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Allergies in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and Solutions from a Canine Nutritionist

Alison Frost, Canine Nutritionist at ProDog Raw, is an expert on the topic of dog allergies. Drawing on her extensive experience with gut health, nutrition, and their effect on allergies in dogs, she offers helpful insight on how to help our canine friends feel better in this expert article.

Alison Frost

Author: Alison Frost

Edited By: Anna Bain

Allergies in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and Solutions from a Canine Nutritionist

Allergies in dogs are far more common than they used to be, and one of the most frustrating problems for pet owners. Our human lifestyle has affected our dogs in many ways, with many of these being more harmful than helpful. Dogs were once fed a more natural diet, mostly consisting of foods they’d naturally eat in the wild. They also weren’t exposed to the amount of toxins they are today, and dog allergies were few and far between; or at least much less common than they are now.

In my work, I see lots of clients with dogs that are experiencing allergy symptoms; some being more severe than others. They’re always relieved to know there are other ways that their dogs can find relief other than immune suppressing medication, through a natural, more holistic approach. In this article, I’ll discuss the various types of dog allergies, dog allergy symptoms, and how you can help your canine companion return to health naturally.

Types and causes of dog allergies

Different allergens for different dogs

As every dog is different, their immune systems also react differently to various allergy triggers. This is largely due to their individual bodies and the variations between them.  However, gut health plays a major role in how dogs’ immune systems function, and ultimately determines which allergens they’ll react to [1]. 

As 80% of dogs’ immunity resides in the gut, it only makes sense that a balanced gut would go hand in hand with a balanced immune response. However, the opposite is also true: gut imbalances, leaky gut, and other various digestive issues are known root causes of overactive immune systems, widespread inflammation, and consequently, sensitivities, intolerances and allergies. 

Common allergy triggers

Dogs can either be allergic to one thing or have numerous triggers, but these are the most common allergies in dogs:

Parasites

Whilst they’re horrible to deal with on any occasion, parasites can also be responsible for allergies in dogs. Flea allergy dermatitis is a prime example of this: it causes excessive itching, rashes, hives, and discomfort for dogs that are already uncomfortable due to being bitten. In fact, flea allergy dermatitis is one of the most common of all allergies in dogs [2]. This is why I always ask as a first step to rule out any parasites on your dog. 

Just as with other allergy triggers, there are any number of parasites that can cause allergies in dogs, as each one is unique. The symptoms will also vary depending on the dog and their individual immune response, though certain allergens can sometimes cause relatively similar symptoms.

Foods

Food allergies in dogs are often confused with intolerances or sensitivities, which are actually much more common than true food allergies. Though they appear similar in some respects, the internal processes are different between the three. Sensitivities and intolerances can occur over time, and cause similar symptoms to allergies, such as itching, paw licking and ear issues. 

Conversely, true food allergies in dogs typically involve an immediate, full-on immune response. This can cause various symptoms for dogs, with hives, vomiting, itchy skin, inflammation, and respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, sneezing, and eye discharge being the most common. 

Dogs with true food allergies are among a small percentage of the canine population; most dogs actually experience sensitivities or intolerances to foods. However, all three concerns can usually be alleviated by staying away from common food triggers such as wheat and most grains, soy, corn, dairy, sugars, preservatives, or certain proteins.

When it comes to dog food, I recommend feeding natural where possible, and always advocate a quality raw dog food diet. Aside from this type of diet being free from most common allergens, it has numerous health benefits. To learn more, read our guide to The Benefits of Raw Dog Food.  

Environment

Environmental allergy triggers can be tough to decode, as dogs spend a large part of their lives outdoors. Seasonal allergies to various plants and pollens, grass allergies, dust allergies, and others can be responsible for dogs’ itchy paws, ears, or skin during certain times of the year (or in some cases, year-round). As it’s not possible to keep them indoors or completely change their natural surroundings, natural remedies are particularly helpful in these cases.

Environmental allergens don’t all live outside, either: many common household items can cause allergies in dogs. Cleaning products, scented candles or plug in air fresheners, mold, and even their dog shampoo can stimulate a histamine response in dogs, depending on the individual. Environmental allergies can manifest as respiratory symptoms, and can also result in itchy skin on a dog’s belly, paws, or any area that comes into close contact with the trigger.

