Dog Skin Allergies 101: Causes, Signs & Treatment Plans

Updated February 1, 2022
German shepherd dog face with allergic rhinitis dermatitis skin problem

Dealing with your dog's skin problems can leave you feeling frustrated and your dog feeling miserable. What causes a dog's skin problems? How can you control them? What can you do to make your dog feel better?

Healthy Dog Skin

A misconception of some dog owners is that their dog's skin is unhealthy if it is pink. In fact, pink as well as black are normal, healthy skin colors. Red skin, rashes, sores, and flaky skin are all signs of a medical problem.

Dogs and Skin Allergies

Skin allergies can cause a dog mild to intense discomfort.

Signs of an Allergy

If you notice your dog scratching themselves more than usual, this is the most obvious sign they might have an allergy to something in their environment.

  • According to Dr. Adelia Ritchie, founder of DERMagic Skin Care for Animals, "Dogs have an 'early warning system' built into their skin. If we are watchful, serious infections or infestations can be averted at the very beginning."
  • Dr. Ritchie cites the example of a dog having an allergic reaction to an insect bite. "Your dog may behave strangely, growling at himself or sulking, or trying to run away from his skin. On closer inspection, you might see his entire body glowing bright pink and feeling hot."
  • Another sure sign that something's afoot is when a dog constantly licks their feet and/or their genitals.
  • Close inspection of the underbelly might reveal pigment changes, either widespread or localized, often rust-colored, sometimes charcoal gray or black. Sometimes the belly skin shows tiny pinpoints of pigment that look like blackheads but are not. This is different from "flea dirt," which washes off.
  • Other signs to look for include:
    • crustiness on the edges of the ears
    • redness around the mouth and chin
    • thick dandruff
    • a bad smell
    • hair loss accompanied by gray patches of skin
    • a rash on the belly, groin, and legs
    • hives
    • red, irritated areas around the ears, eyes, and feet
    • watery eyes and nasal discharge
    • crusty scabs on a dog's back

Any one of these signs means you need to take fast action to avert an onset of something quite serious.

Looking at Causes

There are two forms of allergies in dogs that are most commonly seen by veterinarians:

  • Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of allergies in dogs, and involves a skin reaction that can be a long-term problem for a dog. This type of allergy is commonly caused by the environment, including exposure to dust, mold spores, grass, and vegetation.
  • Dr. Ritchie notes that, "When the vet cannot find a specific allergen (food, insect, mites), the resulting diagnosis might be 'atopic dermatitis,' which implies an allergic response to something inhaled."
  • Contact dermatitis is the second most common allergy, according to Dr. Ritchie. Contact dermatitis can occur either through something in the environment the dog is already allergic to, or through contact with a substance like toxic plants or chemicals.

Problems With Diagnosis

Dr. Ritchie explains that one of the problems with allergies in dogs is they are not fully diagnosed. "Not only is the process of allergy testing expensive; the results often leave the pet parent with even more questions. For example, if the dog is allergic to grass, what does the owner do with that information? Grass can be difficult to avoid. Often, if a symptom doesn't respond quickly to standard treatments, it will be assumed that there's an allergy involved. This has become a very common diagnostic approach over the last several years."

Skin allergy test on dog

Seasonal vs. Environmental Allergies

"Some breeds are more prone than others to experience a seasonal response to allergens like pollen or grass fungus," reports Dr. Ritchie. "We see a considerable spike in dog skin problems in the summer months. It's the change of seasons that can bring about a change in the dog's environment, indoors and out."

Likelihood of Developing an Allergy

It's difficult to say what percentage of dogs will develop an allergy. "Depending on how we define 'allergy,' we could say that almost every dog can experience an allergic reaction in its lifetime. Many dogs are allergic to flea bites, for example."

How Vets Address Skin Allergies

Veterinarians use a comprehensive approach to treating skin allergies, which can include medication, diet changes, and topical treatments.

Dietary Changes

Changing a dog's diet can potentially help a dog with allergies.

  • "Often, the first course of treatment is to change the diet. So many dogs appear to be allergic to certain grains or other components of commercial dog food."

Treating Inflammation

"The next most common treatment is to give the dog steroids and/or antihistamines to treat the symptoms of inflammation and itching," explains Dr. Ritchie. However, there are some concerns with these treatments:

  • Administering cortisone or prednisone is, "like a human doctor saying 'take two aspirin and call me in a month.'" A dog may get some relief from the medication, but eventually, the allergies return because, "The cause of the allergic response remains unknown and untreated."
  • Steroids also have several negative side effects.
    • They can harm the skin's natural immune system. This can lead to pests such as Demodex mites infesting the dog.
    • Steroids cannot be given to a dog as a long-term solution, as they can lead to serious problems with the dog's liver.
    • They should only be given in the direst of situations and for a short duration.
  • Apoquel is another common treatment available by prescription. Unlike a steroid, Apoquel is a selective Janus kinase inhibitor, which means it works by inhibiting the causes of inflammation.

Topical Treatments

There are several types of topical treatments for dogs with allergies that have varying success.

  • Vets will often prescribe special medicated shampoos and recommend bathing the dog twice a week or more. These shampoos can be helpful in some cases, but they are very drying and harsh, and they contain known irritants. Combined with bathing too often, these can make the condition worse.
  • Some common medicated shampoos are:
  • There are dozens of off-the-shelf, "quick-fix remedies" that do little to nothing to solve the problem. Says Dr. Ritchie, "'Soothing shampoos and topical sprays usually cool the skin to ease the inflammation temporarily, but the disease is still there, raging. There is no quick fix."

Other Ways to Provide Allergy Relief

A dog owner can find additional ways to make their dog feel better and mitigate skin allergy symptoms.

