By Dr. Becker
If your dog seems to have an allergic condition, it's important to get an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as you can.
Unlike the vast majority of traditional DVMs, I wholeheartedly disagree your pet should be started right away on a regimen of anti-allergy drugs and antibiotics and/or anti-viral medications.
There are safer ways to relieve your dog's symptoms than pharmaceuticals while you and your vet work to discover the root cause of the allergic reaction.
Relieving symptoms without addressing the source of the problem is a short term fix to what can become a lifelong health problem. And certain drugs used to stop the allergic cycle have significant, potentially very serious side effects.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD)
Flea allergy dermatitis, which is actually sensitivity to flea saliva, is a very common condition in dogs. It's not the bite of the flea that causes most of the itching in dogs with FAD, it's the saliva.
The saliva causes irritation way out of proportion to the actual number of fleas on the pup.
Lots of dog parents assume if their pet isn't infested with fleas, the itching can't be caused by fleas. But if your dog has FAD, the saliva of just one or two fleas can make him miserably itchy and uncomfortable for many weeks (long past the death of those two fleas).
Suggestions for flea control:
- If you suspect or know fleas are a problem for your dog, I recommend you comb her at least once daily, every day during pest season with a flea comb. Do this on a white towel or other light colored cloth so you can see what's coming off your dog as you comb. Flea 'dirt' (actually flea feces) looks like real dirt, but when suspended in a little rubbing alcohol or water will dissolve and release a red color (blood) allowing you to discern real dirt from flea dirt.
- Bathe your dog often. A soothing bath will kill any fleas on your dog, help heal skin irritation, and make her feel more comfortable and less itchy. Also, clean animals aren't as attractive to fleas. Pick a non-grain (no oatmeal) herbal shampoo.
- Make liberal use of an all-natural pest repellent like Natural Flea and Tick Defense during flea season.
For some dogs with a serious case of flea allergy dermatitis, I prescribe an oral drug called Comfortis. It is a chemical, but it's considered the least hazardous of all similar drugs. All drugs can have side effects, but Comfortis has reportedly fewer than topical insecticides.
If your dog has an allergy to something he's eating, it may show itself not only as digestive upset (gas, diarrhea, vomiting, etc.), but also as one or several of these symptoms:
- Itchy or oozing skin
- Red, irritated eyes
- Nasal discharge
- Coughing or sneezing; asthma
- Inflamed ears
- Swollen paws
If you suspect your dog is sensitive to something in her diet, there are a number of things you can do to learn the source of the allergy and solve the problem:
- If your dog is over a year old, consider using Dr. Jean Dodds' Nutriscan saliva test to determine if your pet is allergic to beef, corn, wheat, soy, eggs and/or milk (the most common antigens for dogs). Dr. Dodds will be adding additional antigens to the test in the near future.
- If your pet has been eating the same food every day for months or years, there's a good chance she's developed an allergy to it. Contrary to what you've probably been led to believe, pets need diversity in their diets just like humans do. She might be sensitive to the single source of chemically-laced protein she's been getting (chances are the meat is loaded with antibiotics and hormones causing immune system over-reaction). She's also probably grown sensitive to certain allergenic ingredients in the food, typically grains and other carbohydrates.
Work with your holistic vet to develop an allergy elimination diet to help pinpoint the source of the problem. I recommend a three-month diet, which is longer than what many vets suggest. I like to give adequate time for an animal's body to clear the allergenic substances, detoxify, and clean out cellular debris.
At the end of the elimination diet, new foods are added back in slowly, one at a time to gauge your dog's response. It's not uncommon for pets to be able to re-incorporate previous problem foods or clean proteins into the diet once the body is detoxified and the GI tract is healthy again.
- Your holistic vet should also suggest natural supplements to help with detoxification, allergy relief and immune system support during and after the elimination diet.
- To be optimally healthy -- which includes avoiding food sensitivities and building resistance to all types of allergies -- your dog should be fed a balanced, species-appropriate diet. The diet I recommend is preferably raw, either homemade (again, as long as it's balanced) or commercial. Rotating the protein sources your dog eats is extremely important, as is strictly limiting or eliminating grains.
In addition to flea saliva and certain foods/ingredients, your dog can also be allergic to an infinite variety of irritants in the environment. These can be outdoor allergens like ragweed, grasses and pollens, as well as indoor irritants like mold, dust mites, cleaning chemicals and even fabrics like wool or cotton.
As a general rule, if your dog is allergic to something inside your home, he'll have year-round symptoms. If he's reacting is to something outdoors, it could very well be a seasonal problem.
Also, your pet's immune system is partly genetic, so he can actually inherit a tendency toward environmental allergies.
Finding the root cause of this type of allergy is extremely important, because what usually happens is the more your pet is exposed to an irritant, the more his sensitivity and reaction to it grows.
Some suggestions for finding and resolving environmental irritants:
- Clean up your pet's indoor air environment. Don't allow smoking around your pet. Switch to non-toxic cleaning products. Consider investing in an air purifier to control dust mites.
- Make sure your dog's drinking water is high quality and doesn't contain fluoride, heavy metals or other contaminants.
- Don't allow your dog to be over-vaccinated or over medicated. Vaccines rev up your pet's immune system – too many vaccinations can send it into overdrive. An over-reactive immune system sets the stage for allergic conditions.
Antibiotics wipe out good bacteria right along with the bad guys. Since the majority of your pet's immune system is in her GI tract, the right balance of gut bacteria is crucial for her health. There's also the growing problem of antibiotic resistance in pets.
Steroid therapy (prednisone, for example) is often prescribed for pets with allergies. What these drugs do is turn off the immune system so it stops creating the allergic response. It does work for symptom relief, but unfortunately, the side effects make this a very serious, potentially dangerous drug.
- Bathe your dog. If your pet has irritated skin, bathing will rinse the allergens away and make her feel better immediately. Don't be shy about how often you bathe your pet, especially if she suffers from allergies that itch and irritate her skin.
If you suspect something outdoors is irritating your dog, in between baths, do foot soaks. Chances are the allergen is coming inside on your pet's feet. She can't escape it, and she's spreading it around indoors to every room she visits.