Canine Allergies

Both people and pets can suffer from allergies. I belong to multiple online canine groups where at least one person a week asks a question about hot spots, feet licking, or other allergy-based reactions. Sadly, nine out of ten times, the people who are “giving advice” automatically tell the person asking that the suffering dog has food allergies. There are a few issues with this. 

First and foremost, most people do not understand that dogs that have food allergies are usually just that…a dog, NOT a puppy. A puppy under the age of nine months VERY RARELY will have a food allergy. In all reality, they probably are having an immune response to something else in their environment. Changing your pet’s food should not always be the first response. In turn, understanding the different types of allergies is imperative.

Types of Allergies in Dogs

Predominantly, allergies in general are a misguided reaction of the body’s immune system. PUPPIES who have allergy-type reactions more than likely have a lowered immune system and the best way to battle this is supplements. Nevertheless, that will be further discussed later. 

There are multiple allergy sources for dogs. Skin allergies, food allergies, and environmental allergies are all common allergies that can be seen in canines. Another complication is that the symptoms of each of these can mimic one another which can make it difficult to pinpoint the type of allergy. 

Skin Reactive Allergies

The terminology for this allergy is somewhat misleading. This is not really an allergy in and of itself, it is the reaction to an allergy. Skin allergies, also known as allergic dermatitis, are the most common type of allergic reaction in dogs. There are three main causes of skin allergies in dogs:

1. Fleas

2. Food

3. Environmental


Flea allergy dermatitis is an allergic reaction to flea bites (not the fleas themselves). Some dogs are allergic to flea saliva. In turn, when a female flea bites the dog, the body reacts to this bite. Affected dogs become extremely itchy in those areas where fleas are most prevalent. It usually shows up the most on the animal's back near the base of the tail. There may also be a reaction on the dog’s tummy and genital area. The dog’s skin may become red, inflamed, and scabbed. In addition, there can be significant hair loss in the affected areas of the dog’s body. For flea allergic dermatitis, there must be fleas.  Even if you do not see the fleas themselves, look for “flea dirt” which are small dirt-like granules on the animal’s skin. This is flea feces.  

Environmental Canine Allergies

Environmental allergens for dogs are the same as those for humans. The common allergens are dust, pollen, mold, grasses, and chemicals. These allergens often cause atopic allergic reactions or atopic dermatitis (atopic means on the skin). In most cases, these are seasonal or contact allergies, so you may only notice your dog itching during certain times of the year or when he/she comes into contact with an allergen. According to my vet, seasonal allergies are also an issue that will not show up until the puppy is at least 9 months old. However, contact allergies such as skin sensitivity to cleaning products, poison oak, poison ivy, etc. can happen at any time. The most commonly affected areas are the paws and ears but can also include anywhere else on the dog. This is also the most common reason for hot spots and can sometimes cause hives.


As mentioned above, true food allergies are not as common as some believe. Remember that there is a difference between an allergy and a sensitivity. According to the AKC Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Jerry Klein,

“True food allergies result in an immune response, which can range in symptoms from skin conditions (hives, facial swelling, itchiness), gastrointestinal signs (vomiting and/or diarrhea) or a combination of both. In some rare cases, a severe reaction resulting in anaphylaxis can occur—similar to severe peanut allergies in humans”

What is more common is a food sensitivity or intolerance. Food sensitivities, unlike true allergies, do not involve a true immune response and are instead a gradually worsening reaction to an offending ingredient in the dog’s food.   

The most common “itchy spots” associated with food sensitivities are their ears and their paws.  There can be a buildup of yeast in the dog’s ears causing ear infections. In addition, dogs may consistently lick their paws.

Less common, but more severe symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, itchiness, poor skin and coat, and chronic ear or foot infections.

The best way to diagnose and treat a food allergy is to work with your veterinarian to manage your dog’s symptoms and discover the ingredient(s) causing the reaction. Currently, there are multiple different sensitive formula dog foods on the market.

Acute Allergic Reactions

This type of allergy is the most alarming.  There is no doubt or question that your dog is having an allergic reaction. Dogs, like people, can go into anaphylactic shock if they have a severe reaction to an allergen. This can be fatal if not treated.

The most common causes are injections (including vaccines), insect bites or stings, and medications. Luckily, anaphylactic reactions are rare in dogs.

Common symptoms of anaphylaxis are hard to miss.  The dog may develop hives, facial swelling, labored breathing, and excessive salivation.  If you see ANY of these, it is imperative that you get your dog to the vet immediately.  Anaphylaxis in dogs can be as deadly as it is in humans.

Acute allergic reactions MUST have veterinary intervention. The safest way to treat this type of allergy is with the help of your veterinarian. If the reaction happens in the middle of the night, use an emergency veterinarian. DO NOT WAIT.

Diagnosing and Treating Allergies in Dogs

All skin allergies pose the risk of secondary infection due to the high chance that the dog will break the skin when itching.  This opens the door to bacterial and yeast infections that are a result of breaking of the skin from itching.  For this reason, if your dog is showing symptoms of allergies, your first stop should be the vet if there are lesions of any sort.

The diagnosis of a flea allergy is the easiest… 

Honestly, the minute your vet sees the dog, even before touching the animal, they can usually diagnose a flea allergy.  In addition, this is the easiest allergy to treat.  At first, the veterinarian will usually give the dog a steroidal injection to help calm the immune response.  They may put the dog on an antibiotic to prevent or treat a secondary bacterial or staph infection.  You will be sent home with a specialized medicated shampoo and told to bathe your dog with it a couple of times a week for the first week, then once a week, then as needed.  Lastly, your dog will be put on a flea prevention. It is important that the flea prevention is continued and consistent.  With flea allergies, you cannot miss the renewal of this treatment.  We strongly recommend an oral treatment such as Bravecto, Trifexix, or Nexgard.

Environmental or seasonal allergies are more difficult to pinpoint…

Your vet can diagnose the allergy, but without actual allergy testing, they cannot guarantee the actual culprit whether it be mold, dust, etc. If you have ever undergone allergy testing, then you know that diagnosing environmental allergies is often complicated.  For these types of allergies, we strongly suggest that you work on the strengthening of your dog’s immune system.  To do this, you should add supplements to your dog’s diet.  Vitamin supplements can help, but there are so many on the market that it is somewhat hit or miss.  We recommend using nzymes ® and NuVet as these have been proven to work in our own dogs.  You can find information on these supplements on our website by reviewing the supplements page.  In addition, you can discuss the best treatment with your veterinarian which may include steroid shots, special shampoos, and antihistamines.

Food sensitivities are usually diagnosed using an elimination diet…

This consists of feeding your dog one source of protein for three to four weeks to see if there is a change in the condition.  If there is no change, then you will move to the next source of protein.  This process can also be found on our “Sensitive Stomachs” page.  If the dog becomes itchy again once moved to commercial dog food, then it is one of the grain sources or additives that is in the dog food.  The only way to narrow this down is to complete the food trials with different dog foods until you find one that your dog’s system does not react to.  The other option is keeping your dog on homemade food with an added food supplement to make sure they are getting the nutrients they need.  The RAW or BARF diet is never a good idea, so stay away from this choice.

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