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Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and Natural Remedies

ProDog’s Canine Nutritionist, Alison Frost, explains the origins of atopic dermatitis in dogs. Drawing on her extensive experience helping dogs heal through diet and natural remedies, she provides helpful tips and information to help dogs find relief in this comprehensive guide.

Alison Frost

Author: Alison Frost

Edited By: Anna Bain

Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and Natural Remedies

Dog atopic dermatitis is one of the most common health issues our canine companions experience. This uncomfortable, itchy, even painful skin condition can affect their quality of life in various ways, and sometimes feels like a hopeless situation. 

However, there are ways to help your dog find relief from their discomfort, and without the use of harsh chemicals or prescription drugs. I’ll discuss the causes and symptoms of canine atopic dermatitis in this article, and provide some helpful natural solutions for helping dogs heal. 

Canine dermatitis overview

Definition

Atopic dermatitis in dogs loosely translates to “allergy-induced skin inflammation.” It’s commonly known in humans as a type of eczema, and is a form of allergic response characterised by chronic inflammation/irritation of the skin. As its nature is progressive and recurring, dogs with this condition often relapse, and are in an almost constant state of itchiness, irritation, and general discomfort. 

Atopic dermatitis is sometimes thought to be genetic, as in humans the condition is commonly seen amongst family members. However, in dogs, atopic dermatitis is more often linked to poor gut health [1], which influences the immune system’s reaction to common allergens and triggers the body’s inflammatory response. 

Prevalence of atopic dermatitis in dogs

Atopic dermatitis in dogs affects approximately 30% of the canine population [2]. This means almost one third of all dogs are suffering from chronic itchiness, inflamed, sore skin, and uncomfortable irritation. Whilst there are genetic and environmental factors involved, in many cases, these might have been prevented if more dogs were fed a biologically-appropriate diet, and even more so if they were started off on this diet as puppies. 

My reason for the above statement is that the canine allergic response works in tandem with the gut. Balanced, healthy gut microbiomes communicate efficiently with dogs’ immune systems, allowing for a more appropriate response to common allergens. 

In contrast, an imbalance in the gut triggers an overactive immune response, leading it to perceive more substances as threats it needs to defend against, thus causing an excessive inflammatory response.

Constant itching and scratching can be a clue that dogs are allergic to something in their environment.

Causes and symptoms of dermatitis in dogs

Contributing factors 

The main culprit of dog allergies is imbalanced gut bacteria, inflammation, and other concerns of the digestive system, often caused by nutrient deficiencies, dietary imbalances or toxin overload, amongst other things.

As dogs’ immune systems take their cues from the gut, anything off kilter in the digestive system sends the immune response into “defence” mode. As poor gut health also promotes widespread inflammation throughout the body, these combined processes often result in dogs with atopic dermatitis [3].

To discover more about how the immune system works read Dr Katie Woodley’s article, The Basics of Dog Immunity and Nutritional Support.

Considering the fact that dogs’ largest organ is their skin, it makes sense that these allergic reactions would present here. Generally a dog’s skin issue is an external symptom that reflects an internal problem.  As the immune systems of dogs with atopic dermatitis are constantly in overdrive, they become hypersensitive to common environmental allergens that may cause milder symptoms (or no symptoms at all) for other dogs.  

Also, as their internal environment is in a constant state of imbalance, the body attempts to detox itself, often by expelling unwanted toxins through the skin’s surface. The raw, irritated result leaves the skin barrier susceptible to secondary bacterial infections, and the vicious cycle continues.

Common allergens

Atopic dermatitis, can be triggered by various allergens, both environmental and food-based. Environmental triggers such as pollen, grasses, mold, and perfumes are known to induce allergic reactions in dogs, leading to inflamed and irritated skin. 

Additionally, seasonal issues, including changes in weather and humidity, can exacerbate symptoms of atopic dermatitis. Flea bites are another common allergen that can prompt an immune response in dogs, causing intense itching and scratching. 

Discover more about flea control the natural way in our article Natural Flea Prevention for Dogs.

On the other hand, food-based allergens like wheat, dairy, and certain grains can also contribute to the development or worsening of atopic dermatitis in dogs. These ingredients may trigger allergic reactions when ingested, leading to skin inflammation and discomfort. This is one of the many reasons I recommend a raw dog food diet by choosing this type of diet you instantly eliminate most of the common food allergens. Learn more in our in-depth guide to The Benefits of Raw Dog Food.

Identifying and managing these allergens is crucial in effectively treating atopic dermatitis in dogs, often requiring a combination of dietary changes, environmental modifications, and targeted natural therapies to alleviate symptoms and improve the quality of life for affected pets effectively.

