If, like me, you've been coping with dog skin allergies, then you might be interested in how I finally managed to control my dog's allergies. Ava, a German Shepherd Dog, had a horrible time of itching and scratching that just got progressively worse.
After many years of trying to treat the symptoms, I eventually found a solution that enabled her immune system to tolerate the substances that were causing the allergic reaction. At last! I was able to reduce the amount of treatment needed to control the symptoms. But, before I tell you how, and I will, let me share with you how Ava's allergies progressed and see if anything sounds familiar with your dog!
Ava started experiencing symptoms of dog skin allergies when she was about a year old. At first she would just get really itchy ears, especially when she was hot. She would shake her head, scratch her ears and, when we really knew she was bothered by them, her ears would stick out to the side instead of straight up.
We would take her to our veterinarians and I would have to do the ear drops for a certain amount of days which would clear it up.....for a while.
By the second year, and second season of hot weather, she was still bothered by her ears but now she had started to lick her paws constantly and scoot her butt.
Along with her occasional ear treatments, our veterinarians were expressing her anal glands (just in case it was that causing the scooting) and we were now bathing her in special shampoo (that doesn't foam, ugh).
Her paws had to be cleaned regularly but she was still biting them constantly even after baths twice a week.
I tried most of the antihistamines but most of them gave Ava diarrhea so couldn't continue with them.
We did have some success with Apoquel but I was advised not to give her Apoquel for longer than three months. After that time, her immune system could start to be suppressed and a range of other side effects are likely to start or increase.
Side effects include: vomiting, diarrhea, skin growths, weight gain, elevated kidney/liver values, and low white blood cell count. So, after experiencing some relief from the Apoquel I decided to stop the treatment to prevent some nasty side effects.
I did briefly consider steroid use for her allergies, however, after much research, I decided that was NOT a route I was going to go down either. Steroids have many side effects even for short term use, which only increased in magnitude and seriousness for long-term use. In fact, steroids are not recommended for long term use for dog skin allergies. At. All.
By year three, her dog skin allergies had progressed to being all year round and was getting out of control. I was constantly at the vets for ear drops as her ears were constantly infected, her paws were raw from her licking them, and I was fed up cleaning the carpets after her butt scooting activities! I relayed all this to my regular veterinarian who suggested it was probably time to refer her to a specialist in Veterinary Dermatology.
A Veterinary Dermatologist would conduct simple skin tests to pin-point exactly what she was allergic to, and, if they find anything, they would create a special allergy vaccine (allergy immunotherapy) that is specific to Ava's allergies.
I must admit, I wasn't keen at first mainly because I didn't want her sedated and shaved! But, after explaining that it is only a mild sedation and the area to be shaved was only the size of an index card, I decided it was worth a shot. This was the closest thing to a cure I could imagine without having to constantly treat the symptoms or risk any adverse side effects. And, most of all, she would finally get some relief from dog skin allergies. And I'd finally get a decent photo of her without her shaking her head!
My vet referred me to Lehigh Valley Veterinary Dermatology (LVVD) who were specialists in dog skin allergies, but you can either check with your own vet for a referral or find a qualified Veterinary Dermatologist here.
I called LVVD for an appointment and my veterinarian faxed all of Ava's medical records over beforehand. They went over everything they'd do, including pricing, and also advised not to give her any food before the appointment, due to the sedative.
On the actual day I took Ava to the clinic and dropped her off for a couple of hours. I could've stayed in the reception area and waited but seeing as she'd be in a different room I decided to go to a nearby shopping mall to pass the time.
During her session, they gave her a mild sedative and shaved a small area just under her belly for testing. They then applied a small amount, just under the skin, of each common allergen and waited and see if there was a reaction.
The reactions were then graded on a scale of 0-4 to determine how allergic she is (or isn't) to each allergen. A vaccine would then be formulated based on her reactions, to help her immune system 'cope' with each of the substances she showed a reaction to.
After a couple of hours I returned to the clinic to collect her and she was absolutely fine. only slightly drowsy, happy to see me, and they said she had been a model patient :)
They had the test results immediately and went over them with me. Turns out the big triggers for Ava were yeast, molds, dust-mites, and human dander. Yes, that's right, my dog is allergic to me - well human skin. Just like some people are allergic to dogs, dogs can also be allergic to people.
Now, the easiest solution for dog skin allergies, is to avoid the allergen, in this case humans. Of all the things to try and avoid I was not going to be one of them. If anyone who has a Shepherd knows, they're like Velcro dogs - always by your side. So avoidance of that particular allergen was not going to happen.
