Coping with canine skin allergy

February 22, 2023

How to care for your itchy dog

Managing a pet with allergies can be a lifelong responsibility – in this article, John Redbond Registered Veterinary Nurse and Dermatology Nurse Advisor outlines the journey of an itchy dog and how you can help give them the best possible care. 

As many as three in ten of all dogs suffer from skin allergies, which can have a significant impact both on their lives and the lives of their owners. Nobody wants to see their pet suffering but, by working closely with your veterinary team, your dog’s symptoms can be well controlled in the long-term to make sure they have a comfortable, happy life.

"When it comes to allergy there is no ‘quick fix’ and there will be challenges along the way," says John. "We call it a journey because it takes time to rule out other causes and to determine the allergens that your pet is sensitive to. It calls for flexibility and adaptability; we have to make decisions as we go, based on the information we have at that point in time.

"However, working closely with your vet and having a better awareness of allergies will greatly help to improve your chances of reaching the best solution for you and your dog.”

Understanding allergy

An allergy is when your dog’s immune system over-reacts to what would normally be considered a harmless substance – this is known as an allergen. This over reaction triggers the increased production of IgE antibodies which cause various reactions from other cells in the body, leading to the symptoms you can see. The next time your dog encounters that allergen, their immune system is primed and ready for it, so the reaction is also much quicker.

In addition, normally the outer protective layer of the skin acts as a barrier to keep in moisture and keep out harmful substances, but in some allergic dogs this barrier is faulty and lets in allergens, allowing the triggering of their allergy. The resulting scratching and biting of the skin also causes direct damage to this barrier, further allowing allergens to enter. As well as this the self-trauma can cause the development of bacterial or fungal overgrowth, either from the skin being hot and reddened or by being passed from the mouth and nails. This is then even more itchy than the original allergy, making the problem even worse.

What might my dog be allergic to?

As with people, common environmental allergens for dogs include grass, weed or tree pollens, moulds, dust mites, storage mites or fleas. A smaller number of dogs can also suffer from food allergies, which can cause the same symptoms as an allergy to something in their environment.

How do I know if my dog is itchy?

Itchy dogs will respond in different ways – some might nibble at the affected area, while others are ear scratchers or foot chewers. Your dog might have brown patches of hair, caused by saliva staining, or pink sore areas of skin that they have been repeatedly licking; they may also have musty or unpleasant-smelling skin or ears, or even a visible rash or spots.

Remember that symptoms of allergy vary from dog to dog and can be different according to the time of the year too. Many signs can be considered normal behaviour, so it is best to request an allergy check-up with your vet.

For a quick quiz about your pet and allergies, visit

How do I find out if my dog has an allergy?

To reach a diagnosis, your vet needs as much information as possible about your dog’s history and symptoms; so they will start by carrying out a thorough work-up to first rule out all other possible causes of your dog’s symptoms, including parasites, bacterial or yeast infections which can then be treated.

The work-up may also include a diet trial to check for food allergies, which can cause identical symptoms to environmental allergies. A diet trial involves feeding your dog a very strict diet for up to eight weeks: if their symptoms improve, it is possible that the ingredients in their original food were the problem. To confirm this, you give your dog the original food again to see if symptoms return (a process known as ‘rechallenging’).

Whilst it is common for a dog to have both food and environmental allergies, some may have just a food allergy. Cutting out the problem food from their diet can solve the problem and prevent the need for life-long medication. For dogs suffering from both food and environmental allergies, removing that food from their diet may reduce the level of medication they need.

Or, if your dog is diagnosed with a skin allergy to something in the environment (also known as atopic dermatitis) after ruling out all other causes (the case for the vast majority of allergic dogs) it is time to find out specifically what your dog is allergic to and how this can best be managed.

Testing for environmental allergens

If the allergy work-up has been carried out and food allergy has been ruled out (or if symptoms improved but didn’t disappear), then your pet is likely allergic to one or more environmental allergens.

Allergy tests can be really useful to help identify which environmental allergens your dog reacts to, which can help you learn more about how to manage and treat their itchiness.

The most common way to identify allergens is for your vet to take a small blood sample for testing, known as serological allergy testing. An alternative method is intradermal allergy testing in which small amounts of different allergens are applied to your dog’s skin and then monitored for any reaction, but this is not typically available at a general veterinary practice.

How to treat allergic dogs

"If allergy is the root of your dog’s issue, then it is a life-long condition and will never be cured, but there are many different solutions available to help address it," says John. "Persevering to find the right answers for your dog really can help to manage their condition and give them a better quality of life long-term."

Identifying the allergens for your dog allows a special type of therapy, known as allergen-specific immunotherapy (ASIT), to be created specifically for your dog. This bespoke approach uses very small amounts of the relevant allergens to re-educate the immune system by stimulating it in a controlled way without triggering the symptoms – over time, your pet can be exposed to gradually increasing amounts until a tolerance level is reached and your dog becomes desensitised to the allergens in question.

Your vet will work closely with you to work out exactly what will work best for you and your dog: this will often include a combination of treatments, such as anti-itch medications, allergen-specific immunotherapy and skin products (shampoo, wipes etc.), as well as potentially taking steps to avoid the allergens identified.

What else can I do for my itchy dog?

“When it comes to canine allergy management, one solution doesn't work for all dogs. A combination of therapies will offer you better control and provide the flexibility you need to get additional support during any flare-ups,” adds John.

Regularly washing your dog with medicated shampoo can help to wash away environmental allergens which may be on the surface of the skin and protect their vital skin barrier and the use of essential fatty acids can also help to maintain that skin barrier. But it is worth keeping in mind, correctly identifying and understanding the nature of your pet’s allergy and the best way to approach treatment is vital to managing their condition long term and keeping them comfortable and itch free.


Mar 15, 2023
Louise Brown

Any advice on itchy ears, lve my dog to vets and has steroids and ear drops nothing seem to help. Next step is a dermatologist which is very expensive. I do my best to clean her ear and bathing her with sensitive shampoos, any tips or advice is appreciated x

Mar 06, 2023
Abigail Rotin

This was a really helpful article. Our vet prescribed Apoquel and a special diet of kibble. I have heard bad things about apoquel and I don’t really want to give our dog kibble.

Mar 06, 2023
Susan Masters

I have a Cocker Spaniel who has allergies which affected her ears and eyes. Initially she was treated topically with a antibiotics combined with steroid as an ear drop.
This was not a long term solution and I in discussion with my vet decided to have some allergy testing following with a vaccine to the known allergens. The vaccine was once a month for about 6 months. Unfortunately the vaccine was not effective and my Cocker was put on steroids. Subsequently mainly due to the side effects of the steroids mainly weight gain increase in thirst leading to urinating in the home., effects on mood. It has been an uphill struggle. But she is now stable with apoquel and steroidal ear drops on 2 consecutive days a week. We are working on the weight gain.
I have had to change her diet to grain free ensuring that it doesn’t contain rice, corn or soya.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.