If your dog has been scratching constantly lately, you’re probably wondering, “why is my dog itching so much?” You might immediately jump to the conclusion that your dog has fleas, but could allergies be to blame?
Find out whether dogs can suffer from allergies, symptoms to watch for, and how to relieve your pet’s discomfort.
Can Dogs Have Allergies?
Simply put, yes, dogs can have allergies. “It seems as though allergies in dogs are becoming more and more common,” says Candy Akers, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in Elbert County, Colorado.
So how can you tell the difference between harmless scratching in dogs and an allergic itch?
“Dog allergies can be tricky to detect, particularly for new dog parents,” says Dr. Elizabeth Racine, a small animal veterinarian. “It can be challenging to differentiate dog scratching due to normal itching or allergies, but normal itching can be relieved with a scratch.”
“For dogs with allergies, the scratching would be more intense and regular,” she continues. “Dogs who suffer from allergies may find themselves unable to relieve the itch, no matter how much they scratch.”
To complicate matters, there are different types of allergies in dogs, so determining what a dog is allergic to isn’t that simple. Common types of allergies in dogs include:
- Environmental allergies (seasonal)
- Flea allergies
- Food allergies
- Contact allergies
What Causes Allergies in Dogs?
Could the fresh-cut grass that your dog has been rolling in outside be causing their allergies to flare up? Or could your dog’s diet be triggering a reaction? Determining what’s triggering your dog’s allergies can take time, especially if it’s a food allergy.
Many different things can cause allergies in dogs. Here is a closer look at some of the common culprits, broken down by type of allergy:
In the spring and fall, environmental allergens like pollen, grasses, and mold spores become more abundant, causing various allergic reactions in sensitive dogs, Dr. Akers says. “These seasonal allergies can lead to symptoms such as excessive itching, red and irritated skin, watery eyes, sneezing, and even respiratory issues.”
Also called flea allergy dermatitis, flea allergies in dogs can be particularly troublesome. “This condition occurs when a dog is hypersensitive to the saliva of fleas, causing an intense allergic reaction after a bite,” says Dr. Akers. Even a single flea bite can trigger a severe response in dogs with flea allergies, leading to extreme itching, redness, and widespread inflammation of the skin. In their attempt to find relief, dogs may scratch, bite, and lick themselves, which can result in hair loss and even skin infections if left untreated.
Food allergies in dogs tend to be a bit more difficult to identify. “Common culprits include proteins like beef, chicken, and dairy, but they can also be triggered by grains, such as corn, soy, and wheat,” says Dr. Akers. Symptoms of food allergies in dogs can include skin-related symptoms like itching and rashes, as well as gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and diarrhea. Fortunately, food allergies are thought to be less common than environmental allergies and flea allergies.
Contact allergies aren’t as common as other forms of allergies. This type of allergy is caused by a material or substance that comes in contact with a dog’s skin. Triggers can include cleaning products, laundry detergents, carpet fibers, ingredients in flea collars, shampoos, and more. If your dog suffers from this allergy, they’ll likely be scratching at the area that comes in contact with the offending trigger. Once it’s removed, ideally your dog’s allergy symptoms will disappear, but your veterinarian might recommend treatment.
Allergy Symptoms in Dogs
In humans, seasonal allergy symptoms often include itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, itchy noses, coughing, congestion, and fatigue, while skin allergies show up as inflammation, hives, and eczema, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Dogs experience many of the same allergy symptoms.
By now you’ve probably noticed one of the most common allergy symptoms in dogs is itching. Other signs of allergies in dogs include:
- Biting at their coat
- Red, inflamed skin (hot spots of localized inflammation)
- Hair loss
- Infections from scratching or biting
- Ear infection
- Lots of shedding
- Watery eyes
- Respiratory issues
Diagnosing Allergies in Dogs
If you suspect your dog has allergies or your dog is showing dog allergy symptoms, make an appointment with their veterinarian. Your vet will conduct a full physical exam and first rule out conditions like parasites or other skin diseases, which can cause signs similar to allergies.
