If Fido's been feeling under the weather recently, you might be wondering, "Can dogs have allergies?" It turns out dog allergies exist, but they can be hard to spot, mainly because the symptoms of dog allergies are quite different than the symptoms of human allergies. We turned to Ruth MacPete, DVM — aka "Dr. Ruth the Pet Vet" — to explain how to tell if your dog has allergies, how to tell if the allergies are seasonal or food-related, and how to treat dog allergies so your pup can return to his happy, playful self.
Does my dog have allergies?
"One of the big things is that a lot of people don’t even realize that pets have allergies," Dr. Ruth tells FirstforWomen.com. "In fact, 20 percent of all dogs suffer from some type of allergy, whether it’s a flea allergy, an inhalant allergy, or a food allergy."
When someone has an allergy, their nose may run, they eyes may water, and they may cough and sneeze; these are all symptoms we associate with allergies. But a dog with an allergy looks entirely different. Pets may develop ear infections, and they may lick or chew at their belly, back end, face, feet, or muzzle, explains Dr. Ruth. This constant chewing and scratching may cause hair loss, infection, and skin irritation, she says.
A tell-tale sign that a dog is suffering from some kind of allergy is the presence of a "hot spot." This is the common name vets have for skin infections, and they are usually the result of a pet excessively chewing or licking their skin, Dr. Ruth says. In addition to itching and scratching, diarrhea, gas, and increased bowel movements are other common symptoms of dog allergies.
Like humans, dogs can acquire allergies over time. "A lot of times people will think, 'Well, he’s been eating this food forever and how come now he has a food allergy?'" And that’s because they’re typically acquired," Dr. Ruth describes. "We see a lot of allergies develop at around two to four years of age."
How to Tell What's Causing Your Dog's Allergies
Dogs can be allergic to a variety of things at any time. So how do you know if your dog's allergies are diet-related, or whether you have a dog with an allergy to grass or fleas?
If your pup is on a year-round preventative flea medication, which Dr. Ruth recommends to all pet owners, then a veterinarian can very quickly rule out a flea allergy. Inhalant allergies — or "seasonal allergies" as they're commonly known — tend to be, well, seasonal. "So if a pet is itchy only in the summer or only in April, that’s more likely going to be a seasonal or inhalant allergy," Dr. Ruth says.
When a pet suffers from year-round allergies is when vets may start to question whether a food allergy is the culprit. Barley, oats, and wheat — which are all grains frequently found in dog food — are common allergens.
And it's not just pooches who are susceptible to allergies. "Dogs, as well as cats, can have food allergies, as well as inhalant allergies," says Dr. Ruth.
Dog Allergies Treatment
"Treatment really depends on severity of the allergy and what type of allergy it is," Dr. Ruth explains. "So if it’s an inhalant allergy and it’s mild, your veterinarian may prescribe medications, topical shampoos, antihistamines, or fatty acids. There are some injections they may do as well, to help decrease your pet’s itching." For more severe cases, a vet may recommend intradermal skin testing or even allergy shots.
With mild food allergies, vets recommend gradually transitioning your dog to a grain-free diet. But don't toss out your dog's food just yet; Dr. Ruth suggests changing your dog's diet gradually over a period of about five to 10 days by mixing in more and more of a new, grain-free dog food. Otherwise, your poor pooch can wind up with an upset tummy.
Intradermal skin testing only works for inhalant allergies, so if you change your pet's diet and he's still having the same allergy symptoms, your best bet is to take him to see the vet. Some animals will need a hypoallergenic diet, which is available through a veterinarian.
"One of the great things is that [grain-free pet] diets used to be really hard to find and they used to only be things people could get in pet specialty stores. But now you can get Supreme Source Grain-Free Dog Food at Chewy.com, you can get it at local grocery stories. So it’s really nice that people can get a premium grain-free food for a budget price and at their local grocery store," Dr. Ruth says.
The one thing you shouldn't do when it comes to dog allergies is to just give your puppy medications for humans and hope it'll work out. "I don’t recommend that people ever give their pet humans medications without first checking with their veterinarian, because there are so many human medications that can be incredibly dangerous and even fatal to animals," Dr. Ruth says, pointing to Tylenol as one example. "Tylenol can be fatal to cats; it causes kidney failure and death. So something that we take that we think is a benign, innocuous product can be deadly to a cat."
But what if you're too busy to stop in to see the vet and get a prescription? You should at least call them on the phone and ask, “Is there something I can give him at home?” says Dr. Ruth. In fact, it's best to always check with a vet before giving your pet any new medication at all.
Grain-Free Dog Diets
All this talk about the benefits of a grain-free diet may have you wondering, "Should I change my pet's food now, even though he's not experiencing any allergies?"
While a grain-free diet won't prevent an allergy, Dr. Ruth says, it may lead to a healthier, happier pup. "Grain-free diets tend to contain higher quality ingredients, and they also have more protein and less carbohydrates. So they tend to be a good diet in general that people can use," she says.