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By Henry Cerny, DVM, MS

What causes allergies?

Whether we are talking people or pets, the culprit is an overactive immune system. The immune system is designed to protect us, but when it mistakes non-harmful environmental substances (allergens) as threats, then allergic reactions occur. For example, if your dog comes across rye grass or ragweed, and the dog’s immune system views it as a threat, an allergic reaction occurs.

Are some breeds more susceptible to allergies than others?

In our practice we see atopy (allergic skin disease due to environmental allergens) more commonly in golden retrievers and German shepherds. In a 2010 study published in “Veterinary Dermatology,” breed susceptibility was shown to vary among geographic locations.

How can I tell if my dog is suffering from allergies? What are the common symptoms?

Pruritus (itching) is the hallmark sign of allergies. Dogs exhibit itching either by licking or chewing the skin or scratching with their feet. Common areas affected are the face, ears, feet, belly, and armpit region.

What are common things dogs may be allergic to?

Common environmental allergens include dust mites, fleas, molds and pollens from grasses, trees, weeds, and flowers. Dogs may also have food allergies or food intolerance to certain ingredients, such as beef, chicken, fish, and soy.

How can allergies be treated?

It is important to keep two points in mind. Atopy (environmental allergies) can be managed but not cured, and re-checks are crucial to assess response and modify treatments. Here are some current treatment options:

  • Corticosteroids (i.e., prednisone, triamcinolone): Very effective for dogs suffering from atopy. Injectable products such as Depo-Medrol® are long-lasting and should be used cautiously. Long-term continual use is not recommended.
  • Antihistamines (e.g. Benadryl): Can help in some cases, but histamine is only one of many causes of itchiness. Your veterinarian will often use this class of drugs in combination with corticosteroids.
  • Cyclosporine (e.g. Atopica) : Effective in most cases, typically fewer side effects than corticosteroids but can cause stomach upset initially. Expensive compared to most other medications.
  • Allergy Vaccine : Allergy vaccines can help reduce the symptoms in patients over time, from months to years.
  • Shampoos, Rinses, Conditioners : All of these are a vital part of therapy.

Most important of all is visiting your veterinarian as soon as you suspect that your dog may have an allergy. Itching leads to scratching and scratching can quickly lead to infection — so treat potential allergies seriously and seek a prompt professional opinion.

Henry Cerny, DVM, MS serves on the board of directors for the Lincoln Emergency Clinic and the Nebraska Veterinary Medical Association. He practices at Yankee Hill Veterinary Hospital in Lincoln, NE.

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