Allergy Shots for Dogs: Does Your Pup Need Them?
It’s the middle of the night and you awaken to the sound of your dog incessantly scratching his skin and shaking his head. For many pet parents, this is an all too familiar scenario. Skin issues in dogs are very common and—according to the Healthy Paws Insurance Cost of Pet Health Report—they made up 17 percent of all insurance claims, second only to stomach issues.
By far the most common skin issues that veterinarians treat in dogs are related to allergies. Whereas humans typically show respiratory symptoms such as sneezing from allergies, dogs tend to get itchy and irritated skin.
The most common kinds of skin allergies in dogs are due to flea allergies, environmental allergies (called atopic dermatitis), and food allergies. Pet parents with allergic dogs know how frustrating allergies can be to manage. But can allergy shots for dogs save the day? Let’s explore the different options, potential side effects, and if they make sense for your dog.
Allergy Shots for Dogs: Understanding Your Options
There are three main types of allergy shots for dogs:
- Steroids (glucocorticoids)
- Allergen-Specific Immunotherapy (ASIT)
Commonly known as steroids, glucocorticoids have been the oldest treatment for allergies in dogs. Steroids work to combat allergy symptoms by decreasing the body’s immune reaction to allergens. Steroids, especially the injectable kinds, have largely fallen out of favor for the treatment of allergies due to their wide range of negative side effects.
Allergen-Specific Immunotherapy (ASIT)
Allergen-specific immunotherapy (ASIT) injections are what most people commonly refer to as “allergy shots” and are used in both humans and dogs to help desensitize them to the things they are allergic to.
ASIT is only effective for the treatment of environmental allergies in dogs. For this reason, your dog should have a full allergy workup by your veterinarian to determine the cause of her allergies prior to starting ASIT injections. The diagnosis of atopic dermatitis (environmental allergies) is made once your veterinarian has excluded flea allergies and food allergies as the cause of your dog’s allergy symptoms.
The first step to starting immunotherapy allergy shots is to have allergy testing performed by veterinarians who specialize in dermatology. If seeing a dermatologist is not an option for you due to your location or for financial reasons, blood allergy testing is an acceptable alternative.
Once your veterinarian has determined what allergens your dog is allergic to, injections containing increasing amounts of those allergens will be given to your dog to desensitize her to those allergens. Shots are typically given twice weekly until a response is seen and then the frequency is decreased from there. With ASIT allergy shots for dogs, it can take up to 12 months for your dog to respond to this treatment and it is not guaranteed that your dog will respond to treatment. However, an estimated 50-75 percent of dogs show improvement following ASIT injections.
The third and newest type of shot used to treat dog allergies is called Cytopoint (lokivetmab). Cytopoint is a monoclonal antibody that works by neutralizing a circulating protein before it can send itch signals to your dog’s brain. One injection works to stop itch caused by allergies and lasts about 4 to 8 weeks.
A recent study showed Cytopoint to be effective for reducing itch symptoms in about 88 percent of dogs. The downside to Cytopoint is that it does not have any anti-inflammatory effects and inflammation can be a serious problem for dogs with allergies.
Why Your Dog Might Need an Allergy Shot
The most common symptoms of allergies in dogs include itchy skin symptoms like licking excessively, biting their skin, rubbing themselves on furniture or carpets, scratching themselves, and shaking their ears. Their skin may also look red and inflamed and they may also develop frequent skin and ear infections.
Any dog that is showing signs of allergies may benefit from an allergy shot. It is important to talk with your veterinarian about what kind of allergy shot they recommend and why.
Cytopoint can be given to any dog greater than 8 weeks of age and is labeled as effective for itch caused by any type of allergy. Allergy immunotherapy shots are only effective for dogs with a diagnosis of atopic dermatitis, so these are not typically used for very young dogs. Steroids can relieve the symptoms of any kind of allergy but do have a high risk of side effects.
Benefits of Allergy Shots for Dogs
Each kind of allergy shot works differently to help control allergies. Steroids help decrease itch and inflammation. Cytopoint helps decrease itch. ASIT injections actually train your dog’s immune system to stop overreacting to allergens that it encounters. For this reason, ASIT injections are the closest thing to a cure for canine environmental allergies that we have.
