miniature pinscher scratchingAtopy, or a genetic predisposition to developing allergic reactions to things in the environment such as dust, mold, and pollen, is one of the most common causes for seasonal skin problems in pets. Other than flea allergies, it is the most common cause of allergies in dogs.

Any breed can have atopy, but certain breeds seem to be at a higher risk. These include Golden Retrievers, most terriers, Bulldogs, Lhasa Apsos, and Bichon Frises. Atopic pets often show the first symptoms of the disease between 6 months and 3 years of age.

Symptoms

Often symptoms of atopy and environmental or seasonal allergies include:

  • Relentless scratching
  • Biting and licking in a central area
  • Shaking of the head
  • Your pet’s ears, armpits, face, paws, and belly are most commonly affected, and are often where you will notice your pet’s allergic behaviors.

    Diagnosis

    A diagnosis of atopy is not always an easy one. Many times a pet is labeled as atopic after ruling out other conditions such flea allergy, parasites, infection, and food allergy.

    Intra-dermal skin testing or blood testing may be done to confirm the diagnosis. Atopic pets are often reactive to multiple allergens.

    Treatment

    Atopy is a chronic, condition and can be very frustrating to deal with. Most pets that are atopic will have symptoms for their entire life. Most pets’ symptoms are manageable, however there is no permanent “cure”.

    Here are some ways to help keep your pet comfortable.

  • Avoidance: Obviously, if you can avoid exposing your pet to one or more of the things that he or she is allergic to, that is ideal. Unfortunately, that is rarely practical.
  • Antihistamines: About 20% of atopic pets respond well to antihistamines such as Benadryl. You may have to try different types to find one that works well for your pet. Never give a medication without first talking to your vet.
  • Bathing: Physically removing allergens from the skin can be extremely beneficial. Specially formulated shampoos can be used weekly or even more often if helpful.
  • Fatty Acids: The omega fatty acids found in fish oil can decrease symptoms in some patients and help antihistamines to work more effectively.
  • Systemic Steroids: While often effective to manage symptoms, steroids have the potential for serious side effects, especially when used long term.
  • Topical Steroids: Steroids applied topically are somewhat safer than systemic steroids. They work best when the problem is localized to a certain area (i.e. the ears).
  • Alternative Immunosuppressants: Several medications including Atopica (cyclosporine) and Apoquel (oclacitinib) offer some of the benefits of a steroid without many of the side effects. These medications are great for pets that suffer from moderate to severe atopic symptoms most or all of the year.
  • Allergen Specific Immunotherapy: Specially formulated allergy injections can help your pet to build immunity to the things in the environment that trigger symptoms.
  • Related conditions

    Atopic pets often have secondary bacterial and fungal infections. When allergies occur, the normal flora (microorganisms that inhabit the skin) may overgrow and cause an infection. These must be treated separately from the atopy and may be itchy in and of themselves.

    Some atopic pets suffer from low thyroid hormone. Your vet may recommend testing for this, as regulating the thyroid can greatly reduce symptoms of atopy and improve response to treatment.

    Atopy is a frustrating condition. There is no one-size fits all treatment, and all pets respond differently. Your vet will work with you and your pet to develop a treatment plan that works best for your individual situation.