If an environmental allergy is suspected, a dog allergy test may be used to determine allergens that may trigger a response. “Intradermal skin testing is viewed as the most accurate way of diagnosing dog allergies and is often utilized by veterinary dermatologists,” says Dr. Racine. While blood allergy tests are also available, they may be less accurate.
Other possible ways you can learn more about allergies in dogs involves doing fur and saliva tests, says Dr. Akers.
If a food allergy is suspected, an elimination diet is needed to confirm the diagnosis and identify the allergen. “Food allergies take time to confirm since they can only be diagnosed via an elimination diet,” Dr. Racine says. “This method is designed with the help of a vet and completed by the client. Together you design a plan where [you] systematically eliminate suspected trigger ingredients from the dog’s diet to see whether their bad reactions improve over time.’’
Treating Allergies in Dogs
There are a number of ways to treat allergies in dogs, and the best treatment will depend on the cause of your dog’s allergies. For example, your veterinarian might recommend an elimination diet if your dog’s allergies are food-related, or a prescription medication if your dog has environmental allergies (atopic dermatitis).
The initial treatment of allergies in dogs typically involves medications aimed at suppressing symptoms, says Dr. Akers. “This could include steroids, antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, immunosuppressants, and chemical blockers.” If your dog has a secondary skin infection as a result of all that itching, your veterinarian may prescribe medicated shampoo, antibiotics, or antifungals. Medicated shampoos can also play a role in both immediate and long-term treatment of skin allergies.
There are also alternative therapy options, such as acupuncture, which may help with dog allergy symptoms (1).
In addition to symptomatic therapy, it’s important to identify and address the underlying cause of your dog’s allergies.
For environmental allergies, try to avoid the allergen as best as possible. You can also purchase products such as itch relief shampoo, anti-scratch salmon oil, or allergy immunity chews to help alleviate symptoms, suggests Dr. Racine.
If your dog has a flea allergy, your veterinarian can prescribe a flea and tick control product to kill fleas and prevent future flea infestations.
If your dog has a food allergy, it’s important to identify the cause of their allergies so you can make sure their food (and treats) don’t contain that allergen.
Making lifestyle modifications can also go a long way in treating your dog’s allergies. “Upon discovering the root allergy source, lifestyle modifications or elimination can prove useful in avoiding further reactions,” says Dr. Racine. “If the animal has reacted badly to an ingredient, toy, fabric, or other item, avoiding this contributor in the future will reduce further discomfort.’’
Home Remedies for Allergies in Dogs
You may be wondering if it is ever safe to give a dog human allergy medicines, such as Benadryl or Claritin, to ease dog allergy symptoms. ‘’Benadryl is a suitable medication for dogs suffering from skin or seasonal allergies,” says Dr. Racine. “This drug can reduce many of the common symptoms experienced by reactions such as hives, redness, and swelling.” However, it can lead to drowsiness in animals and should only be used under veterinary orders, she says.
“Claritin can also be used to treat allergies but is not commonly recommended by qualified veterinary practitioners [because it is often combined with] pseudoephedrine, which can be toxic to our canines,” says Dr. Racine. Your vet is more likely to recommend Zyrtec (cetirizine), which is safer and more effective than Benadryl or Claritin.
Always contact your dog’s veterinarian before giving any medication to your dog.
Preventing Allergies in Dogs
In general, it’s likely impossible to prevent allergies in dogs from happening altogether, but there are some proactive steps pet parents can take.
Dr. Akers recommends a comprehensive lifestyle approach that involves proper gut health, a healthy immune system, low-stress levels, and as few toxic chemicals added to your dog’s body as possible.
While you can try to minimize a dog’s exposure to an allergen—whether that’s in their food or their environment—“it is currently not possible to 100 percent cure or prevent allergies in dogs,” says Dr. Racine. “Eliminating the trigger is the best way to minimize symptoms.’’
Some canine allergies are hereditary, so it’s also best to avoid breeding dogs with a history of allergies.