Life can be miserable for a dog with allergies. Knowing which allergens are responsible for the itchiness, discomfort, and tummy upset, however, isn’t always obvious. With dog allergy testing¸ your veterinarian is better positioned to identify offending allergens and offer your pup relief.
There’s a lot to unpack about allergy testing for dogs – from understanding the difference between tests to determining whether it’s worth it. Here we answer your most pressing questions so you can be more informed when talking to your veterinarian.
Can Dogs Have Allergies?
Yes, dogs can have allergies and they’re actually quite common, says Amber LaRock, a licensed veterinary technician for EmergencyVetsUSA, who explains that “about 20 percent of dogs fall victim to allergies throughout their lifetime.”
More instances of dog allergies are being reported in recent years than in the past. In its 2018 State of Pet Health Report, Banfield Pet Hospital reported that over the past 10 years, environmental allergies in dogs (like pollen, dust, and molds) had increased by 30.7 percent, and flea allergies by 12.5 percent.
It’s difficult to say whether allergies in dogs are increasing or if the rise in cases is due to a heightened awareness of pet owners and better record/data keeping by veterinarians. Regardless, more pet parents are seeking out allergy testing and treatments for their dogs.
Types of Allergies in Dogs
Though dogs can develop allergies to just about anything, the most common types, according to Dr. Christina Restrepo, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist, are:
- Environmental allergies
- Flea allergies
- Food allergies
“Environmental allergens for pets vary by region and climate, but many are found in a typical pet owner’s home, including pollen, house dust mite, dander, molds, and cleaning solutions,” says Restrepo, who works at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital in Naples, Florida.
Food allergies in dogs are comparatively rare, says LaRock, “but they still occur in some unlucky pups.” Veterinarians estimate that 0.2 percent of dogs are afflicted, with common trigger foods including beef, chicken, eggs, corn, wheat, soy, and milk.
While any dog can develop allergies, veterinarians believe genetics play a role. Certain breeds, including Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Boxers, Labrador Retrievers, Boston Terriers, and West Highland White Terriers are at higher risk.
All three types of dog allergies can cause symptoms (itchiness is the most common dog allergy symptom), veterinarians say. Dogs with allergies may also scratch or lick or chew themselves excessively, and their skin may appear red and inflamed.
What is Dog Allergy Testing?
Dog allergy testing is used to determine how a pup’s immune system will respond to specific environmental allergens like fleas, pollen, and mold spores. Veterinarians rely on two types of tests to accomplish this.
One test, called intradermal testing – or skin testing – is always performed by a board-certified veterinary dermatologist. “Intradermal skin testing is typically performed under anesthesia or sedation,” says Dr. Frank Gomez, an associate veterinarian at Heart + Paw, who works at several of their mid-Atlantic locations. “A patch of skin is shaved and a number of allergens are injected individually under the skin to assess a reaction.” This is considered the most accurate way to test for allergies, but is also more expensive, and may not be right for all dogs.
The second test, called serum testing – or blood allergy testing – is a basic blood test that most veterinarians can perform. Once blood is drawn at the veterinary clinic, it’s sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Both types of dog allergy tests can pinpoint the specific environmental allergens causing sensitivity, says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, an associate veterinarian at Odyssey Veterinary Care in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. The purpose of these tests, she says, is to determine which allergens are most appropriate for the dog’s immunotherapy cocktail treatment. “For example, if the dog isn’t allergic to dust mites based on the tests, then we would not include dust mite allergens in the allergy shot or sublingual drops.”
These tests have been in existence for many decades, says Restrepo, and “testing continues to improve and evolve.”
Neither of these tests, however, can currently identify a dog’s sensitivity to food allergies. This process usually involves feeding the dog a restricted diet over a few weeks, and waiting to see if dog allergy symptoms improve.
Types of Dog Allergy Tests
When you’re ready to speak to your veterinarian about dog allergy testing, the conversation will likely revolve around either (or both) intradermal allergy testing and serum testing.
Intradermal Allergy Testing for Dogs (AKA Skin Allergy Test)
The intradermal skin allergy test for dogs is performed exclusively by veterinary dermatologists. They screen for a wide range of environmental allergies, like trees, weed, and grass pollens, house dust mites, mold spores, and fleas, explains Restrapo. “Overall, dermatologists are able to pinpoint the allergy in about 75 percent of dogs and cats.”
The process typically requires mild sedation, Restrapo says. “We clip the hair from the side of the chest. About 60 small injections are given just under the skin of this area. If the pet is allergic to certain environmental allergens tested, a “hive” forms at the site of one or more injections.”
Serum Testing (AKA Blood Allergy Test)
Unlike intradermal allergy testing for dogs, which is performed exclusively by board-certified veterinary dermatologists, almost any veterinarian can perform a blood test, known as a radioallergosorbent (RAST) test. Once the blood is drawn, the veterinary clinic sends the sample to a laboratory for analysis.
“The blood is then tested for the presence of IgE antibodies (Immunoglobin E are antibodies created by the immune system) that cause itchy skin,” explains Jeffrey. “The IgE antibodies are then tested against many different environmental allergens such as tree and plant pollens, molds, and dust mites. The allergens with the highest concentrations of IgE are then selected to make a “cocktail” of allergy drops (or shots) for the given dog.”
The results are typically available in two to four weeks, says Restrapo. “This type of testing requires more careful interpretation than skin testing. In addition, we believe only a few certain laboratories provide more accurate results.”
