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There are few things that make dogs (and their veterinarians) tear their hair out like skin allergies. Skin conditions are the top cause for veterinary visits in the United States, and most of those skin problems are symptoms of allergies. Dog allergy symptoms include itching – called pruritus – redness, hair loss, and damaged and infected skin. Vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss are other but less common effects and are generally associated with food allergies. 


In the simplest terms, allergy is the result of an immune system gone awry. When it’s functioning as it should, immune system agents patrol the body, checking the identification (as it were) of every molecule in the body. The immune-system patrollers allow the body’s own molecules and harmless foreign substances to go about their business, but when they are operating properly, they detect, recognize, and attack potentially harmful agents such as viruses and pathogenic bacteria.

When a dog develops an allergy, the immune system becomes hypersensitive and malfunctions. It may mistake benign agents (such as pollen or nutritious food) for harmful ones and sound the alarm, calling in all the body’s defenses in a misguided, one-sided battle that ultimately harms the body’s tissues or disrupts the body’s usual tasks. Or the immune system may fail to recognize normal agents of the body itself and start a biochemical war against those agents (an “autoimmune” response).

Allergies can be very frustrating to diagnose, manage, and treat. Just as in humans, allergies are usually a lifelong condition without a cure. Management is focused on identifying the causative allergen(s) (often through extensive testing), eliminating the allergen(s) from the dog’s environment when possible – or, if not possible, reducing the dog’s exposure to the allergen(s) as much as possible, and treating secondary effects of allergies, such as infections and discomfort. 

In theory, this is very simple; in reality, it can be difficult and frustrating. Any breakthrough in controlling the dog’s exposure to the allergens (assuming they even can be determined!) can lead to itching and infections. Whenever I am counseling an owner on managing a dog’s allergies, I start with the caveat that we will never cure the allergy. We will only keep it under control.

Credits: Whole Dog Journal