Itchy Pet 

Many people don’t realise that allergies are just as common in pets as they are in humans, and can cause animals quite a bit of suffering. This is known as Atopic Dermatitis. The basic definition of this common skin condition is a predisposition to develop allergic symptoms following exposure to substances that are usually harmless, but have triggered an allergic response. Pet owners may also be surprised that atopic dermatitis is often caused by airborne allergens even though the symptoms usually show up on the skin.


Two of the most common causes of atopic dermatitis are dust mites and pollens, which are extremely difficult for pets to avoid since they are almost everywhere. Some animals may be allergic to multiple allergens such as grass, flower and tree pollens, moulds, grains and a variety of dust mites which makes avoidance impossible. Atopy usually begins in dogs 1-3 years of age. Some breeds are more susceptible than others and include Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Lhasa Apsos, West Highland White Terriers, Dalmations, English Setters and Boxers although any dog may be affected. Some allergies are seasonal (certain flower or tree pollens) and others may affect your pet all year around. 

Clinical Signs:

Atopic dermatitis localised on the abdomen

In early atopic dermatitis, the itching is often seasonal and the skin looks normal. Dogs tend to scratch all over but often concentrate on the ears, armpits and abdomen, they also chew and rub themselves especially at the feet, groin and face. In some dogs the disease does not progress past this point. When it does progress, an ‘itch-scratch’ cycle develops leading to moderate or severe trauma to the skin, hair loss, scabbing and secondary bacterial and fungal infections. This can leave your poor pet demented and miserable and in time the chronic inflammation leaves the skin thick and black with pigmentation. Sometimes the signs of atopic dermatitis can be located to one area, usually the ears or feet.

Severe chronic case of atopic dermatitis

Severe, chronic case of atopic dermatitis

Flea Allergic Dermatitis (FAD)

This can look very similar to atopy. Flea allergy dermatitis is the most common allergy in dogs and is caused by flea bites, specifically the saliva of the flea. It is a very itchy disease and predisposes to secondary skin infections. This condition is easily treated by removing the underlying problem – The FLEAS! It is important to treat your pet every month with a suitable spot-on and also to treat the house if fleas have been confirmed. FAD often occurs in dogs with atopic dermatitis and this can make the clinical signs much more severe. 


A diagnosis can be made after ruling out all other possible causes for the skin condition. Allergy testing can be carried out to find out what the animal is allergic to. This is useful when trying to avoid the allergens and also when formulating a vaccine to reduce the sensitivity to the allergy. Two different types of allergy testing are available: one involves intra-dermal skin testing and the other involves a blood test.

Intradermal skin testing


  • Avoid allergens if possible e.g. use hypoallergenic bedding and wash it regularly if dust mites are the cause.
  • Reduce the itching threshold by eliminating all irritant skin problems, such as fleas, dry skin (dandruff) and skin infection.
  • Wipe the animal all over and wash feet with a damp cloth after they come in as this helps remove pollens stuck to the coat.
  • Special shampoos such as Malaseb and Episoothe which have antibacterial and anti-fungal properties and also help soothe the skin
  • Antihistamines control itching in approximately 20-40 % of atopic dogs. Sometimes a few different types may need to be tried.
  • Evening Primrose Oil works well, especially in combination with piriton to help reduce the itch and improves the fatty lipid layer in the skin, helping protect against contact allergens.
  • Antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections
  • Antifungals to treat secondary fungal infections
  • Steroids (oral or topical) are extremely effective at reducing itching in dogs and is used widely especially in acute flare ups. We generally try and avoid using them long term as they can have some side effects.
  • Hypoallergenic/Elimination diet - some dogs may have a hypersensitivity to some food products which may be making the atopic dermatitis worse.
  • Allergen Specific Immunotherapy - This involves giving an allergy vaccine injection that is made up specifically for your pet, usually for the lifetime of the animal. After an initial series of injections, periodic boosters will be needed (every 1-3 weeks). 60% to 80% of animals will improve with the vaccine. Results may not be seen for 3 to 6 months.
  • Phytopica (Chinese herbs) is clinically proven to promote healthy skin and coat for dogs. A natural product combining the beneficial effects of 3 plants. Phytopica provides a 3 in
  • 1 approach to help maintain a healthy immune system, support normal white cell function and provide anti-oxidant benefits.
  • Atopica contains Cyclosporine A, an immunomodulator. Cyclosporine selectively acts on the immune cells involved in the allergic reaction. Cyclosporine reduces the inflammation and itching associated with atopic dermatitis. 

Often, a combination of the above treatments will be required to help manage your pet’s atopic dermatitis and unfortunately it may be something that you have to deal with all year around.

If you have any concerns at all please call to speak to one of our vets or book an appointment for your pet.

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