Spring flowers are in full bloom—and so are seasonal allergies. But while you’re sneezing and sniffling, your dog is scratching, biting, and licking. Unlike humans, canine seasonal allergies are most commonly expressed through their skin, not the respiratory tract. However, your dog may be reacting to much more than the colorful spring landscape. Let’s explore some reasons why your dog is itchy.
Why Do Dogs Have Allergies?
Dogs—like people—have an immune system designed to protect them from external threats, bacterial invaders, viruses, and parasites. However, this necessary defense can be overly sensitive to certain substances in the dog’s environment, whether inhaled, ingested, injected, or encountered through direct contact. When the dog is exposed, their immune system is activated, and histamine and other reactive substances are released, initiating inflammation. This inflammation is the cause of your dog’s discomfort and visible signs. Depending on your dog’s specific allergy, signs may include:
- Frequent scratching, biting, chewing, or licking
- Hair loss
- Self-trauma (i.e., wounds, hair-pulling)
- Facial rubbing or pawing
- Irritated or inflamed skin
- Sores and scaly/scabbed areas
- Chronic skin or ear infections
- Gastrointestinal signs (e.g., vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence), which are most commonly associated with a food allergy or sensitivity
One commonly used veterinary phrase for recognizing allergies is “ears, rears, and feet.”In other words, dogs with recurring ear infections, anal sac impaction or infection, and itchy, irritated paw pads are typically expressing allergies. Skin irritation can occur anywhere on the body, though, especially areas the dog can easily reach, such as the front legs, face, and abdomen. Skin irritation can also be generalized (i.e., everywhere).
Why Is Your Dog Itchy?
Although some breeds are predisposed to allergies (e.g., Labrador retrievers, shih tzus, West Highland white terriers), all dogs—male or female—can develop sensitivity to environmental allergens like grasses and pollen. These typically develop during the dog’s early years, whereas food allergies and sensitivities can arise at any life stage.
Here are the most common causes for canine allergies:
- Environmental allergens — This category encompasses a broad spectrum of allergens, including these outdoor and indoor substances:
- Grass and weed pollen
- Tree pollens
- Dust mites
- Mold spores
Environmental allergies can sometimes be identified through their seasonal appearance (worsening in the spring and summer, and calming in the winter)Indoor allergens, though, such as dust and mold, will make your dog itchy year-round. Environmental allergies, which are the most commonly inherited allergy type, are also known as canine atopy or canine allergic dermatitis.
- Food allergens — Contrary to popular belief, food allergies are most often caused by proteins—not grains—in dog food and treats. When allergic dogs consume an offending protein, they absorb the allergen through their gastrointestinal tract, which can trigger digestive issues, skin irritation, or, less commonly, respiratory signs. While any protein or carbohydrate can be a potential trigger, dogs are most often reactive to:
In addition to your dog’s regular diet, allergens may be present in your pup’s treats, chew toys, medications, flavored dog products such as toothpaste, and table scraps.
- Flea allergy — Some dogs experience an intense hypersensitivity reaction to a protein in flea saliva—an immune response so strong that a single flea bite can induce incessant scratching, chewing, and self-trauma. Dogs not currently receiving flea and tick prevention—and therefore susceptible to larger flea populations—experience perpetual discomfort and misery. Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is characterized by severe, focused chewing, self-trauma, or hair pulling at the tail base, where fleas like to bite.
- Contact allergens — We include this category, which is the least common cause for canine allergies because many household products used daily can be a source of irritation. Contact allergies require direct physical contact or skin application. Common causes include:
- Plastic bowls — Dogs may experience a localized skin reaction on their chin and jawline.
- Topical flea and tick products — Inexpensive, over-the-counter liquid treatments and collars may contain ingredients that cause skin irritation and hair loss.
- Household chemicals — Cleaners, aerosols, and pool chemicals may cause contact dermatitis or burn your pet’s skin.
- Treated fabrics — Pet beds may be treated with harsh chemicals to reduce staining or repel water. Carpet cleaners, spot removers, and laundry chemicals may also irritate sensitive pets.
What Should You Do If You Suspect Your Dog Has Allergies?
Although allergies cannot be cured, they can be successfully managed. Once your dog’s allergens are identified, proper diagnosis by a veterinarian is essential for targeted, effective relief. And, because secondary skin infections, skin barrier damage, and unpleasant household risks (e.g., flea infestations) are possible, always seek veterinary care before attempting home remedies.
Your dog’s veterinarian will ask specific questions about the history and nature of your dog’s discomfort, perform a full physical examination, and may recommend additional testing, such as skin scrapes, fungal or bacterial cultures, and blood work. If your dog’s allergy source is still unclear, you may be referred to a veterinary dermatologist for advanced allergy testing.
Once your dog’s allergens are identified—by testing or a process of elimination—your veterinarian will design a multi-step treatment plan that focuses on:
- Alleviating discomfort
- Eliminating secondary infection and restoring skin health
- Reducing allergy exposure, if possible
- Controlling flare-ups
Managing canine allergies is a lifelong process, and you must be prepared to follow your veterinarian’s treatment plan closely to ensure success, save on veterinary bills, and provide your dog with much-needed relief. Your dog’s plan may include medication, a diet change and strict feeding trial, frequent medicated baths, and monthly flea and tick preventives, or require you to replace household products and items. No matter the solution, watching your allergic dog rest comfortably—or begin acting like themselves again—after a season or longer of itching, scratching, and suffering, is enough to make it all worthwhile.