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Managing Skin Allergies in Dogs

Skin allergies in dogs are normal. When I found my dog, Boo Boo, wandering the streets last fall, it was obvious she had some problems. For starters, she was much too thin (she resembled a bobble head).  She also had large patches of hair missing from her neck, chest and back. It turns out it was skin allergies.

She was so filthy I didn’t even realize how much hair she was missing until after I gave her a bath, and it was weeks before I was able to penetrate the layers of black tar-like gunk that had accumulated in both her ears.  After I got her cleaned up, however,  I realized that she was going to need more than regular square meals and good hygiene to get her healthy again.

Boo itched.  Maddeningly and constantly, her itching plagued her to the point that she would dart from place to place in the house as if she thought she could outrun it.  I had taken her to the vet numerous times and come home packing a canine apothecary each time, but nothing we had tried so far was able to completely alleviate her discomfort.

Then, on one of Boo Boo’s monthly vet visits, her regular practitioner was on vacation.  The vet filling in just happened to take a special interest in dermatology.  In fact, he was passionate about the subject and gladly spent over an hour educating me about what is unfortunately an all-too-common affliction: skin allergies in dogs.

My vet broke it down this way.  A dog encounters an allergen by contact, inhalation or ingestion.  Since we didn’t know which of these factors was causing Boo Boo’s persistent condition (or if it was a combination or all three), he recommended a three-pronged approach to tackle them all:

1.) The first rule of combating skin allergies in dogs is to get them on a preventative flea treatment (my vet prefers Frontline Plus) and keep them on it religiously (I remember to dose Boo Boo monthly by applying it on the same day I do other important things – like pay rent).   This should be an automatic for every pet owner, but it is especially important for dogs like Boo Boo who suffer from flea allergy dermatitis.

The most common allergy in dogs, flea allergy dermatitis is a condition in which the dog is hypersensitive to the saliva of fleas.  In allergic dogs, all it takes is one or two bites from a flea to cause an allergic reaction, resulting in unbearable itching which dogs will scratch and bite to the point that they can develop inflammation, sores, and permanent skin damage.   Having these types of sores can also leave a dog vulnerable to secondary skin infections such as yeast and staph, underscoring the critical importance of always keeping up on their flea treatment regimen.

Regular use of preventative flea treatments make life easier for you AND your dog.

In conjunction with keeping Boo Boo flea-free, my vet told me it was important to keep her dirt-free by giving her weekly baths.  Dogs like Boo Boo who have allergens working against them from the inside can also be susceptible to allergens from the outside (like seasonal pollen or other environmental factors).  Bathing her weekly washes away any surface allergens that she may have picked up and soothes her itchy skin at the same time.  My vet prescribed a medicated shampoo but you can find great pet shampoos for allergies containing soothing oatmeal and even hydrocortisone to reduce inflammation.  Remember to only use lukewarm to cool water as hotter temperatures can irritate skin.

2.) The second rule for managing Boo Boo’s allergies was to put her on a hypoallergenic diet.  (At first, I referred to this as the “Find the Most Expensive Can in the Pet Store Diet” but I came around as I started seeing improvement in Boo Boo’s skin and a reduction in vet bills.)  What a hypoallergenic diet actually consists of is foods that the dog has most likely never eaten before, and therefore cannot have developed antigens in their system that would cause them to react to it.

Since I adopted Boo Boo as an adult, I had no way of knowing what she may or may not have eaten during her lifetime, so I had to make some assumptions.  I already knew that the most common food allergies in dogs are:  beef, chicken, corn, dairy products (including eggs), soy, wheat and yeast.  After doing some research on hypoallergenic dog food online, I settled on a venison and sweet potato combo for Boo Boo.  (The one I picked was made in the USA by a company that also sources its meat from the United States.  This was important to me as I had read about several cases of dogs being sickened by food made with meat sourced from China.)

One important consideration when feeding your dog a hypoallergenic diet specifically to manage skin or other conditions:  you cannot feed your dog anything BUT the hypoallergenic food.  This means no treats, no table scraps and no supplements.  Monitor your dog (and alert people who come around your dog) to ensure you’re not compromising the integrity of the hypoallergenic diet.

3.) The last step in the plan to get Boo Boo’s condition under control was medication.  Because Boo Boo’s case was so severe, my vet prescribed her a powerful oral steroid.  Steroids do not prevent allergies, but work by inhibiting the inflammation that cause allergic reactions, thus decreasing the resulting discomfort.  Steroids can have serious side effects so it is recommended that they only be used for short periods of time.

I took my vet’s instructions for skin allergies in dogs very seriously and followed them exactly.  I’m glad I did because it’s working.  Boo Boo has been on the hypoallergenic diet for a total of five months now, but I started seeing improvement after about one month.  At the onset, Boo Boo had sores down each side of her body (like the ones in the picture above) as well as yeast and staph infections which we had previously been unable to fully eradicate.  After 30 days on the diet and medications, I could see the sores drying up and she wasn’t scratching them back open.  After 60 days, the sores started to fade, and at 90 days I could actually touch her sides and she would wiggle in pleasure instead of cringing in pain.

Our battle with skin allergies in dogs is by no means over – it took 8 years of neglect by her previous owner to deteriorate her to this point and we’ve only been fighting it for 9 months – but I am confident that we’ve gotten through the worst of it.  She does still experience some itching from what my vet believes are internal “hot spots,” and she has a bad habit of chewing on her paws from time to time (although she doesn’t chew the hair off).  She’s also overweight from being on steroids for so long, but since weaning her off of them over the last month I have already noticed an increase in her stamina for exercise and a slight decrease in her girth.

The best news is that today, she has no visible sores and loves nothing better than a good tummy rub and a thorough scratching down her sides and rump.  It must have literally been years since she’s been able to enjoy such a basic pleasure and it makes me indescribably happy to see her revel in it.  We also just recently hit a benchmark in skin allergies in dogs – she finally has enough hair to start shedding!  Normally I wouldn’t be happy about that, but in her case it’s a welcome development.

UPDATE

It has been approximately two years since I started my assault on skin allergies in dogs and I'm happy to report that all of the measures taken have continued to work!  Boo Boo has not had a skin flare-up since ending her last course of steroid medication almost two years ago.  Additionally, she is off all medication now and has lost all of the weight associated with long-term steroid use, going from a "fat-panting" 89 lbs. down to her current, healthy weight of 73 lbs.  Although we have changed foods a few times, she continues to thrive on a limited ingredient diet with meat sourced from the USA.  She will always have some thin spots and bald spots in her fur where the damage could not be undone, but overall her coat is shiny, healthy and thick.

One thing I have learned in the last two years that is worth a mention:  skin allergies in dogs can also manifest symptoms in other places.  In Boo Boo's case, it is a susceptibility to ear infections. If her diet is "off" or if she gets treats or foods she is not supposed to eat, the first place it will show up is as an overgrowth of bacteria or yeast in one or both of her ears.  Just one more reason not to let your dog "cheat" when managing allergies through diet.

It is such a relief to me (and Boo Boo) that these changes in her lifestyle have worked!  She is a very happy and buoyant 11 year old, and will be able to enjoy the rest of her life itch-free.


The Michelson Found Animals Foundation's mission of saving pets and enriching lives is made possible by the generous contributions of Dr. Gary Michelson and Alya Michelson.

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