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Itchy and Scratchy: All about Canine Atopy

Spring has sprung and summer is right around the corner. With the changing of the seasons comes one of the most common complaints veterinarians hear from clients: “Fluffy scratches and itches 24 hours a day!”

When the California poppies and cherry trees bloom, the air becomes flush with pollen and other allergens that can make your pet miserably itchy. Canine allergic dermatitis, or atopy, is extremely common, affecting up to 15% of the pet population. In additional to pollen, dogs can be allergic to many things that people commonly react to as well, such as dust mites, wool, and even cats. Combine that with the extended growing season of the Bay Area, which allows pollen-producing plants to flourish, and you wind up with a medical condition that can require year-round management.

Dogs typically do not suffer from the same allergy symptoms as people – such as sneezing, watery eyes, and sinus trouble – they develop itchy, inflamed skin. What you’ll see is a dog that licks, chews, or scratches at his feet, muzzle, armpits, and ears. You may also observe him rubbing his face on the carpet or furniture, or shaking his head, and scratching at his ears. In some allergy cases, pets may exhibit dramatic reverse sneezing as shown in this video: youtube.com/watch?v=U3L4v0W2_Sw.

Certain breeds (e.g., French bulldogs, Golden Retrievers, West Highland White Terriers, Shih Tzus, Cocker Spaniels) are more prone to allergies than others. Diagnosis of atopy can usually be made based on seasonality and the dog owner’s description of signs. Before beginning therapy, however, it is important for your veterinarian to rule out other common causes of itchiness, which can include fleas, food allergies, and fungal or bacterial skin diseases.

Treatment is most often aimed at controlling the signs of atopy, because avoiding common allergens (e.g., tree pollen, grass, dust mites) is impractical. While any single treatment is unlikely to be effective on its own, a multimodal approach can work.

Over-the-counter antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and loratadine (Claritin), as well as omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, have been shown to reduce symptoms when given routinely. Consult your family’s veterinarian for recommended doses.
Additionally, weekly laundering of pet beds and soft toys, weekly bathing, and thorough vacuuming can help reduce the allergen burden in your home.

These strategies are helpful, but are often not sufficient to control your pet’s itching and scratching in the height of pollen season. When necessary, your veterinarian may prescribe oral medications such as steroids (prednisone or methylprednisolone), immunosuppressants, or occasionally antibiotics if a secondary skin infection is present. A medication called Apoquel (oclacitinib), released to the market this year, has proven to be very effective and promising in the treatment of atopy. Currently only available through veterinary dermatologists, it will likely be available through primary care veterinarians later this year.

In severe cases, your pet’s doctor may recommend allergy testing to determine exactly which plants, grasses, and other allergens are affecting your pet. This simple blood test provides results in five to seven days. The results can be used to create immunotherapy injections that gradually reduce your pet’s sensitivity to offending allergens. Your veterinarian will teach you how to administer these injections at home, avoiding the need for frequent trips to the vet’s office. Injections are initially given twice a week then are tapered off gradually over a period of about a year to once every two to three weeks.

These injections are usually very well-tolerated by dogs, but if you or your pet are needle-shy, an oral alternative is also available (though this must be administered once or twice a day). Immunotherapy is effective in about 75% of patients. While it requires an initial monetary investment of around $1,200 to $1,500, immunotherapy can eliminate the need for lifelong medications like steroids or immunosuppressants.

Atopy is often a frustrating condition for pet owners and veterinarians alike. Allergic dogs cannot be cured, but their symptoms can usually be comfortably contained. If you have a chronically itchy dog, be sure to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian, who can help you create a game plan for keeping Fluffy happy, healthy, and itch-free all year long.

Dr. Corynn Johnson, a member of the 2013-2014 intern class at VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists, attended veterinary school at Oklahoma State University. She has specific interests in trauma medicine, analgesia, and anesthesia of critical patients. In her free time, she enjoys riding horses, camping, and hiking with her dog, Piper. Reach VCA SFVS at 415-401-9200 or visit vcasfvs.com.

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