Gomez says both tests can be helpful, though intradermal skin testing is considered the “gold standard for accuracy” when diagnosing environmental allergies.
It’s not that one test is more accurate than the other, says LaRock. “But rather that each dog will respond differently to each test. If it’s in your budget to do both, many vets will recommend that you explore both options and compare the results.”
Dog Food Allergy Testing
Veterinarians don’t use the intradermal skin test or RAST blood test to screen for food allergies in dogs. “The best way to determine if a dog has a food allergy is to put it on a hypoallergenic diet for about 8 weeks,” says Jeffrey. “If the dog becomes less itchy throughout the 8-week period, then the dog is ‘challenged’ by being fed the diet it ate before the test to see if the itchy skin returns. If so, then it can be determined that there is a food allergy.” Naturally, if the hypoallergenic diet works, many pet owners elect to stay on the diet rather than see if itching and other symptoms come back off of the diet.
At Home Dog Allergy Tests
The at home dog allergy test kits on the market claim to screen for potential environmental, household, and food allergens. Some kits claim to test for all of these allergens, while some may just offer a dog food allergy test.
With most at home dog allergy tests, you take a swab of your dog’s saliva then mail it to the company’s laboratory for analysis. After a few weeks, the company sends you a profile with your dog’s potential allergens with suggestions of items that could be eliminated from the dog’s environment or diet.
One issue with at home dog allergy tests, veterinary professionals say, is accuracy. “There are now multiple brands that offer at home saliva testing for dogs with allergies, but evidence shows that they have a high rate of false positives,” says LaRock.
Many veterinarians and veterinary dermatologists don’t recommend at-home dog allergy tests as an effective step in diagnosing a dog’s allergies.
Dog Allergy Testing Benefits
An allergy test for dogs can help your veterinarian pinpoint which allergens are causing your pup’s distress. It also has very few false positive reactions, says Restrepo, so there’s a good chance for success.
Once the offending allergens are identified, your veterinarian can develop an immunotherapy plan specific to your dog. “If it is successful, the dog will no longer have itchy skin in the face of these allergens,” says Jeffrey.
This also translates into cost (and time) savings. “If the dog responds, the owner will be saving money controlling itchy skin and subsequent secondary yeast and bacterial infections (and vet appointment fees) in the long run,” adds Jeffrey. Also, your dog will feel better, and you won’t be kept up at night by scratching and chewing.
Drawbacks of Dog Allergy Testing
Allergy testing for dogs is an involved process. “It requires an intensely dedicated pet owner (both time and financial dedication), an amenable pet to receive treatments, and skilled expertise by a veterinary dermatologist to maximize successful treatment outcomes,” says Restrapo. Veterinarians say it can take a year or more to see optimal results.
There are also no guarantees. Though the success rate for immunotherapy, says Restrapo, is 60 percent to 75 percent, your dog may be part of the small percentage of pups who don’t find answers through allergy testing.
Dog allergy testing can also be expensive. Plus, “Some patients may need both blood testing and intradermal testing for diagnosis. Intradermal skin testing also requires sedation or anesthesia to perform,” says Gomez.
As with any procedure, there are always risks. Sedatives used for intradermal allergy testing for dogs, for example, can carry side effects like vomiting.
Dog Allergy Testing Costs
Dog allergy testing costs vary by veterinary clinic and is based on which test (or tests) your veterinarian orders, though they can typically run anywhere between $80 to $350. RAST blood tests, says LaRock, are usually much cheaper than skin tests. CareCredit puts the average estimate for a blood test between $80 to $200, and $195 to $350 for a skin test.
This price tag doesn’t include additional costs. For example,
- Veterinary visits, which can run anywhere from $50 to $250 for each visit (or more, especially for a specialist) depending on what the visit involves.
- The cost of sedation (for intradermal allergy tests), which can run between about $75 to $200, depending on the size of your dog.
- Additional tests your veterinarian may need to run. For example, your dog may need both a skin test and a blood test.
- Costs associated with dog allergy treatment. Allergy shots for dogs, for example, costs between $40 to $80 per month.
An at home dog allergy test typically ranges between $100 and $250.
Is Dog Allergy Testing Worth It?
Though the road to relief from allergies can be long and expensive, veterinary professionals say a dog allergy test can be worth the effort.
“If a dog is suffering with their chronic allergies, I always think it is worth exploring allergy testing if your budget allows you to do so,” says LaRock. “This can allow your vet to pinpoint the specific allergen, find a treatment plan that supports your pet when this allergen is present, and make a positive impact on their quality of life.”
When done properly, most veterinarians can make a proper diagnosis in 75 percent of cases, says LaRock. “For most dogs that are suffering from allergies, this success rate is high enough to persuade most owners to give it a try. If budget is ever an issue, pet parents can start with a RAST blood test, as this is often significantly cheaper than the dermal tests.”
You may also want to discuss other options with your veterinarian. “I generally don’t jump to allergy testing in dogs,” says Jeffrey. Instead, she recommends medications that can quickly keep the dog comfortable.
“I prefer this route for dogs who have seasonal allergies. For example, itchiness for a few months out of the year,” she explains. “However, if a dog is allergic to something that’s present all year round (such as dust mites or storage mites), I’d recommend immunotherapy to hopefully replace or reduce the need for oral medications.”
To determine if allergy testing is right for your dog, we recommend speaking to your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary dermatologist.