The Complete Guide to Canine Atopy: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Atopic Dermatitis, also known as Canine Atopy, is an allergic skin disease that some dogs may develop after being exposed to allergens in their environment. Atopy is one of the most common allergic conditions among dogs, second only to flea allergy dermatitis, and can be triggered by anything from grasses and pollen, to dust mites and mold. The allergens trigger an immune response by adhering to the skin, being absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream, and causing the animal’s immune system to react to the allergen.  

Atopy is a genetically inherited disease, affecting approximately 10 percent of all dogs, that causes recurring itchy skin and other associated conditions. The disease typically first appears when dogs are between 1 and 3 years of age and, while it isn’t curable, it is treatable and manageable if you recognize the symptoms.

The Symptoms of Canine Atopy

Of course, the first and most evident sign of Canine Atopy is itchy skin, accompanied by scratching, most often of the ears and undersides of the body—though the skin can still appear normal. These symptoms usually occur during a specific pollen season but may occur year-round if the dog is allergic to other allergens such as dust or dust mites. In addition to scratching, other common symptoms include face-rubbing, watery eyes, sneezing, and excessive paw-licking, which can result in feet that are stained brown or red.

If left untreated, more serious symptoms may emerge as the disease progresses:

  • Red, scaly, irritated skin that is extremely itchy
  • Deep scratches and bite marks in the skin
  • Secondary skin infections accompanied by flaky skin
  • Hair loss, scabs, and crusts on the skin
  • Thick, darkly pigmented skin
  • Associated ear infections accompanied by red, inflamed ear flaps and thick brown ear wax

As a dog owner, it’s important to remember that Atopic Dermatitis involves a lot more than just itchy skin. We ask our pet parents to imagine a chronic case of severe hives or severe poison ivy—which makes it easier to understand why dogs with Canine Atopy can’t quit rubbing, licking, and scratching and why secondary skin infections and hair loss are common.

 

How to Diagnose Atopic Dermatitis

Unfortunately, Canine Atopy can be difficult to diagnose or distinguish from other, similar skin conditions, especially when there’s a secondary skin infection involved. At Ambassador Animal Hospital, we begin by conducting a physical exam, looking for the type and location of skin lesions. We also talk to you, the pet parent, to get a full medical history, a report on behaviors or other symptoms, and any seasonal pattern of occurrence.

In our full-service diagnostic lab, we are able to conduct a number of tests such as skin scrapings, bacterial and fungal cytologies and cultures, skin biopsy, and blood testing to support an Atopic Dermatitis diagnosis. However, before making a diagnosis or diving into any of these more intense diagnostics for Canine Atopy, we rule out other potential causes of itching or allergic reactions. After all, why put your dog through a battery of allergy tests if the issue is something simpler?

Two issues we try to rule out immediately are food allergies and flea allergy dermatitis. To test for food allergies, we may recommend a trial hypoallergenic test diet to see if symptoms improve. Most dogs who have Atopic Dermatitis are also allergic to fleas, which can complicate the diagnosis. In warm, moist climates, like Greenville, SC it is extremely important to maintain flea (and tick) control YEAR ROUND.  To rule out flea allergies, we will treat and eliminate all fleas, in every household pet (including you outdoor pets).

Treatments and Therapies for Canine Atopy

Once we have ruled out other potential causes and we have an Atopic Dermatitis diagnosis, there are several ways that we can make your dog more comfortable, preventing secondary infections and other harmful symptoms. The best and most effective long-term solution would be to avoid the allergen.  However, this is typically nearly impossible when we are talking about grasses, pollens, or dust.  Allergy tests can help us determine what your dog is allergic to—and then sometimes things can be done to limit exposure.  For example, if your dog is only allergic to a certain kind of grass, then keeping your dog indoors more often during the flowering season and avoiding grass during your walks will help significantly.

Unfortunately, avoiding allergens altogether is often an impossible task, especially if your dog is allergic to more than one thing. In this case, we recommend that you do the best you can by wiping your dog down after walks or outdoor playtime, cleaning toys and bedding regularly, and giving weekly dog baths in medicated shampoos.  This reduces the amount of time allergens are in contact with the skin. Please discuss this with your veterinarian so the correct bathing protocol can be selected. There are also many other helpful tips your doctor can give you, as well as discussing other at home therapies to make your dog more comfortable.

 

Effective ongoing therapy for Canine Atopy may also include:

  • More Aggressive Flea Control. Fleas worsen the condition, especially for dogs with flea allergies. In addition to a monthly oral flea prevention, we may recommend more regular bathing and grooming.
  • Supplementation. Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA are a simple, inexpensive, and safe way to reduce skin inflammation. Used in conjunction with other therapies, supplements can protect your dog from developing secondary skin infections.
  • Topical Therapies. Shampoos, rinses, sprays, and wipes can have many advantages for dogs with allergies—from removing debris and allergens from the skin to providing immediate relief through a therapeutic shampoo or spray that contains anti-itch medication. Some medicated topical therapies can also treat secondary bacterial or yeast infections, diminishing the need for oral or injectable medication, or may even contain ingredients that strengthen the skin and repair the skin barrier function. We can help you look at the available options and determine the right course for your dog.
  • Medication. Antihistamines, antibody therapies, (temporary) glucocorticoids, and other allergy medications can reduce inflammation and control itching for dogs with allergies. We may also prescribe oral medications for bacterial and yeast infections when topical therapies won’t work quickly or completely enough to bring your dog relief.
  • Desensitization Therapies. While these allergy shots are not a magic bullet, and can take up to 9 to 12 months to show beneficial results, they can train your dog’s body to have less of a reaction to the allergen. Allergy injections are most effective for dogs who have a complicated allergy profile or who exhibit immune responses year-round.

The dedicated staff at Ambassador Animal Hospital is committed to keeping your dog happy and healthy for life. While issues such as Canine Atopy or other allergic reactions can be frustrating for pet parents, they are manageable. If your dog can’t quit licking or scratching, schedule an exam with us and we’ll help you figure it out.  

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