Labradoodle Rescue & Goldendoodle Rescue
Dogs, just like people, can and do have allergies to many different things. Since my guy Jackdoodle has a very severe allergic condition called atopic dermatitis, or atopy, I have unfortunately become something of an expert in this area. There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about allergies in general, and about allergies in dogs in particular. I hope this discussion will help to provide some info and understanding of this condition.
True allergy is a genetic disease, or malfunction, of the immune system. In allergic individuals, the immune system is overactive, misidentifies common every day substances which enter the body as "enemies", and launches an attack...basically against itself. In it's more severe forms, allergies can be life-threatening.
While dogs are often allergic to the same things that cause humans misery, such as pollens, molds, and dust-mites, dogs do not react in the same way. Instead of runny noses, sneezing, & other respiratory symptoms, dogs react by itching...intensely. The subsequent constant biting, licking, and scratching creates skin infections which can be very serious. The skin infections cause even more discomfort, becoming a vicious circle necessitating ever-increasing amounts of drugs, and an increasingly hyper immune system.
Here are some basic facts about allergies in our dogs:
1. Allergies take repeated exposure to the substance in order to develop. This is the opposite of what most people think. In the case of food allergies, it typically takes a year of eating the food on the regular basis to develop an allergy. In the case of inhalant allergies, the dog has to have been exposed to the substance at some previous time to develop an allergy to it. For this reason, it is extremely rare for a young puppy to have an allergy to anything.
2. Food is the problem in only 10% of allergic dogs.
Symptoms of food allergies in dogs are the same as the symptoms of inhalant allergies...intense itching. Gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, etc., are NOT indicative of allergy, but rather, a food intolerance, or just a problem with an unaccustomed food. The foods that most commonly cause allergy problems in dogs are wheat, corn, soy, beef, and chicken.
3. If it IS a food allergy, switching kibble will not help, unless the protein sources in the new kibble are different from those in the old kibble, and are proteins that the dog has not eaten before. The only way to determine food allergy is to do an 8-12 week food trials using only a single novel protein, i.e. a protein source the dog has never eaten before. (There are some food trial diets in the Food Group, for those who want to learn how.) But keep in mind, out of 20 allergic dogs, only 2 or 3 have food allergies.
4. Storage MITES can be the problem. Storage mites are now thought to be responsible for as many problems with asthma & other allergy related breathing problems in children as house dust-mites. Storage mites live in kibble & other packaged dry foods. Vets recommend disposing of the bags from the store immediately, outside of your home, and keeping kibble in air tight containers which are frequently washed in hot water & soap, and well-dried. Do not buy more than 1 months' worth of kibble at a time, and choose higher quality brands with less particulate matter. (So if someone you know switched kibble and her dogs' itching immediately improved, it was probably storage mites.)
5. Food allergies are tough to diagnose, but easy to treat. Once you find the culprit, eliminate it. Inhalant allergies, on the other hand, can be reliably diagnosed, but have few treatment options. (See my "All About Allergies" discussion in the main forum for more on this.) Dogs whose allergy symptoms are seasonal DEFINITELY have inhalant type allergies, not food.
6. Allergies can get worse as dogs age. The seasonal symptoms can become year round, and the drugs lose their power to relieve the misery, in addition to causing other problems. Treatment needs to begin as early as possible to spare your dog from future suffering.
7. Water can be an enemy! Dampness can exacerbate the itching and also attract allergens. Water dries out the skin, and the skin is too dry and uncomfortable to begin with. The problem is coming from inside the body, it is not ON the skin. Brushing is fine, but try not to bathe the dog more often than every 2-3 months. Keep the dog's paws, in particular, as dry as possible after going outdoors.
UPDATE: This info has changed since I first posted this discussion. Frequent bathing may help, but needs to be done in a specific way. See this update for more bathing info:
8. Most common areas for allergic itching to occur: FEET, groin and/or axilla, face, especially around the eyes, base of tail, ears. Many dogs will completely strip the fur away from these areas with constant licking & chewing. Also look for redness around the eyelids, and reddish coloring on the fur between the pads of the feet.