Recognising symptoms

As all dogs scratch periodically, it can be tricky to discern if their itchiness is actually something to worry about. However, with the intense itching of canine atopic dermatitis, you’ll likely know something more is going on. Here are some common atopic dermatitis symptoms:

  • Excessive itching
  • Constant/frequent scratching
  • Biting/chewing paws or other areas of the body
  • Rolling/rubbing on carpet, grass, or other surfaces
  • Reddish-brown staining on paws/fur (caused by excessive licking)
  • Hair loss
  • Skin composition changes (greasy, flaky, darkening or thickening)
  • Foul odour from skin or coat
  • Hot spots, rashes, or crust on skin
  • Inflamed/red inner ears, with or without discharge

Whilst atopic dermatitis symptoms can present anywhere on dogs’ bodies, there are a few common areas where they will appear more obvious:

  • Face (ears, around the eyes, mouth/muzzle)
  • Under the arms
  • Groin area
  • Belly
  • Between the toes
  • Ankles/wrists

Professional evaluation

The vet’s crucial role in diagnosis

It’s important to test for atopic dermatitis in dogs, even if their symptoms appear to be obvious. This is because there are other skin conditions (such as yeast overgrowth, bacterial infections, etc.) that can sometimes mimic atopic dermatitis, and the treatment approach to each will be different. Knowing exactly what’s causing your dog’s skin irritation better informs you on what to expect, how to help them, and how long the healing process might take. 

While I highly recommend a diet evaluation with a certified Canine Nutritionist for all of the above conditions, the suggestions you receive from them will also be different depending on the actual condition your dog is experiencing. Gut health will of course be the primary objective in all cases, but specific nutrients will likely be suggested for the resolution of each condition, which is another reason testing is paramount. 

How diagnosis works

There are certain diagnostic tools utilised when attempting to identify or rule out atopic dermatitis in dogs. Depending on the individual vet, they may use the some or all of the following tests:

  • Skin scraping/skin biopsy (sometimes performed under sedation)
  • Blood tests 
  • Tape strips
  • Hair plucking
  • UV light examination
  • Flea combing

Holistic veterinarians will also likely test for specific allergies and ask questions about your dog’s diet/lifestyle, followed by prescribing natural treatment options and diet adjustments. I personally recommend using holistic vets whenever possible; their “whole animal” approach is far more likely to find the root cause of a dog’s atopic dermatitis, which allows them to address the issue more effectively.

Conventional treatments

Medications 

There are multiple medications that are utilised in conventional vet care for the treatment of atopic dermatitis in dogs. These all have their benefits in the short term, and can be helpful in reducing the symptoms that dogs experience with this irritating condition. However, they can also do more harm than good in the long term, and none of them work to address the root cause of canine atopic dermatitis. Here are a few examples of conventional treatments, along with their potential side effects:

  • Immunotherapy — Blood testing to create a vaccine targeted towards the specific antibodies present in a dog’s blood stream; suppresses the immune response to the allergens present
  • Corticosteroids (oral or topical)  — Anti-inflammatory drugs; suppresses the immune system temporarily and can cause liver damage if used long term, along with various digestive upsets
  • Antihistamines — Drugs that suppress the histamine response; can cause drowsiness, breathing issues,  rapid heart rate, nausea and other side effects
  • Immune suppresents — As the name suggests, these medications work by suppressing immune response, which quickly relieves itching and inflammation. However, potential side effects include gastrointestinal upset, vomiting, diarrhoea, and, due to the nature of an immune suppressant, the immune system may not work effectively to ward off other more serious infections, necessitating careful monitoring during treatment.

Limits/challenges of the traditional approach

Though all of the above side effects are undesirable, there is one that all of these medications have in common: disruption of the gut microbiome. All pharmaceutical drugs have the potential to cause gut imbalance due to their eradicative nature; rather than addressing issues from the root and encouraging the body’s natural defences, they aim to “kill” harmful organisms, often harming the body in the process. 

The limits and challenges of the conventional treatment of canine atopic dermatitis lie within its symptom-based approach. Although relief from symptoms is obviously desirable, it’s only part of the healing process; true healing comes from determining and resolving the root cause of atopic dermatitis in dogs, as it does with any other health concern. 

The treatment of one health disorder should not create another in its place, but assist the body’s natural healing abilities and promote optimal health in all systems and functions.

