At AskVet, some of the most common questions we receive from pet owners are, “Why is my dog licking and scratching so much?” and “Does my dog have allergies?” While we can’t diagnose your dog with allergies over the internet, we’d like to share with you why the answers to both of these questions may be related and what may be causing your dog’s symptoms. What does your AskVet veterinarian want you to understand about dog allergies? Keep reading for the answer!
So, can dogs have allergies? Many dogs DO suffer from allergies—however, their symptoms are different from what we humans typically experience, and it’s important to understand there are a wide variety of dog allergy symptoms! Put simply, while we humans usually associate watery eyes, sneezing, and coughing with allergies—our allergic dogs most often suffer from itchy skin instead.
A Peek into Dog’s Immune System
What does the term “allergy” even mean, anyway? Hold that thought! First, it’s important to understand a bit about your dog’s immune system. When your dog’s body is confronted with something that might be harmful—like a virus or bacteria—the immune system swoops into action to defend your pup. This involves the coordination of many different cells, and they communicate with each other via signals called “cytokines.” Most of the time, these cells are able to prevent skin and other infections using some incredibly coordinated biological teamwork to keep your dog healthy.
In a dog with allergies, however, portions of this immune response start when your dog’s body is exposed to something that they are allergic to, but is NOT otherwise harmful to your dog—things like pollen, dust mites, mold spores, and flea bites are common dog allergies. Each of these is an environmental allergen that your dog encounters in normal daily life.
“Allergen” refers to ANY substance your dog is exposed to that triggers an internal allergic response. Each allergic dog will have different allergens that trigger a response—just like some people are allergic to dogs, or ragweed, or certain foods.
When exposed to an allergen, your dog’s immune system sends a “Mayday!” signal to the rest of his body. The response to this call for help can be dramatic! After all, his immune system THINKS that it has identified something harmful to him. An army of cells is activated and they quickly start mounting a “defense” to this harmless intruder. Unfortunately, this involves a chain reaction of inflammation, swelling, redness, and itchiness. Your poor dog can be pretty miserable with these symptoms, but fortunately, your dog’s symptoms and allergic response is not life-threatening.
If you notice facial swelling, sudden hives/raised red welts on your dog’s skin, or difficulty breathing, please have a veterinarian evaluate your dog in person immediately, as this can be due to a different type of life-threatening allergic reaction.
The bottom line is that something that is not actually unhealthy for your dog becomes the trigger for an uncomfortable medical condition.
Why Does My Dog Have Allergies?
Why does a certain dog’s immune system seem to go haywire in the presence of (otherwise innocent) allergens? Many pet owners are worried that they “did something” that caused their pet to develop allergies—whether it be by feeding them a certain food, or using a certain unmedicated or medicated shampoo. This is not only untrue, it’s actually impossible! Our veterinarians want you to know: you did not do anything to cause your dog to develop allergies. This isn’t your fault!
Just like people, your dog’s allergies can be seen as just bad luck. ANY dog can develop allergies, and most have their first episode of allergies between 1 and 5 years of age. However, it’s important to note that dogs can develop a food allergy or food intolerance to food proteins at any age, so definitely keep an eye on your dog’s skin–regardless of how old they are.
Genetics play a large role in whether your dog will develop allergies. You probably know that genes control the length of a dog’s muzzle or the shortness of a dog’s haircoat. Did you know that genes for allergies and other medical conditions can be passed down from generation to generation? This fact, combined with the high prevalence of inbreeding in the dog world—generations of inbreeding have created the dog breeds we know and love today—means that purebred dogs are much more likely to suffer from allergies. The genetic predisposition to allergies is called “atopy” in medical terms, and you may hear your veterinarian use this word from time to time if your dog suffers from itchy skin or other symptoms.
Dog breeds that are frequently seen in veterinary hospitals for allergies include Labrador Retrievers, English Bulldogs, Pit Bulls, West Highland White Terriers (“Westies”), Golden Retrievers, and French Bulldogs.
Talk to a Trusted Vet
If you think your dog’s symptoms may be due to allergies, your AskVet veterinarian is happy to discuss the possibility of a pet allergy with you! If your veterinarian has diagnosed your dog with allergies, we can help you understand what might be making your dog uncomfortable, clarify what allergies might mean for your dog, or just answer any general questions you might have about how to treat dog allergies.
While allergies are a lifelong condition, there are many treatments available. Your AskVet veterinarians are here to help you provide your dog a long, comfortable life!
Allison Ward, DVM
Dr. Allison Ward grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and started working in veterinary hospitals when she was 14 years old. After graduating from veterinary school in 2011, she completed a small animal rotating internship in New Jersey, followed by a neurology/neurosurgery internship in Miami. After completing this advanced training, Dr. Ward then moved on to general small animal practice. Dr. Ward’s professional interests include feline medicine, neurology, and pain management. Her passion for educating pet owners carries over into her work with AskVet, and she loves being able to help pets and their parents at all times of the day (and night!). She currently resides in sunny south Florida with her two cats, Larry and George.