin tests can be analyzed at specialized laboratories and then shots (or drops to put under the tongue) can be created specifically for your dog to help desensitize the allergic response. This is the closest we come to “curing” allergies verses just treating them.
Even with all these impressive new medications, some things stay the same in the treatment of the itchy dog. Whether for comfort, to wash the allergens from the coat, or to treat secondary bacterial and yeast infections, veterinarians can provide many great, specialized choices on the right shampoo for your dog. We also may need to prescribe antibiotics or oral yeast medications to help treat the infections that take advantage once the skin’s natural defenses are broken down. There is an option of a two-week antibiotic shot that limits the number of pills you must force down your pooch. With the addition of Omega 3 fatty acids in the form of fish oils and the right diet, today’s veterinarians should be able to tailor a plan that is specific to your individual canine friend. Sometimes there is trial and error, and not everything works the same way for every dog. I always appreciate the trust, support, and patience from my clients as I try to treat their companions. So, if your dog is miserable from licking and scratching, make an appointment to see your favorite vet. There may be some new ways we can help. It’s always a team effort to stop “the itch.”
James Pogrel, D.V.M., is a 1998 graduate of the Veterinary School at the University of California, Davis. He completed an internship in small animal medicine in 1999 and has been practicing at since its inception in 2000. His special interests are ultrasound, endoscopy, laparoscopy, internal medicine, oncology, and emergency/critical care. He enjoys scuba diving, hiking, eating out in the Bay Area, and trying to keep up with his kids. His family includes two sons, two dogs, and two cats.
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