Spa-Style Treatments

Dr. Ritchie has several suggestions for treatments that sound similar to anyone who's visited a day spa:

  • "There's nothing better than a great, full-body massage to make a dog's eyes roll back in his head with pleasure, whether they itch or not."
  • She also recommends a periodic Dead Sea anti-dandruff salt scrub at bath time to exfoliate and deep-clean the skin and follicles. "Dogs LOVE this."

Avoid a Common Irritant

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is an ingredient found in most pet shampoos. It's used frequently because it's what makes shampoo foamy. It's also a known irritant and allergen. Dr. Ritchie cautions owners to, "Use an organic shampoo bar, which is made from soothing vegetable and essential oils and contains nothing else."

Use a T-shirt

Another piece of advice from Dr. Ritchie is to have your dog wear a T-shirt, either made for dogs or a human one. This can protect the dog's skin and also cover up the skin treatments so they can work on your dog without being rubbed off or licked away.

Natural Solutions

If you prefer a natural solution to help your dog, Dr. Ritchie advises you to focus first on prevention.

  • Your dog should be eating a quality diet. "We usually recommend feeding a raw diet, and there are a few really great ones out there, organically raised without antibiotics."
  • Likewise, look at all products you give your dogs, such as treats. "Eliminate all products with SLS, steroids, or petroleum products." If you're not sure what an ingredient is, use reputable sources online for more information.
  • Keep their immune system functioning at its peak with plenty of exercise and fresh air.
  • Cooling sea salt soaks can provide temporary relief for a dog who's already itching.

"Home Remedies" for Dog Allergies

There are other natural solutions you can do at home to provide your dog with relief. Discuss these with your veterinarian first before using them on your dog.

  • PetMD suggests making a poultice of ground oatmeal and water for inflamed skin. You can also add it to your dog's bath.
  • Licorice root can help reduce itchiness, although you must discuss it with your veterinarian first. It can cause problems if given along with cortisone administered by your veterinarian.
  • Coconut oil has anti-inflammatory properties and can benefit your dog's overall health when added to their kibble. You can also use it topically to soothe irritated skin.
  • Olive oil is another oil you can use both in a dog's meals and on their skin, which can provide relief for your dog's inflamed skin.
  • Apple cider vinegar mixed in a spray bottle with an equal amount of water can be an effective source of relief for your dog's itchy skin.

About DERMagic

Dr. Ritchie's skin care products, "Treat the allergic response to the allergen by boosting the cellular immunity, reducing inflammation, and eliminating or preventing any potential infection or infestation."

  • She explains that DERMagic can provide relief only. "We need to be very clear on this point. Nothing short of immunotherapy or complete avoidance of the allergen 'cures' an allergy. DERMagic products do not treat the allergy itself."
  • DERMagic is absolutely guaranteed to eliminate mange and other parasites, and fungus, as well, including yeast infections, Dr. Ritchie states.
  • It's a Made in the USA product line that is commercially available without a prescription.
  • The active ingredients in the hot spot formulas penetrate deeply into the skin and follicles where these parasites can hide and thrive, and where it's difficult for other treatments (whether internal or external) to reach, Dr. Ritchie adds.

Other Skin Diseases

Knowing the symptoms of an allergy is important in order to ensure your dog gets a proper diagnosis. "Often, what might appear to be an allergy is really an invisible infestation of mites or a bacterial or fungal infection deep in the skin. This type of condition is very often misdiagnosed as an allergy, and it will not respond well to the usual treatments of steroids and antibiotics."

Symptoms of Other Skin Problems

If you're concerned about your dog's skin, these are the signs of common skin conditions:

  • If you notice red sores on your dog's body, this can be a symptom of skin mite dermatitis. Other symptoms include flaking skin and scaling.
  • A red rash appearing on your dog's belly could indicate a number of problems, and you should bring them to a vet immediately. Some common conditions related to a rash on a dog's belly and inner thighs are:
  • A collection of sores, scabs, and red bumps on a dog can be a symptom of superficial bacterial folliculitis. This condition can occur along with other skin conditions such as allergies and mange.
  • Loss of hair combined with dry flakes on a dog's skin most likely indicates a case of dandruff.
  • Red, inflamed skin localized to one area, such on a paw, that the dog has been licking and chewing at is acral lick dermatitis, also known as lick granulomas.

Additional Advice for Dog Owners

It's common for dog owners to ignore skin irritations on their dogs because they don't realize it's a problem or think there's nothing that can be done for allergies.

Old dog with dermatitis

Allergies Should not Be Ignored

Says Dr. Ritchie, "For some reason, they seem to think a diagnosis of 'allergies' means that 'nothing can be done,' or 'there's not an infection or mites or yeast or anything that can be treated, because it's just an allergy.' This is completely false ... an allergy is just the beginning, and that what they are seeing is the result of an allergic response to something, whether it's an infection or fungus or mites, all of which can be gotten rid of with the proper treatments."

Seek Natural Remedies and Organic Ingredients

Veterinarians are moving toward considering other treatment options for allergies in addition to steroids because of the harmful side effects. There's a rise in the number of holistic and naturopathic veterinary offices and consumers demanding holistic health practices for pets. Dr. Ritchie notes as well that, "We have seen a surge in interest in products that are made in the USA, most likely due to some very serious foreign-source dog food issues in recent years."

Consult Your Vet

Being aware of the root causes of your dog's skin problems is crucial to getting the proper treatment for your pet. Always seek a proper diagnosis from your vet and ask questions about any medication that is prescribed for your pet as well as any non-prescription products you intend to use.

Trending on LoveToKnow
Dog Skin Allergies 101: Causes, Signs & Treatment Plans