Dogs that may benefit from allergy shots over oral allergy medications are those that are very difficult to pill or for busy owners that can’t remember to give oral medications on a daily basis.
Allergy shots are given less frequently than administering oral medications and may actually be more cost effective than giving your dog lifelong medication to treat allergies (see more about the costs below).
Side Effects of Allergy Shots for Dogs
The side effects of the three main types of shots used to treat allergies vary quite a lot, with steroids by far having the greatest risk of negative side effects.
Steroid Allergy Shot Side Effects
While steroids help to reduce the inflammation and itch associated with allergies, they also commonly cause the following side effects with short term use:
- Excessive thirst and urination
- Excessive hunger
- Stomach upset
- Stomach ulcers
With long term use, steroids can cause more serious issues including:
- Increased risks of infections, including skin infections
- Thinning of the skin
- Calcinosis cutis (calcified nodules in the skin)
- Loss of muscle mass
- Increased body fat
- Weight gain
For this reason, steroids are typically only given for the short term treatment of severely inflamed skin or ears and then allergy symptoms are typically managed with other injections or oral medications for the long term.
ASIT Side Effects for Dogs
Allergen-specific immunotherapy shots do carry the risk of causing allergic anaphylactic reactions for some dogs, especially during the early phases of treatment. That is why pet parents should monitor their pups for 30 to 60 minutes after each injection.
Cytopoint Side Effects
Cytopoint shots are very safe and showed no greater risk of side effects than a placebo in safety studies.
How Much are Allergy Shots for Dogs?
Steroids are the least expensive allergy shots for dogs and typically range from $20-$40 per injection. The effects of a single steroid injection will typically last for 1 to 2 weeks.
The cost for Cytopoint injections varies greatly depending on the weight of your dog. Injections for small breed dogs range from $60-$90 and may exceed $200 for giant breed dogs. One injection of Cytopoint will relieve itch symptoms for 4-8 weeks. For dogs with seasonal allergies, they may be controlled with a few injections per year.
Skin or blood testing is first required to start a dog on allergen-specific immunotherapy injections and the cost ranges from about $400-$800. Then, pet parents can expect to pay between $40 to $80 per month for the injections that are typically administered by pet parents at home. As previously stated, it may take up to 12 months for ASIT injections to start to work, but if they are effective, they will be needed less and less frequently with time.
While the costs of allergy shots may sound very high, managing your dog’s allergy symptoms with allergy shots can be more cost effective in the long term by reducing the need for vet visits to treat skin and ear infections.
Other Allergy Medications for Dogs
There are no real cures for allergies in dogs. In addition to shots, pet parents should work with their veterinarians to discuss lifestyle changes, medications, supplements, and diets that can help to lessen symptoms.
Allergy treatment typically requires a multimodal approach, meaning that more than one medication or treatment is recommended to help to manage symptoms.
Most dogs with allergies are prescribed medicated shampoos, ear flushes, and/or wipes. These topical treatments help to decrease the number of bacteria and yeast on the skin and for this reason are helpful for treating and preventing the skin and ear infections that frequently result from allergies.
The most common prescription oral medications used to treat allergies in dogs are Apoquel (oclacitinib), Atopica (cyclosporine) and oral steroids (prednisone, prednisolone, methylprednisolone). Apoquel and oral steroids are typically used early in the course of treating allergies because they have anti-inflammatory properties in addition to providing itch relief and start to work within hours. Atopica is used more commonly for dogs that fail to respond to Apoquel pills or Cytopoint injections. Oral allergy medications are good options for dogs that are too reactive or fearful of injections.
Oral antihistamines such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) have been used for allergies in dogs for many years. Diphenhydramine, cetirizine (zyrtec), and loratidine (claritin) may be effective for some dogs with mild symptoms or until you can get your pet in to see their veterinarian. Anti-histamine medications should not be given to dogs at risk for seizures.
The best way to manage allergies is to avoid the triggering allergen. For this reason, dogs with flea allergies and food allergies need to be given consistent flea preventives and fed special diets to best control their symptoms. For dogs with atopic dermatitis, it can be impossible to control the things in your dog’s environment that she is allergic to, and that’s when allergy shots of some kind can be most beneficial.