It is the middle of winter, how can my dog have allergies? Believe it or not December to February is sometimes our worst allergy season in southern California. Why?
Allergic Skin Disease
Skin disease in dogs is known as canine allergic dermatitis or atopy. It is an external symptom of an internal allergic reaction to environmental proteins causing the release of histamines and other chemicals that cause intense itching in your dog. The environmental proteins can be airborne pollen from plants, trees, flowers and grasses. The proteins can be airborne spores from fungus or dust protein from dried out insect bodies like house dust mites, fleas, roaches and other dead bugs.
In our area, the sage, ragweed and goldenrod plants in the hills are the most common allergens. Few of the animals we have tested over the years showed allergies to the pollen from their own or neighbors yards. Our constant Santa Ana breezes and winds blow these pollen into our basin. Seldom are food proteins the culprit. Less than 1% of allergic dermatitis is caused by true sensitivity to proteins in the food. Constantly changing your dog’s food will only lead to frustration.
What are the symptoms of atopy?
This story in unbelievable but this is what happens:
-Dogs breathe in the pollen through their nose or absorb them from their skin and paws and the internal immune system “overreacts” and sets off a massive inflammatory reaction.
-This is a chemical chain reaction that produces the release of histamine and other chemicals that cause itching and changes in the protective layer of the skin, ear flaps and ear canals.
-Your dog licks its paws and other areas due to the itching. She also scratches causing hot spots and other circular infected areas. Her body smells like corn chips.
-Your dog’s ears become red and stinky
-These injured areas provide food for the normal bacteria and yeast that naturally live on the skin so they multiply creating more injury, more bacterial and fungal overgrowth and more itching from the infection. The yeast and bacteria are not the cause but only a result of the allergic reaction.
-You finally take your dog to the vet with ugly scabs all over the body and/or red, smelly infected ears or hair loss with dry flaky skin
What causes atopy?
Why a dog’s immune system becomes over sensitive to its environment is somewhat mysterious. Part of it is genetic as we see certain breeds over-represented (Bichons, Maltese, Golden and Labrador Retrievers). But over the years we have seen an increase in cases of all breeds so that now, treating allergies takes up 75% of our caseload. No one seems to have an explanation for this that is credible despite what you have seen on the internet. It seems worse here in southern California because our year round mild weather combined with plentiful water means plants, shrubs and grasses bloom all year round.
How is atopy diagnosed?
The symptoms of atopy are generally adequate to diagnose the condition. Mite infections or ringworm can also look like atopy, so veterinarians will typically do skin scraping and fungal cultures of the skin to make sure these conditions are not occurring. In rare instances, skin biopsies may be necessary to distinguish between severe immune related types of diseases or skin cancers. Skin tests are considered the “gold standard” for identifying what your dog is allergic to. Blood tests are less reliable and extremely inaccurate for confirming food allergies.
How is atopy treated?
The classic treatment for atopy is to test by either skin or blood and identify the proteins your dog is allergic to. Serum is then prepared with those proteins and your dog is given injections of increasing strength over a period of 3-6 months. At the final dose dogs are then maintained on monthly injections. Success with this method is variable. ¼ of dogs respond very well and ½ get some relief but still require the periodic treatment we will discuss below. ¼ of patients do not respond at all and the money for testing and injections is wasted. Given the odds of failure, this is not a treatment we presently recommend.
Traditional treatments are aimed at stopping the itching and resolving the skin and ear infections. Prednisone and vetalog are steroids commonly used for the itching because they are cheaper than Apoquel or Atopica but have more potential side effects. Antihistamines like Benadryl, Zyrtec or Claritin do not consistently provide most atopic dogs relief from itching. Antibiotics are used to resolve the skin infections. This type of treatment generally results in a roller coaster of on and off treatment for flare-ups. Unfortunately, overuse of antibiotics for atopy has led to increasing numbers of skin infection with MERSA type bacteria that are resistant to most antibiotics.
We take a different approach to prevent flare-ups. Because atopy cannot be cured and only managed, we emphasize the continuous use of anti-inflammatory supplements, Chinese medicines and essential oils that help temper your dog’s reaction to environmental proteins. This eliminates the necessity for using steroids and antibiotics. If our patients do experience times of intense itching despite our approach, we use a unique treatment called cytopoint injections. Cytopoint is nothing more than bottled antibodies to itching! Itching and the resulting infections due to scratching and biting are caused by a chemical that is released during the allergic reaction. This chemical binds to nerve cells and sends a signal to the brain that causes itching. The dog responds by scratching and biting and creating infected areas of skin, paws and ears. Cytopoint antibodies bind to the chemical and keep it from activating the nerve. No itch-no infections.
Cytopoint contains no additives and has no side effects. The body simply breaks it down into amino acids for recycling in 1-2 months. Injections can be repeated every 30-60 days, depending on the severity of a dog’s atopy with no harmful concerns. We try to minimize these injections with our anti-inflammatory supplements, but certain times of the year they may be necessary.
Food allergies are rare in dogs, but we do emphasize a high quality diet for all of our atopy patients without emphasis on novel or unique proteins. For dogs with proven food allergies (food challenge, not skin, blood or oral test-they over-diagnose) we use homemade and commercial single protein canned food diets that feature proteins dogs are unlikely to be allergic to.
The Well Dog Place allergy program may be what your dog needs for relief!