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Canine Atopy: What Do Pet Owners Need to Know and Do?

Updated on March 18, 2015
DonnaCosmato profile image

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

Itchy dog? Is is food or flea allergies or canine atopy?
Itchy dog? Is is food or flea allergies or canine atopy? | Source

Did you know that your furry best friend could suffer from hay fever or other airborne allergens just like you? It's true, dogs can and do suffer from seasonal allergies caused by pollen and other airborne allergens.

However, our canine friends can also manifest some symptoms and sensitivities not seen in human sufferers, which require a veterinarian's advice. In today's interview, Dr. Cathy Alinovi, owner of HealthyPAWsibilities (formerly Hoofstock Veterinary Services) shares her expertise on the subject.

Question 1: What is the definition of "atopy"?

Dr. Cathy: An atopy is an allergy – one where the patient responds immediately to whatever the patient is allergic to. The difference is a delayed type allergy – where the allergic reaction occurs later. For example: Atopic response: sniff a flower and immediately sneeze. Delayed allergy: sniff a flower and develop hives after several hours.

Environmental allergens may be the cause of your dog's scratching.
Environmental allergens may be the cause of your dog's scratching. | Source

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Q2: How common is canine atopy?

Dr. Cathy: Estimates are that 15% of the dog population has atopic dermatitis, while veterinarians may see up to 30% atopic cases.

Q4: At what age do dogs typically start exhibiting symptoms of atopic allergies?

Dr. Cathy: Atopic allergies usually start after one to three seasons of exposure. This means that between one to three years of age, an atopic dog will have been exposed to whatever makes the allergies and will start itching.

Q 3: Are there certain "at risk" breeds?

Dr. Cathy: While there are breeds at higher risk, many mixed breed and all canine breeds are at risk of having atopic dermatitis.

See the table below for a list of at-risk breeds.

Breeds at Risk for Atopy
Bichon Frise
Golden Retriever
Boston Terrier
Great Dane
Irish Setter
Bull Terrier
Jack Russell Terrier
Cairn Terrier
Labrador Retriever
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Chow Chow
Rhodesian Ridgeback
Cocker Spaniel
Scottish Terrier
Fox Terrier
Silky Terrier
French Bulldog
Fox Terrier
West Highland White Terrier
German Shepherd Dog
Wirehair Terrier
Golden Retriever
Bichon frise are one of the many breeds at risk for canine atopy
Bichon frise are one of the many breeds at risk for canine atopy | Source

Q5: What warning signs should pet parents be on the lookout for?

Dr. Cathy: Watch for rubbing, licking, scratching, chewing, biting, licking at the muzzle, ears, groin, armpits or belly. The self-trauma leads to skin infections, bumps, thickened or blackened skin, hair loss, watery eyes and runny nose.

Q6: Could these symptoms be indicative of conditions other than atopy?

What would those other conditions be?

Dr. Cathy: Commonly, the list of reasons why dogs would be this itchy is: food allergies, flea allergies, or atopy.

Environmental Allergies: Canine Atopy

Q7: As a vet, what would be your procedure for diagnosing canine atopy?

Dr. Cathy: Because an itchy dog has three main culprits (food, flea allergy dermatitis or atopy), the trick is to tease out which condition, or conditions, is causing the itch.

There are three commonly used approaches to diagnosing atopy: skin or blood testing for allergies, or a long-acting steroid challenge. In skin testing, the dog is sedated, and very small amounts of allergy making substance (allergen) are injected into the skin. Then, the skin is evaluated for how much swelling occurs. For example, a lot of swelling means an allergic reaction.

Blood testing measures levels of antibodies (allergic response molecules) in the blood. In this case, high levels of antibodies mean an allergic response.

In the long-acting steroid challenge, a dose of triamcinolone (a long-acting steroid) is given with no other medications. How long the itch is abated helps with the diagnostic process.

Therefore, if the itch returns in a few days, most likely fleas are present. If the itch returns in two to three weeks, it’s likely to be a food allergy. If the itch returns in six to eight weeks, atopy is the diagnosis. The neat thing about the steroid challenge is that it differentiates atopy from food or flea allergies, while the blood or skin testing determines only the presence or absence of atopy.

While the manufacturers of the blood tests will offer food allergy screening, the blood tests are only 50% accurate for determining food allergies. This means there is little value in using a blood test to determine food allergies.

Q8: What treatment(s) would you recommend?

Dr. Cathy: In cases with very a strong allergic response, allergy desensitization shots can help quite a bit. Avoidance of known allergy substances can help to an extent, however, when a dog has a grass allergy; it becomes tough to avoid grass.

While the patient may have atopy, there is still good reason to control fleas and address food allergies, as the atopy patient may also have signs of food and flea allergies. Therefore, the highest quality foods should be fed (no grains, no dyes, preferably real food like home-cooked or raw), and fleas should be prevented.

Q9: Is it curable?

Dr. Cathy: It is controllable. Avoidance and great food are only part of the treatment. The liver is actually quite involved in allergies/atopy. Patients with healthy livers have fewer allergies. The liver is responsible for the majority of detoxification in the body.

If the liver is working overtime, it isn’t detoxifying as well as it should be and allergies worsen. Liver detoxification can be as simple as real food and milk thistle, or it can be much more complicated.

Q10: What is the prognosis for dogs with canine atopy?

Dr. Cathy: It depends on your commitment to helping your dog. Often, expecting a quick fix to atopy is unrealistic. The quick fix at the vet’s office is a steroid shot or some pills, and maybe antibiotics if the skin is infected – but the problem will keep coming back. The dog parent who is committed to getting to the root of the problem will help his/her dog live a longer, more quality life.

Q11: What else do pet parents need to know about canine atopy?

Dr. Cathy: There certainly is a genetic component to atopy. However, in analyzing the long list of susceptible breeds is, it becomes apparent the genetic “cause” is artificial selection for good-looking dogs; dogs bred for looks, not healthy livers and immune systems, which would keep these dogs allergy free.

The other thing to keep in mind is there are a few dogs with severe allergies that are not treated by anything listed above. These dogs may have imbalances in their pH, may have crazy yeast or bacterial overgrowth in their intestines, or may have out of balance neurotransmitters.

These patients require time and dedication under the care of a holistic or integrative veterinarian, as these conditions are not well characterized by routine medicine. I routinely am challenged to help these dogs at my practice – and we can have good luck with dedication.

© 2014 Donna Cosmato


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    • DonnaCosmato profile image

      Donna Cosmato 3 years ago from USA

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Thelma! I hope your puppy will be one of the fortunate ones that will not suffer from canine atopy.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 3 years ago from Germany

      Very helpful and useful hub. I will observe my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dog if he has those symptoms. Thanks for sharing.