Genetics 

Atopic dermatitis is a skin complaint triggered by allergens, and characterised by excessive itching. There is a genetic component to this condition, which can be passed down from parents. This is why it is not advised to breed dogs with skin issues, as the chances are higher that their offspring will also suffer.  White dogs are more prone than dogs of darker colours, and certain breeds are more disposed such as westies, french and english bulldogs, boxers, and german shepherds [3].  

To discover more on this topic read my in-depth article, Atopic Dermatitis in Dog: Symptoms, Treatment, and Natural Remedies

Medicines

As with people, dogs can develop allergies to certain medications prescribed by their vet. Some pharmaceutical medications can be damaging to the bacterial balance in the gut, which directly affects the immune system, causing it to act erratically. This can result in allergic reactions, allergies in general, and/or other negative side effects. Even medications your dog has taken successfully in the past can cause allergic reactions later in life, as their immune system’s response depends on what’s going on with their digestion.

I generally recommend natural remedies and diet modifications whenever possible, to avoid this and other potential side effects of pharmaceutical medications. Whilst they are sometimes necessary, their synthetic nature is often too much for a dog’s system to process.  However, if your dog is on any medication, always consult your vet before discontinuing, as stopping abruptly can cause serious problems in some cases.

Though they love the outdoors, environmental allergens can be quite irritating to dogs.

Recognizing dog allergy symptoms

Types of itchy skin issues

Your dog’s skin is their largest organ, and can be a helpful indicator of their internal health. Skin issues are often a symptom of allergies in dogs, and can manifest in a variety of ways. Here are some of the most common types of skin issues that often result in uncomfortable, itchy dogs:

  • Itchiness, either localised or all over, resulting in obsessive licking/biting/scratching
  • Redness
  • Inflamed skin/swelling
  • Hives
  • Hot spots
  • Rashes
  • Sores
  • Ear issues 
  • Dry/flaky/scaly skin
  • Hair loss
  • Poor coat condition

Allergy-induced behavioural symptoms

Whilst dogs are experts at hiding pain, they can still behave differently when feeling unwell. In fact, an owner’s first indicator that something’s off with their dog is often a sudden behavioural change. Pain is a common cause of this, but allergies in dogs can also be responsible for behaviour that’s out of character for your otherwise happy-go-lucky canine.

This is largely due to the gut/brain axis: the direct line of communication between your dog’s gut and brain. Essentially, gut inflammation results in brain inflammation, which has a direct effect on behaviour. Here are a few behavioural symptoms your dog might be displaying as a result of their allergies:

  • Sleeping more often
  • Lack of interest in activities they normally enjoy
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability of various levels
  • Not wanting to be touched
  • Seeking out extra affection from you
  • Whining/crying
  • Intolerance of other canine family members (especially if they normally get on well)
Sleeping more than usual can be a sign of discomfort from allergies in dogs.

Diagnostic approaches for dog allergies

While it may be tempting to rush to the vet for a quick fix allergy treatment, it’s important to take things step by step and establish the underlying cause of the symptoms. Different allergens require different approaches and although a “one-size-fits-all” dog allergy treatment can relieve symptoms temporarily, there is usually an underlying issue that needs addressing in order to prevent the symptoms from recurring.

Allergy testing method options

There are two main dog allergy tests used by vets in the UK: Intradermal Skin Testing (IDST), and Serological Allergy Testing. Your vet may prefer one or the other depending on your dog’s symptoms. Here’s a quick description of each:

IDST

This test measures allergens bound to a specific type of skin cell called a mast cell, which plays a big role in the development of itchy skin in dogs. It involves injecting the skin with a small amount of multiple known allergens, and assessing the dog’s response after a short period of time.

Serological Testing

This testing option examines the antibodies in dogs’ blood. If there are specific anti-allergen antibodies present, this indicates an allergy to that particular substance.

Whilst testing can provide some insight, in my experience they are not always 100% accurate so should not be relied on exclusively. Testing can be a helpful part of a wider multi-pronged treatment approach, but especially in relation to food intolerances and sensitivities, testing is not my preferred option.