9. Finding the cause is important...but first, STOP THE SUFFERING! Please do not let your dog continue to itch unbearably while you start playing guessing games with his food. Your dog needs immediate help in the form of antihistamines, fatty acid capsules, and in worse case scenarios, antibiotics and/or steroids. None of us likes to give our dogs medicines...but you need to help him feel better and save his skin from further damage. Get some relief for your dog first, then start figuring out what to do to prevent it in the future. Call the vet.
10. Itching does not always mean allergies...it could also be mites, mange, fleas, other parasites, or even a hormonal imbalance. Just because you can't see parasites, doesn't mean they're not there. Dogs can also get poison ivy, and don't forget the occasional plain old ear infection. (On the subject of ear infections, bacterial infections are very different from yeast infections, and need to be treated differently.) Once again, don't guess...see your vet.
And be aware that general practice vets are not experts in allergies, just as your primary care physician is not an expert in allergies. Your best bet in severe cases is to consult a veterinary dermatology specialist.
For temporary relief of inhalant allergies, here are some things that you can do:
Give Omega 3 fatty acid supplements. You want the Omega 3 fatty acids DHA & EPA, which are only found in fish. You can also give GLA in the form of evening primrose oil supplements. In both cases, use human softgel supplements.
If you feed dry dog food, check the Omega 6:3 ratio. You want a ratio of 5:1 or less, the lower the better, and the Omega 3 content should come from fish.
Give antihistamines. Different antihistamines are more effective for different dogs. Typically, you want second generation antihistamines that do not cause drowsiness, like Claritin, Zyrtec, Atarax, etc. rather than Benadryl.
Use OTC anti-itch sprays on the affected areas. These are available at most pet supply stores.
Wipe the dog down every time he comes in from outside, paying particular attention to the feet. Brush the dog daily.
Keep the indoor areas where the dog spends the most time as clean and dust free as possible. Wash bedding weekly, wash food & water bowls daily. Vacuum as often as possible.
Keep dry foods in air-tight storage containers and don;t buy more than you can use in a month unless you can freeze it.
If the feet are affected, you can soak them in tepid water with epsom salts. Be sure to dry thoroughly afterwards.
Bathe the dog often, weekly if possible, with a shampoo formulated for allergic dogs. (I like Douxo Calm). Do NOT use leave-in conditioners or other grooming products. Use a cool dryer setting or air-dry.
As much as I hate doing it, keeping windows closed really helps with pollen allergies. Run the A/C in warm weather especially, the allergy symptoms are exacerbated by humidity. Use a furnace filter with a high allergen rating and change it monthly.
I hope this has been helpful.
Food Allergies in Dogs
Fact 1: Food Allergies Are Relatively Rare.
There is a 1 in 10 chance that any dog will have some kind of allergy. There is a 1 in 100 chance that any dog will have an allergy to any type of food. Food allergies are the least common type of allergy in dogs, ranking behind flea allergies and environmental or inhalant allergies.
Fact 2: Food Allergies Take Time to Develop.
It is extremely rare for a puppy under the age of 7 months to have a food allergy. It usually takes 6 months to a year of eating the same food repeatedly for a dog to develop an allergy to it, with symptoms most often appearing between 1-2 years of age. This is one reason why it's a good idea to rotate different protein sources in your dog's diet.
Fact 3: Vomiting And/Or Diarrhea Are NOT Symptoms of a Food Allergy.
The symptoms of any allergy in a dog take the form of itching and scratching; rubbing the face, chewing, biting, or licking the paws, itching, scratching & biting the groin, axilla, and base of the tail, red inflamed eyes, skin and/or ear infections. The most common, and usually the first, sign of allergies in dogs is licking or chewing the paws. I have seen one article stating that in a very small percentage of dogs with food allergies, GI symptoms may also appear, but even there, they are always accompanied by dermatological issues.
Gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, regurgitation, loose stools or diarrhea may be signs that your dog has an intolerance to a particular food or combination of foods, but a food intolerance has nothing at all to do with an allergy. An allergy is an incurable disease of the immune system. A food intolerance means something does not agree with your dog's digestive system. There is a big difference.
Fact 4: Dogs Are Allergic to A Specific Food, Not a Brand of Food Or A Type of Feeding.
If there is a food allergy, this means that the dog is allergic to one or more specific ingredients, not to all of the ingredients in a particular type of food. The most common food allergens for dogs are corn, wheat, beef, chicken, and soy. If your dog is allergic to chicken, he is allergic to all chicken in every form, sold by every manufacturer....raw chicken, cooked chicken, the chicken in Purina and the chicken in Orijen. It is the particular combination of protein molecules within a specific food that trigger the allergic reaction, not the brand of dog food or the method of cooking.
Fact 5: There is No Medical Test for Food Allergies, and Switching Brands Won't Help.
Blood tests for food allergies have been proven to be extremely unreliable. Scratch tests are not done for foods.
In order to determine if your dog has a food allergy, you must do food trials. This means you eliminate corn, wheat, beef, and chicken from your dog's diet and feed a limited ingredient diet with one "novel" protein source (something the dog has not been eating on a regular basis, like rabbit or duck) and one starchy carbohydrate (often oatmeal, potatoes, or some type of legumes) for a period of 3 months. (It is not possible for a dog to be allergic to a food he has never eaten.) This also includes all treats, everything that the dog consumes. If the symptoms go away, you then gradually add the chicken back in. If that's okay you add the beef back in, etc., until you have determined what the allergens are. Food trials take many months and are very restrictive.
If you just change your brand of foods, and the dog's symptoms happen to go away, what does that tell you? Which ingredient was the culprit? What can he eat now?
Fact 6: Certain Types of Inhalant Allergies Can be Triggered by Poor Quality Food.
Storage mites are dust-mite type micro-organisms that are believed to be as much to blame for asthma attacks in children as dust-mites, and storage mite allergies are increasing in children...and dogs. Storage mites live in dry cereal-type foods with a lot of particulate matter. The longer the shelf life of a product, the greater the chance that it contains storage mites. The more tightly sealed and impermeable the packaging, the less likely it is to contain storage mites. A dog who is eating a grocery store brand that sits for a year on a warehouse shelf in a paper bag might well show great improvement in itching and scratching if you switched him to a premium dog food. Did he have food allergies...or storage mite allergies?
A poor Omega 6:3 ratio can also contribute to allergy symptoms, although it won't cause them. You want a food that is high in Omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA from fish, and an Omega 6:3 ratio of not more than 5:1. 3:1 or lower would be best.
Fact 7: Rx Diets Prescribed by the Vet Are Garbage and Should Be Avoided at all Costs.
Rx diets do not contain any magic ingredients that will cure your dog's allergies...if he even has any allergies. They are outrageously priced crap in a can/bag that your dog doesn't need..you can feed an alternative diet cheaper, and with healthier ingredients. Please use this link to learn more about why you should say no when your vet prescribes an Rx diet.
Fact 8: Seasonal Allergies Are Never Caused by Food.
This one should be self-explanatory, but let's go over it to make sure. If your dog is allergic to his food, he would be having symptoms all year round, right? So if he suddenly develops allergy symptoms, especially if it's spring or late summer/early fall, don't listen to all the people who tell you to change his food. Chances are great that if he's allergic, it's an allergy to pollen or mold...which are ten times more common than food allergies. Try conservative treatments as advised by your vet and wait until there's a pattern in terms of time of year. Severe allergic reactions always require immediate treatment.
Hope I covered everything. Bottom line, food allergies are nowhere near as common as people think they are, and misinformation is abundant. I hope this helps.