by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
As we reach the end of August, for many reasons, it begins to feel like autumn. Fall, in our area, can be a most enjoyable season and one to eagerly anticipate - unless, perhaps, you happen to suffer from allergies or hay fever. In that case, it's less likely you're really looking forward to the season that traditionally is thought to be the worst season for allergy sufferers. Well, autumn being a bad season for allergies is another thing dogs share with people. Here are some things to remember to help your dog get through this season if they have allergies.
First, dogs, just like people, can be allergic to things they eat, things they contact or things that they breath in the air. One difference from humans, though, is how it causes problems. Most people with inhalant allergic dermatitis or atopy will develop itchy, runny eyes, sniffles and nasal congestion. However, with dogs the most common target organ to be affected by the allergic process is the skin. As a result, they become itchy all over their body. They usually bite or lick at their feet, they scratch their head, neck and sides incessantly with their back feet and they rub their face and ears. Itchiness, for anyone, dogs included, is a most unpleasant, intolerable sensation. Frequently, dogs scratch or chew at themselves so much that they cause the skin to become inflamed or raw and bleeding. Broken skin also becomes a good place for secondary bacterial infections to develop.
When owners notice their pet scratching more than normal, usually the first thing they think about is fleas. And yes, it could be fleas. If a veterinarian is consulted at this stage - which, I would recommend - they will certainly want to be sure there are no fleas present on the animal. However, in fact, a dog may harbour a number of fleas and not be particularly itchy, as long as they are not hypersensitive to the fleas. It turns out, though, that one of the most common allergens or cause of allergies for dogs is flea saliva. The intense itchiness some dogs experience when thy pick up a flea is, in fact, an allergic dermatitis - an allergy to that saliva injected into the dog when the flea bites.
There are other external parasites that can make a dog very itchy, as well. Mites that live in or on the surface of the skin can certainly do it. Chyletiella or sarcoptes mange mites are the most common mites that cause problems for dogs in this part of the world. Relatively simple measures, with the help of your veterinarian, can make sure mites are not the source of the itchiness.
In most cases, the final diagnosis, for a dog that has itchy, uncomfortable skin will be atopy or allergic dermatitis. In my experience, when people hear that diagnosis they immediately try to think of something new that has come into their pet's environment. However, inhalant allergens are the most likely cause of the problem. It is more likely the dog has been in contact with these allergens from the beginning of its life. Gradually over time the immune system of the affected dog begins to have an abnormal response to these materials, whatever they may be. Often the degree of discomfort experienced by the dog gets worse as the years go by. At first, the itchiness may be quite mild and bother the dog only for a few weeks during the year; however, over the years repeated episodes last longer and increase in intensity. Of course it would be really nice to know immediately what allergen is the cause of the problem. Maybe then it would be possible just to prevent exposure to the cause of the allergy. However, the best and most accurate way to identify the specific allergen(s) involves intradermal skin testing. Most often, this is not immediately recommended for a dog suffering from such a problem.
Next time I will discuss more about intradermal skin testing and treatments to help a favourite pooch get through the allergy season ahead.