Holistic approaches

Natural/holistic treatment options

I highly recommend consulting with a holistic vet when dealing with atopic dermatitis, as these professionals will evaluate the whole dog rather than simply treating the presenting symptoms. Though approaches will vary somewhat, most holistic veterinarians will utilise a combination of natural options to address your dog’s atopic dermatitis from the root cause. Some examples of these are:

  • Phytotherapy (dietary and topical) — Using medicinal plants and herbs to rebalance the immune system, skin biome, and gut biome
  • Nutrition therapy — Dietary changes to calm the inflammatory response and restore balance in the gut
  • MCT oil (oral or topical) — Contains anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties, rich in vitamin and minerals to promote natural healing
  • Microbiome testing – Testing your dog’s microbiome via a reputable laboratory and diagnostic report company provides a detailed insight into their gut health and personalised dietary recommendations to improve the microbiome balance that is so influential to skin health.  

Alternative health modalities such as acupuncture and others have been used for centuries for a variety of ailments, and might also be part of your holistic vet’s treatment plan. These work cohesively with phytotherapy and nutrition therapy to restore the body’s natural balance and promote its innate healing abilities.

Discover ProDog Colostrum 

Powerful, natural immune support for dogs

Diet considerations

Nutritional therapy is a key element of the holistic approach to canine atopic dermatitis. Because of the role of gut health in the development of immune hypersensitivity, what dogs eat plays a major role in their immune response and overall health. For this reason, any inflammatory foods such as grains, soy, corn, dairy, sugars, starches, or preservatives should be removed from their diet as soon as possible, in order to allow the inflammatory response to relax.

Switching to a raw, biologically-appropriate diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids would be my next suggestion. These and other essential nutrients that help with rebalancing and soothing all of the irritated, overactive systems are found in fresh, lean animal proteins, healthy fats, organ meats, bones, and healthy plant fibre. Duck, turkey and whitefish are known cooling proteins, so I would start there. ProDog’s raw meals offer plenty of options to get you started.

If your dog is already on a raw diet, try switching to the above protein options for the time being. Adding carefully selected supplemental support, such as ProDog’s Protect, Digest, or ProDog’s Colostrum can give their digestion an even bigger boost in the right direction. 

Contact ProDog’s nutritionist team for further details.

You can read more about Switching Your Dog to Raw in our step-by-step guide and the benefits of colostrum in my article 10 Benefits of Colostrum Supplement.

Holistic vet, Dr Katie Woodley (The Natural Pet Doctor) also shares her approach to skin health in her article, Nourishing Skin Health: A Comprehensive Approach for Pet Wellness. Discover her recommendations for maintaining healthy skin condition via nutritional support and holistic strategies.

Home remedies

DIY solutions

Whilst diet and other holistic therapies are recommended, there are some home remedies you can utilise to help your dog find some relief from their itching. Here are a few examples:

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is chock-full of healthy fatty acids and anti-microbial/anti-inflammatory properties. Used topically on itchy spots it can provide temporary relief whilst working to heal the skin as it absorbs; though dogs may l need an inflatable collar or protective vest to stop them licking it off!

Tea tree essential oil

Used very sparingly and heavily diluted, tea tree oil is a powerful anti-fungal/anti-bacterial agent that can be very helpful in clearing up secondary infections. 

Chamomile

Chamomile is very soothing and can relieve inflammation and itching. Steeped in hot water and thoroughly cooled, it can be used to soak itchy areas for a calming effect.  

Calendula

Calendula also has anti-bacterial/anti-inflammatory properties and is gentle enough to use on irritated, inflamed skin.

ACV

Raw, organic apple cider vinegar (with the mother) is excellent at neutralising excess acid, restoring pH balance, and can ease itchiness ,when mixed 50/50 with water and applied to irritated areas. However, keep this option far away from open wounds, as it can really sting! ACV can also be used internally in dogs’ food or water to balance the pH of the gut. I recommend the following feeding guidelines: 

Begin with a quarter dose and work up

  • 1 tsp for dogs up to 8kg
  • 2 tsp for dogs 8kg to 16kg
  • 1 tbsp for large dogs over 16kg 

NOTE: When you use apple cider vinegar internally or topically, remember to monitor your dog for any signs they are uncomfortable or sensitive to this and stop.

Something as innocent as spending time outside can be a trigger for atopic dogs.

Prevention tips

Considering the impact of environmental factors and making small lifestyle changes can go a long way in preventing canine atopic dermatitis from occurring in the first place. Whilst the former can’t always be controlled, allergy testing can give you clues as to what you can keep your dog away from (or at least, minimise their exposure to) as a means of lessening the impact on their immune system.

