Tips to Help Itchy Dogs (and Everyone’s Sanity)

Is your dog scratching and scratching and chewing and chewing? Is your dog so uncomfortable in his/her own skin that there is no sleep for either of you? Does your dog look at you with big, sad eyes asking for help, saying "make this itch stop, let me sleep"? Well, the problem may be due to seasonal allergies.

dog scratching graphicAs the growing season changes from summer to fall, so do the plants that produce possible allergies in our pets. Just like some people, some dogs are more sensitive to spring plants, some to summer and some to what is now blooming.

Although lots of people think golden rod is a big contributor to allergy suffering, it is primarily an insect pollinator so there is little contact with the pollen. Actually, the big culprits right now are plants that use wind as their means of spreading their pollen such as ragweed, mugwort and sorrel.

The other biggie is mold. Mold’s pollen is light and therefore easily spread by the wind. It is found in the dirt, those lovely compost piles you have been making all summer and around the beautiful, fallen leaves of this season.

So, what to do? First, you should always have your canine friend evaluated by your trusty veterinarian to make sure there isn’t a pesky parasite involved such as fleas, scabies or lice. You also want to have any underlying medical issues ruled out including a primary skin disease or infection, thyroid or other endocrine imbalances, immune system irregularities or rarely, cancer. And there is certainly the possibility of food sensitivities causing a significant itch, but unless you have recently changed your pooch’s diet, a seasonal onset itch is usually not food-related.

After it has been determined that Fido (or Fidoella) has probable seasonal allergies, let’s work on treating them. Here is an EASY one: wipe your pet down with a dampened paper towel or soft towel every time after he or she has been outside. This will help decrease the pollen load left on the skin.

Shampooing periodically can sometimes be helpful, depending on the type of shampoo and the severity of the itching. Your veterinarian can help you find the right product and develop the appropriate schedule.

Talk to your veterinarian about possible antihistamines that can be given to dogs. They are generally safe and effective to a varying degree, depending on the dog, the type and the dose. NEVER give anything from over the counter without first talking to your veterinarian.

Sometimes it will be necessary to use steroids if the itching is so out of control that antihistamines alone are not enough. This is a great drug when used appropriately –there are no other medical issues and we are able to taper the dose down as the season changes to winter. There are short and long-term side effects however, so we use them with respect.

Atopica (cyclosporin) is an immune system modulator which means it decreases the response the body has to allergens, therefore making the itch not so itchy. It can be very effective and provide long-term relief when used consistently. It can cause stomach upsets in some pets, so that is taken into account when being considered as an option.

Apoquel is the newest drug in our arsenal against allergies. It is not a cyclosporin or a steroid, but it works at disrupting the chemical pathways that lead to the itching and inflammation caused by pollen and other environmental allergens. Like Atopica, it can be very effective and provide long-term relief when used consistently. The side effects, if any, are minimal, and often we can avoid steroids completely (or at least use them at a much reduced dose) when we use it on dogs suffering from significant allergies.

With all of that said, what dogs are allergic to and how they respond to treatment is specific to each allergy sufferer. Each case is unique and not one treatment works for all nor all treatments work for one. Avoidance of all possible pollens would be ideal, but did you know that one single ragweed plant produces one BILLION pollen grams per season?

So, if your canine friend is itchy, sad and sleep- deprived (making you sad and sleep-deprived too), come on in and let us help you both get some relief!

Teal S. Ranney, DVM, is a veterinarian at Chesterfield Veterinary Clinic. She has been practicing small animal veterinary medicine in the area since 1997.