For dogs with allergies, exposure to even a small amount of a food or environmental allergen can mean days of itching miserably, sneezing, and even outbreaks of hives or skin sores. Some dogs who have allergies can manage them with diet and lifestyle changes, but others need regular injections for life, and treatment with a steroid like prednisone during particularly problematic times. In rare cases, a dog can develop an allergy severe enough to be life-threatening.
So, it follows that where allergies in dogs are concerned, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you make allergy prevention a priority from day one, you can reduce your dog’s chance of developing allergies later in life.
Allergy Risk Factors
While any dog can develop an allergy, certain dogs have a higher risk than others. Border Collies and Border Collie mixes are particularly prone to allergies, and extra care should be taken to prevent allergies in any dog who is part Border Collie. German Shepherds are also more prone to develop skin conditions. Dogs that spend most of their time outdoors are also at a higher risk of environmental allergies, because of their exposure to pollen in the spring and summer. However, indoor dogs can also be at risk for dust mite and mold allergies, especially if the house is not kept clean.
There is also anecdotal evidence that giving multiple vaccinations at the same time can predispose dogs not just to allergies, but also to autoimmune disease. Dogs fed a low quality food, or the same food for long periods of time, are at greater risk for food allergies. Finally, any dog with a family history of allergies, other skin conditions, or autoimmune disease, is at risk for allergies.
Prevention First, From Day One
You can start safeguarding your dog against allergies from the day he comes to live with your family. The best prevention is having a healthy dog with a healthy immune system. Get into the habit of paying attention to your dog’s health immediately. Learn to take his vital signs, including respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature, and capillary refill time, and do so regularly, so you’ll know if something is off, even if the dog isn’t showing obvious signs of illness. Look at his eyes and ears regularly, as well as the condition of his skin.
One of the most important ways to prevent food allergies is to choose a diet that provides variety. Have you ever been told, “Don’t give babies too much peanut butter, or they’ll become allergic?” The same goes for common food allergens in dogs. Overexposure can cause an allergy. The top four food allergens are corn, wheat, soy, and chicken. Limit your dog’s exposure to all four by carefully reading the label of any food or treat item you give to him, especially during puppyhood. However, a dog can be allergic to anything, particularly proteins, so keeping the top four allergens out of his diet won’t necessarily prevent food allergies.
To stack the deck further in your favor, rotate your dog’s protein source at least once every two months. The best diet for the prevention of allergies is a variety-fed raw diet, but if you’re not able or willing to give the kind of variety needed for a raw diet to meet your dog’s needs, go for a super-premium dry kibble, and rotate brands and protein sources regularly. A good way to rotate is to buy a bag with poultry as the primary protein, then red meat, then fish (rinse and repeat). Don’t feed grocery brands or feed the same brand and formula for long periods of time.
When it’s time for your dog to receive vaccinations, talk to your vet about a staggered schedule. It may cost more to do vaccinations one at a time, giving your dog’s body two to four weeks to recover between jabs, but many people believe that this is the best way to protect your dog from contagious disease while avoiding increased risks of vaccine side effects. Choose a vet who’ll select a vaccination program for your dog based on the risks and benefits of each vaccine and the geographical area where you live, not just based on the textbook recommendations.
What if Allergies Happen Anyway?
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a dog will develop allergies. If you notice your dog itching excessively, sneezing, losing more hair than usual, or if he has discharge from his eyes or red, irritated skin in his ears, it’s time to see the vet. If you can’t get to the vet right away, ask him or her if you can give your dog a children’s Benadryl tablet. Hidden in a gob of peanut butter, the chewable pills can provide some relief from environmental allergies.
Make sure to rule out other skin conditions and parasites before treating your dog for allergies. If you live in an area with fleas, be sure to check your pets thoroughly. Fleas can cause allergic dermatitis with a single bite in sensitive animals. Mange can also produce allergy-like symptoms in its early stages. If sneezing is the main symptom, make sure that respiratory illness isn’t in fact the cause.
Once you’ve determined that your dog truly has an allergy, you have many treatment options. Your vet may suggest a prescription diet. Try it if you feel you need to do so, but the fact of the matter is, the prescription diets for allergies are made with low-quality ingredients, and any formula fed exclusively for a long period of time can cause or aggravate allergies. The best dietary option for dogs with allergies is to have a blood histamine panel done (about $200, generally) and to find out exactly what the dog is allergic to. Then, remove the pertinent ingredients from your dog’s diet by choosing food and treats that don’t contain the allergens.
Prednisone is a common treatment for severe allergies. It provides relief from itching, but can have side effects including weight gain and hunger. Be prepared to up your dog’s exercise levels (with your vet’s approval) and keep food limited. Don’t give in to begging when your dog’s taking prednisone. Even when she’s getting plenty of calories, a dog taking a steroid is likely to be hungry all the time. To take the edge off hunger, you can offer cooked green beans or canned pumpkin, both of which are low in calories but high in bulk and fiber for a fuller feeling. However, neither item should be overused. Instead, distract your dog from her hunger with games and walks.
Regular medicated baths can also help with allergies. To keep pollen and dust from irritating your dog between baths, wipe him down with a wet cloth every day or after coming in from walks and outdoor playtime. If you lower the histamine load, symptoms will decrease.
If your dog’s allergies can’t be managed with lifestyle and diet changes, injections may be necessary. These injections build the dog’s tolerance for histamines with gradual exposure, and can be given at home after the first few shots. While not without risks, including severe allergic reactions, this treatment can provide relief to some dogs. However, some dogs don’t respond well or at all to the treatment, and it can be expensive. Consult with your vet about all the risks and benefits before trying a series of injections, and don’t forget to keep up with all the other aspects of allergy management, even when treating with injections.