However, the most impactful lifestyle change of all is my go-to recommendation for any ailment in dogs: evaluate and, if necessary, change their diet. Gut health, as I’ve stated numerous times, is the key to all health. The skin, immune system, vital organs, and all other systems/functions in the canine body are influenced by their gut health, which is optimised through feeding fresh, species-appropriate, whole foods and appropriate nutritional supplements [4]. 

The allergic response involved in dog atopic dermatitis is excessive; something that doesn’t have to happen in the first place. With regular access to essential nutrients, removal of common food allergens, unnecessary fillers, and preservatives, and minimising toxins, dogs’ bodies can begin to regulate themselves and their immune systems can function optimally.

Healing atopic dermatitis in dogs, naturally

It’s easy to assume that dog atopic dermatitis is strictly a skin issue; after all, it’s their skin that’s showing all the symptoms. However, the real issue lies far beneath the surface, which is why addressing it from the root cause is essential.

Restructuring dogs’ diets so that they’re receiving adequate nutrition, supplementing with gut-boosting nutrients, and applying natural home remedies can help get your dog on the path to healing. It may take time, and patience, but your healthy, happy dog will be worth the effort.

Need help with your dog’s diet?

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Atopic dermatitis in dogs FAQs

What is atopic dermatitis in dogs?

Canine atopic dermatitis is a skin condition caused by allergies. It’s characterised by an overactive immune system that reacts more intensely to common allergens than with non-atopic dogs, and can result in chronic inflammation, itchiness, and irritation of the skin.

What are the symptoms of canine atopic dermatitis?

Excessive itching and scratching, licking, or chewing the skin/fur, inflamed/swollen skin, redness and rashes are all symptoms of canine atopic dermatitis. A complete list is available in the “recognising symptoms” section.

How is atopic dermatitis in dogs diagnosed?

Vets utilise various tests to identify or rule out atopic dermatitis in dogs, including skin scrapes, biopsies and blood tests. Consult the “How diagnosis works” section for a more detailed list.

Can atopic dermatitis in dogs be treated?

Yes, though I highly recommend using the natural approach whenever possible. Pharmaceutical options may relieve symptoms in the short term, but don’t resolve the issue at the root and can have nasty side effects.

What is the natural treatment for atopic dermatitis in dogs?

Dietary modifications, minimising toxin exposure, alongside skin support nutritional supplements help resolve dermatitis holistically, rather than simply treating the symptoms. Allergies begin with poor gut health, so addressing the issue from its starting point is the most effective approach for lasting relief.

Can atopic dermatitis in dogs cause ear issues?

Yes. Ears can be affected by canine atopic dermatitis just as the rest of the skin can. In fact, the warmth and moisture of the inner ears is a prime location for yeast overgrowth, rashes and bacterial infections, which can all happen alongside atopic dermatitis in dogs

Are there natural remedies for atopic dermatitis in dogs?

Aside from appropriate nutrition and supplementation, there are many natural remedies that can provide relief for your dogs skin. Natural treatment options are listed in the ‘Holistic approaches’ and Home remedies’ section in the above article.

References

  1. Thomsen, M., Kunster, A., Wohlers, I., Olbrich, M., Lenfers, T., Osumi, T., Shimazaki, Y., Nishifuji, K., Ibrahim, S., Watson, A., Busch, H., Hirose, M. Oct 2023. A comprehensive analysis of gut and skin microbiota in canine atopic dermatitis in Shiba Inu dogs. Microbiome;, 11(232). Doi: 10.1186/s40168-023-01671-2
  2. Fernandes, B., Alves, S., Schmidt, V., Bizarro, A., Pinto, M., Pereira, H., Marto, J., Lourenco, A. Nov 2023. Primary Prevention of Canine Atopic Dermatitis: Breaking the Cycle — A Narrative Review. Veterinary Sciences;, 10(11):659. Doi: 10.3390/vetsci1011659
  3. Blake, A., Suchodolski, J. Jun 2016. Importance of gut microbiota for the health and disease of dogs and cats. Animal Frontiers;, 6(3). Doi: 10.2527/af2016-0032
  4. Tate, D., Tanprasertsuk, J., Jones, R., Maughan, H., Chakrabarti, A., Khafipour, E., Norton, S., Shmalberg, J., Honaker, R. Jan 2024. A Randomized Controlled Trial to Evaluate the Impact of a Novel Probiotic and Nutraceutical Supplement on Pruritic Dermatitis and the Gut Microbiota in Privately Owned Dogs. Animals;, 14(3):453. Doi: 10.3390/ani14030453

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