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Canine Atopy (Atopic Dermatitis)

Canine atopy is an extremely common allergic skin disease in dogs caused by environmental irritants and allergens. It causes intense itching to the allergic dog. Read on and learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of canine atopic dermatitis.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

Canine atopic dermatitis, aka canine atopy, is caused by an allergic reaction to allergens in the environment that are either inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Atopy in dogs is a very common allergic skin disease, affecting about 10 percent of dogs.

Some breeds are more susceptible to atopic dermatitis. They include the terriers (Boston Terriers, West Highland White Terriers, Scottish Terriers, Cairn Terriers, and Wire-Haired Fox Terriers), Chinese Shar-peis, Dalmatians, English Setters, Irish Setters, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Lhasa Apsos, Bulldogs, Boxers, and Poodles.

Common allergens that can trigger canine atopy include house dust and house dust mites, feathers, wool, human dander, molds, and pollens from trees, weeds, and grasses.

Atopic dogs usually start showing symptoms when they are between one and three years of age, although symptoms may start showing up in older dogs as well. At first, signs and symptoms may only show up seasonally (e.g. in spring to fall). However, eventually, many atopic dogs show signs all year round.

Symptoms of Canine Atopy

The classic symptom of atopic dermatitis in dogs is itchiness and the skin looks normal. Common areas in the body affected are the face, paws, lower legs, and groin. Though not as often, the ears and eyes can be affected as well.

Because of the itching, an atopic dog will scratch, bite, and chew his skin, lick his paws, and rub his face against furniture.

Other common symptoms include sneezing, wheezing, runny eyes and a runny nose (allergic rhinitis).

In more serious cases, an atopic dog will also show the following signs and symptoms:

Diagnosis of Canine Atopy

The preferred method of diagnosis is by intradermal skin testing. Tiny amounts of allergens are injected in several spots into the skin. After about 15 minutes or so, the area is observed to see if there are any hive-like reactions. To be accurate, all supportive medications have to be withdrawn during the testing period.

If intradermal skin testing is not available, there is an in-vitro test known as blood ELISA or RAST testing. However, this test is considered to be less accurate because even many dogs without atopic can produce positive test results. The reason is, these dogs have previously been exposed to the allergen in question and as such have developed antibodies against the allergen. However, in reality, these dogs are not suffering from canine atopy and the symptoms they are showing are caused by something else. It is therefore extremely important for the veterinarian to rule out other possible issues or problems before doing the blood tests.

Get a Proper Diagnosis!

It is difficult to distinguish canine atopic dermatitis from other skin diseases such as scabies, demodectic mange, food allergies, and flea allergy dermatitis. A proper diagnosis by a veterinarian is therefore essential!

sleepy boxer dog

Treatment of Canine Atopy

Canine atopic dermatitis cannot be cured. However, it can be controlled in various ways:

  • Eliminate or Reduce Exposure to Allergens

    The best way is obviously to reduce or eliminate exposure to the allergens that cause allergic reactions in a dog by changing the dog's living circumstances. It is, however, sometimes not easy to do.
  • Reduce Itchiness

    As the main symptom of atopy is itchiness, reducing itchiness and managing the skin irritation so that an atopic dog does not self-mutilate through scratching and biting is essential.

    Conventional medications that are used to reduce itchiness include antihistamines such as Benadryl and corticosteroids. However, since corticosteroids cause serious side effects, they should only be used for short periods of time, preferably as a last resort. There are other remedies for dog allergies such as the use of herbs and supplements. These are milder and safer and do not cause side effects. Consider using them to treat your dog's allergies.

    In addition, switching to an all-natural, high-quality diet with supplements such as fatty acids is recommended.

    For dogs that do not respond to oral medications, immunotherapy with hyposensitization ("allergy shots") may be recommended by veterinarians. Skin testing has first to be conducted to identify the allergen(s) and then a series of weekly injections of tiny amount of such allergen(s) are given to the dog to desensitize him to the allergens. This treatment method is time-consuming because the injections have to be given over a period of 9 to 12 months.

If you prefer to use a more natural approach to manage your dog's atopy, be sure to visit our page on Remedies for Dog Allergies.
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