Has your dog been scratching a lot? Licking himself? Chewing his paws? Or maybe his stomach seems to be upset and he is vomiting or has diarrhea? At this point, you may be wondering if these are unrelated symptoms or signs of an allergic reaction.

Humans aren’t the only ones to suffer from allergies—our pets can be afflicted by environmental and food allergies in much the same way. Allergy triggers for pets can include the same things that cause allergies for us, like foods, pollen, dust, mold, smoke, cleaning products and medications. Dogs and cats can also develop serious allergies as a result of a flea infestation (a condition known as flea allergy dermatitis).

Identifying allergies in dogs

Your dog’s allergy symptoms are often the same whether the allergy is food-related or caused by an environmental allergen. Itching, scratching, licking and gastrointestinal issues can all be indicators of a food allergy or a reaction to an environmental allergen. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), more than 20% of pets may suffer from some sort of allergy, and determining the cause isn’t always easy. If you suspect your dog has an allergy, you will need the assistance of a veterinary dermatologist.

In the case of food allergies, a special diet may be necessary to pinpoint the allergen. Your veterinarian can help you establish a prescription or elimination diet that will provide your dog with sufficient nutrition while eliminating the most common allergens (such as beef, fish, chicken, eggs, corn, wheat, soy and milk). Once your dog has recovered from the effects of the allergen—a process that could take several months—your veterinarian can guide you through the steps of slowly reintroducing foods in an attempt to pinpoint the offending ingredient.

For non-food allergies, your veterinarian may evaluate other criteria, such as the time of year and the effectiveness of previous treatments. He will also look for fleas, as an infestation can cause an allergic reaction. An allergic skin condition known as atopy is hallmarked by excessive itching, as well as a host of other symptoms such as chewing of the paws; and the endless scratching sometimes results in “hot spots” (red, bleeding spots where significant scratching has taken place).

Managing food and skin allergies in dogs

Once you’ve pinpointed the allergen, you and your veterinarian can establish an appropriate treatment regimen. In the case of food allergies, this may be as simple as permanently eliminating the allergen from your dog’s diet. For example, if your dog is found to be allergic to beef, you’ll want to switch him to a beef-free diet and avoid any treats or snacks that contain beef. By entirely eliminating the trigger allergen, you’ll effectively stop the symptoms that arise after contact with it.

For seasonal or other non-food allergies, your veterinary dermatologist may perform a skin test just like in humans to determine the allergens involved. The result of the skin test will help your veterinarian determine what type of immunotherapy your dog needs. The veterinarian may prescribe medication, such as an antihistamine, to help lessen the symptoms, but you’ll also want to minimize environmental triggers as much as possible while you are determining the allergens. Keep your flea control treatments up to date, especially if your pet’s allergy is flea-related, and regularly wash your pet’s bedding while minimizing his contact with common household allergens, such as dust. Your veterinarian also may suggest other treatment options, such as bathing with specially formulated shampoos or attempting corticosteroid treatments. Remember that allergies are an overreaction in the pet’s immune system that can be successfully managed, but not cured. In the case of food allergies, removing the offending allergen from the diet will stop the symptoms but if the food is reintroduced, the symptoms will reoccur.

While allergies can occasionally be serious, try not to be unduly alarmed. With your veterinarian’s help, you can embark on a treatment plan that will hopefully ease those itches and sneezes and result in a happy, healthy pet.

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