Elimination diets remain best practice for assessing adverse food reactions in dogs and humans. Whilst more time consuming, they provide the most accurate and rewarding results. For people new to elimination diets I’ve created a guide, Dog Elimination Diets: Helping Dogs Overcome Adverse Food Reactions to explain more.

Tailored treatments for dog allergies

Customised approaches for individual dogs

As mentioned, each dog is unique in both their overall health and the way their immune system responds to allergens. This is why it’s important to tailor your approach to your individual dog; what works for one may not work for the other. Depending on age, health, pre-existing medical conditions and other factors, dog allergy treatment can come in a variety of forms.

I prefer to start by looking at a dog’s diet, breed, toxin exposure, and past medications along with any symptoms they may be experiencing. This is because of the strong connection between gut health and immunity; if their diet is lacking in key nutrients or they’re eating foods that don’t agree with them, allergies can result [4]. Also, high toxin exposure with routine chemical parasite control only adds to the problem. Starting at the root of the issue (gut health) is the best long-term solution.

Balancing holistic and medicinal solutions

Medicinal dog allergy treatments are a temporary fix at best, and can sometimes cause more harm than good. This is because they are designed to suppress dog allergy symptoms, not deal with the root cause of the allergies themselves. While temporary relief is sometimes warranted, longer term allergy relief for dogs is better achieved through addressing the underlying cause of these symptoms.  

Holistic solutions involve assessing and treating the whole dog, not just their allergies or the symptoms they’re presenting. This is because the body contains various complex systems that must work well together to maintain optimal health; imbalances in one or multiple systems affect others’ ability to function properly. 

I recommend a balanced approach that focuses primarily on healing the gastrointestinal tract, which is paramount to resolving allergies in dogs. The programme I find the most effective comes from the Institute for Functional Medicine, called “The 5 R’s.” 

This approach involves:

  • Remove — Conducting an elimination diet to assess which foods may be contributing to your dog’s allergies
  • Replace — Providing a healthier, more simple diet that includes herbs and digestive enzymes, such as ProDog’s Digest supplement
  • Repair — Resolve leaky gut and intestinal wall issues with supportive supplements
  • Reinoculate — Increase diversification of the gut microbiome through the use of probiotics, such as ProDog’s various options
  • Rebalance – Ensuring lifestyle factors which may be impacting a dog’s stress levels are addressed e.g chaotic home life, lack of play or exercise time, lack of ability to express innate breed characteristics etc.

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Managing itchy skin in dogs

Alleviating itchiness

There are a number of natural options available to provide allergy relief for your itchy dog. As I’ve said previously, a diet stock-take is my preferred first step: this identifies any potential irritants in your dog’s food that you can work on eliminating. Products such as wheat (or grains in general), soy, corn, and dairy are common culprits in cases of itchy dog skin, as are sugars, starches, and preservatives. 

Switching your dog to a raw, species-appropriate diet can help calm their immune response and allow their system to detox from the irritants they’ve been consuming. Cooling proteins such as rabbit, turkey and white fish are helpful to start with, which can be found amongst ProDog’s various raw dog food options. Our Protect, Digest, and Colostrum nutritional supplements are also extremely helpful in regulating immunity, providing much-needed allergy relief for dogs.

If you need support with your dog’s diet or guidance on which ProDog supplement may be best suited to your dog’s needs, contact us today for free guidance from our canine nutrition team.

Alternatively to discover more about changing your dog’s diet to raw dog food read our guide, How to switch To Raw.

Topical treatments and soothing techniques

Aside from diet, there are a few natural remedies I recommend for helping your dog feel more comfortable whilst their digestion is becoming more balanced. These are my go-to topical itchy dog treatments

  • Calendula — Contains powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties for soothing irritated skin
  • Aloe Vera — Regenerative, soothing, cooling (best if fresh from the leaf)
  • Baking Soda — Neutralizes acid and relieves inflammation
  • Colostrum — Can provide extra relief topically as well as internally when made into a paste with water 
  • Dermadog’s Itchy Dog Shampoo — Includes lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus for a soothing effect, promotes healing, relieves inflammation 

Lasting relief from dog allergies

Whilst many dogs experience allergies, most of them can find lasting relief through natural, holistic methods. Species-appropriate raw food, nutritional supplement support, and gentle topical treatments all contribute to the root cause of allergies, allowing dogs to heal from the inside out.