As part of the service, they also thoroughly checked her entire skin especially the ears and paws. It was here that they noticed she had a ton of yeast in her ears and paws, and, given that she was allergic to yeast, this is why she had such a huge itchy problem. Not only is yeast extremely itchy, she was allergic to it! Poor baby.
She also had a secondary ear infection, which is fairly typical for Ava and why I wanted to get the allergies sorted out. She always has an ear infection or is just recovering from one. Now at least I knew what the problem was and had a plan to deal with it in a targeted way.
Once I took her home she did have a small patch of skin that had raised bumps that were a bit itchy so they recommended that I apply a 1% hydrocortisone to the area. I did this, and by the next day it was fine and no, they do not need to wear a cone after allergy skin testing! Thank God!
Based on her results, they formulated a customized solution in a shot that I would then give her at home on a regular basis. This enabled her immune system to cope with the allergens. This is known as immunotherapy or desensitization - more on that below.
Immunotherapy is the closest thing to a cure for allergies, however, it does take time to really work. Typically between 3-6 months for the treatment to start working and a full year to see maximum results.
But the good news is, dogs can be on this treatment long-term without adverse side effects. It even works out cheaper than the constant vet visits and medication required to treat allergy symptoms in the short term. The Veterinary Dermatologist also gave me a whole treatment plan to address her symptoms in the short-term whilst waiting for the allergy shots to kick in.
As mentioned, the immunotherapy takes time to get into their system and start working so the Veterinary Dermatologist gave me a plan to cope with Ava's symptoms in the meantime. The idea being that as the allergy vaccine starts to work, her reactions to the allergens will start to lessen, and her dependence on the short-term treatments will decrease. I like that idea!
First, they had to address the ear infection with a one-time solution squirted in her ears. They also gave me an ear cleaning solution that I was to use once a week (at first).
This was by no means the first time she's had that, she typically has this treatment five or six times a year. Sometimes more BUT, I'm happy to say, this was the last time that she has ever needed it. And we're one year later!
They also suggested I add a liquid omega oils (fish oil) to help boost her immune system and help support the immunotherapy treatment. I use Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil and have kept that in her diet.
For her paws and skin in general, I used an antifungal, antimicrobial medicated dog allergy shampoo and bathe her at least once a week, but only at first to keep the yeast at bay. They also told me to wipe her paws at the end of each day. Again, to keep the yeast at bay but also because she's allergic to mold and human dander.
Although not recommended for long term use they did suggest an over the counter antihistamines to reduce itching. They did suggest limiting this as antihistamines can interfere with the effectiveness of the allergy shots. Here's what they suggested:
I was also prescribed Fluconazole 200 mg in table form to help eradicate the yeast.
Immunotherapy comprises of administering small doses of the substances that you dog's allergic to which helps boost the immune system allowing your dog to tolerate the allergen previously causing symptoms. The treatment can be given either as an injection or sublingually (under the tongue), but I choose to do the injections.
The biggest difference between the two methods (apart from the delivery) is that the sublingual method will have to be given daily, usually twice a day and the injections can be given less frequently, usually every two or three weeks.
I choose to go with the injections purely because I didn't want to do it every day. I must admit, my mind was set on doing the sublingual method at first but the vet was more than happy to provide training on giving injections and honestly, it was so easy I decided to go with the method that was much less frequent!
I was instructed to start the Immunotherapy treatment two days after the allergy testing. It starts really gradually with just one small amount injected into the scruff of the neck daily. Over the course of the first month the amount is increased and the frequency is decreased until you are giving one full shot, once every three weeks. But you don't need to work anything out they give you a chart to follow.
I was a bit nervous at first and was hesitant to stick the need in but the needle is so small I don't think she even feels it. She also responds a lot differently to me giving her allergy shots at home than she does when she gets shots at the vets. When I do it at home, she is more relaxed and always gets a walk afterwards.
Ava has the injection every three weeks during winter and every two weeks during allergy season; spring and summer. Your vet will work out the best schedule for your dog based on his particular dog skin allergies.
Now, if you like the sound of immunotherapy treatment but don't want your dog to undergo allergy testing, there is now a way to do so. It's called RESPIT - Regionally Specific Immunotherapy. RESPIT was formulated by a veterinarian to allow for standardized immunotherapy treatment based on the geographic region you (or rather your dog) lives in.
RESPIT contains the most common and important allergenic substances of that region rather than the specific allergens your dog is allergic to. It also comes as an injection as well as an oral solution. I believe this is only available through your veterinarian but you can find out more on RESPIT here.