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Itchy, Itchy! Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

What you should know about environmental allergies and your dog

Reviewed by Peter Kintzer DVM, DACVIM on Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Posted October 21, 2011 in Dog Diseases & Conditions A-Z

Skin problems are among the most common troubles for dogs and the cause is often difficult to identify. Allergies are one major cause of skin problems and itchiness and include flea allergy dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and food allergies. Our pets can also suffer allergies related to the environments in which they live, and natural sensitivities to pollen, mold spores, and dust mites can cause an allergic skin condition known as atopic dermatitis.

The most common symptom of atopic dermatitis? Extremely itchy skin. However, itchy skin can lead to a variety of other skin problems and infections. Common signs of atopic dermatitis include

  • Red bumps or scaly areas
  • Acne-like bumps on the skin
  • Darkened, thickened skin
  • Hair loss
  • Stained fur due to excessive licking
  • Frequent shaking of the head
  • A foul odor emanating from your dog's skin

If your dog is a scratching fool, it’s time to visit your veterinarian! They will recommend tests to help identify the source of your dog’s allergies. Because itchy skin can be caused by other conditions aside from allergies, your veterinarian may want to rule out other causes, such as parasites, bacterial or fungalinfections, or systemic diseases.

Tests can include a thorough physical examination; a parasitic examination; skin tests to rule out fungal, yeast, or bacterial infections; and other tests, such as blood and urine tests, to determine if your pet has a systemic disease.

Once your veterinarian determines that your dog has atopic dermatitis, the next step will be to determine what additional diagnostic testing is needed, such as an allergy test to determine what your dog is allergic to. This information is used to help formulate a treatment that's right for your dog.

What’s next?
Your veterinarian may recommend allergen-specific immunotherapy to help desensitize your pet to the offending allergens. This involves exposing your dog to gradually increasing amounts of the allergens to which he’s reacting. Think of it as having your dog face his fears: over time, his body will become accustomed to these allergens and the severity and frequency of symptoms will lessen. Immunotherapy is only way to change the long-term course of atopic dermatitis.

Other medical options include steroids and cyclosporine, which are generally effective but can cause side effects and long-term health issues for some pets. Antihistamines, fatty acids and topical therapies can also help in mild cases of atopic dermatitis, especially when paired with other forms of treatment.

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