Ah, spring! Daffodils bloom, lawnmowers buzz, and a layer of yellow pollen blankets your car, deck chairs, and virtually everything else outdoors. Seasonal allergies can scratch all the fun from a game of fetch. While people suffer with itchy eyes and runny noses, dogs are more likely to have inflamed skin and ear infections. But don’t despair, there are effective strategies to help prevent and treat allergy flare-ups before they spoil the warm-weather fun.
How Do I Know If My Dog Has Seasonal Allergies?
Also known as atopy or atopic dermatitis, seasonal allergies begin to emerge in early spring when pollen counts rise. If a turn of the calendar coincides with your dog licking and chewing her paws, she may have seasonal allergies. Scratching ears, scooting the rear end, and chewing the thighs or other body parts are all signs your dog is itchy. Light-colored dogs often leave brown saliva stains on their paws. But how do you know the itching is due to pollen?
Dogs can be allergic to foods, fleas, dust mites, and mold spores in addition to pollen, so noting when signs begin can help your vet make a diagnosis. Tree pollen season in the Northeast occurs from late March to June, while grass pollen is highest from May to July. Ragweed and other weed pollens follow, from late summer to the first frost. Some dogs are allergic to different allergens throughout the year, or have concurrent food allergies year-round with flare-ups when pollen counts rise, making seasonality hard to pinpoint.
Seasonal itchy-scratchy behaviors can also be due to fleas or flea allergy, infections, and mites. Your veterinarian will look at your dog’s history, lifestyle and breed, and perform a physical exam and diagnostic tests. Often concurrent yeast or bacterial skin and ear infections will magnify the itch factor, leading to late-night awakenings to chew and scratch.
The typical dog with seasonal allergies first shows these signs between six months and three years of age. For young dogs, it may take a year to determine if itching is seasonal. Once you and your vet determine your dog has seasonal allergies, the following strategies can help you get ahead of the itch.
Reduce Allergen Exposure
Limiting exposure to allergens can be tough. After all, dogs have to go outside when nature calls, and for daily exercise. One tip is to walk your dog when pollen counts are lowest, before dawn and late afternoon. Steer clear of grassy parks and woodsy trails. Limiting play to basketball and tennis courts, or indoor doggie daycare can help reduce pollen exposure. If your dog will allow it, booties can further keep paws from flaring up.
Pollen follows us inside, too. When you come inside, remove your shoes and wipe down your pet’s paws and fur with a wet cloth or hypoallergenic doggie wipe. Be sure to get between those toes. Keeping windows closed, running a HEPA air purifier, and vacuuming rugs, furniture and drapes frequently with a HEPA vacuum can greatly reduce indoor allergens. If your dog shares your bed or other furniture, use covers that can be washed a few times a week. Don’t forget to wash their bed or bed covers and soft toys.
Allergens are absorbed through your dog’s skin, so bathe him to remove excess pollen. Bathing more than once weekly can dry out your pet’s skin, further compromising the already defective skin barrier. A hydrating canine anti-itch shampoo containing plant-based ingredients such as oatmeal or coconut oil can relieve itch as well as remove allergens.
Shampoos prescribed by your vet containing ingredients such as chlorhexidine and miconazole can treat bacterial and yeast infections, respectively. Shampoos containing ceramides, sphingolipids, glycosaminoglycans, and hyaluronic acid have been very effective at improving skin health and reducing signs of seasonal allergies.
Finally, be sure to use an effective flea preventative year-round so your allergic dog has one fewer reason to itch.
Many dogs benefit from daily omega fatty acid supplementation, found commonly in fish oil. This comes in capsule, tablet, or liquid form. There are even tasty treats containing fish oil. Omega fatty acids are proven to reduce skin inflammation and improve the skin barrier. High quality nutrition all year can also help keep the skin barrier healthy. Some prescription and over-the-counter diets are formulated specifically for skin health.
Antihistamines have variable success in preventing and treating flare-ups. Do not give over-the-counter medication to your dog without your veterinarian’s approval, as these may cause side affects or interact with other medications. With your vet’s green light, start giving antihistamines daily just before allergy season begins, as they work best as a preventative.
Today we are fortunate to have excellent options for reducing allergy flare-ups in dogs, in both oral and injectable form. Commonly used medications include cyclosporine (Atopica®), oclacitinib (Apoquel®), and lokivetmab (Cytopoint ®). The first two can be given by mouth, whereas Cytopoint® is injected every month or more at the vet’s. Some are more effective in individual dogs than others, and may take a while to kick in. If you know your dog’s allergy season is around the corner, make an appointment with your vet before the dreaded itch starts to stay ahead of the game and review options. Some medications require repeated doses to reach maximum efficacy.
Hyposensitization (Allergy Shots)
Intradermal skin testing can help identify which specific allergens your dog reacts to. Blood tests are not considered accurate for this purpose. The great news is that allergy shots custom-tailored to your dog’s needs can be formulated based on skin test results. This is usually done through a veterinary dermatologist. Efficacy of these shots varies, with at least half of dogs experiencing significant allergy reduction over time.
If warm weather sends Rover running for cover, don’t despair. Adapting a daily routine designed to tame pollen, optimize skin health, and tackle allergy flare-ups before they start can improve your dog’s quality of life and get you both outdoors again.