Nutrition is the foundation of health, and gut health affects the entire body. Promoting a healthy gut through species-appropriate nutrition not only alleviates dogs’ allergies, but sets them up for a lifetime of good health.

Dog allergy FAQs

What are the symptoms of dog allergies?

Dog allergy symptoms can include digestive upsets of various kinds, itching and other skin issues such as hives or rashes, and respiratory symptoms such as sneezing, eye discharge, and nose discharge. In rare cases, dogs can also experience anaphylaxis.

How can I identify if my dog has allergies?

Since many symptoms of dog allergies can be mimicked by food sensitivities and intolerances, or parasites, your best first step is to discuss with your vet. However, you can also utilise the steps in this article to minimise your dog’s exposure to potential triggers.

Is there a specific test for dog allergies?

There are a few tests commonly used to identify allergies in dogs: intradermal skin testing, serology (blood) testing, saliva tests and hair testing. These work in different ways and are unfortunately not always accurate, but aim to determine what allergens dogs may be reacting to.

What can I give my dog for itchy skin relief?

I always recommend feeding cooling proteins as part of a raw, species-appropriate diet for long-term itchy skin relief, as well as ProDog’s Colostrum and Protect supplements. However, the topical remedies outlined in the “Managing itchy skin in dogs” section can also be very helpful. 

Can dogs have lactose intolerance?

Yes, dogs can be lactose intolerant as well as allergic to dairy products. Removing any dairy sources from their diet may help to relieve symptoms if you suspect this is their issue.

What are common signs of grain intolerance in dogs?

Grain intolerance can be responsible for all of the above listed symptoms, though it’s most commonly known to cause itchiness and other skin-related issues.

How can you tell if your dog is allergic to their food?

Aside from performing an elimination diet, the only way to identify allergies is through allergy testing, which as mentioned in the above article, isn’t always accurate. If you suspect an allergy to a certain food, my recommended approach would be to remove it for a few weeks and observe whether the symptoms improve. To learn more about the elimination diet process read the full guide, Dog Elimination Diets: Helping Dogs Overcome Adverse Food Reactions.

What is the most common food allergy for dogs?

There are several common foods that are known to cause allergies in dogs, including grains, corn, soy, dairy, chicken/beef, and sugars/preservatives.

What foods make dogs itchy?

Any food has the potential to cause itchiness if a dog is allergic or intolerant to it. However, the foods listed in the “Common allergy triggers” section are the most common.

What are the most common dog food allergies UK?

Most dog allergies are universal and don’t change much depending on location. The most common dog food allergies in the UK are the same as throughout other parts of the world: grains, dairy, corn, soy, beef/chicken, and preservatives/sugars.

References

  1. Perini, M., Pedrinelli, V., Marchi, P., Henriquez, L., Zafalon, R., Vendramini, T., Balieiro, J., Brunetto, M. July 2023. Potential Effects of Prebiotics on Gastrointestinal and Immunological Modu;ation in the Feeding of Healthy Dogs: A Review. Fermentation;, 9(7):693. Doi: 10.3390/fermentation9070693
  2. Mueller, R., Janda, J., Jensen-Jarolim, E., Rhyner, C., Marti, E. Aug 2015. Allergens in veterinary medicine. European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology;, 71(1):27-35. Doi: 10.1111/all.12726 
  3. Anturaniemi, J., Uusitalo, L., Hielm-Bjorkman, A. Jun 2017. Environmental and phenotype-related risk factors for owner-reported allergic/atopic skin symptoms and for canine atopic dermatitis verified by veterinarian in a Finnish dog population. PLoS One;, 12(6):e0178771. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0178771
  4. Rostaher, A., Morsy, Y., Favrot, C., Unterer, S., Schnyder, M., Scharl, M., Fischer, N. Sept 2022. Comparison of the Gut Microbiome Between Atopic and Healthy Dog — Preliminary Data. Animals;, 12(18):2377. Doi: 10.3390/ani12182377

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