Q: Every August, for the last few years, our 8 year-old Flat-Coat Retriever Oskar will start to have severe allergies. He will scratch his face so hard with his back leg almost (and also to the point) of bleeding. He’ll also lick and pull the fur off of his front paws until there is nothing left but bare skin.
Are there any remedies we can use to soothe his discomfort? Or is getting a prescription from our vet the only way to make Oskar himself again?
Please let me know.
A: Allergy is a state of hypersensitivity in which exposure to a harmless substance known as an allergen induces the body’s immune system to “overreact.” The incidence of allergies is increasing in both humans and their pets. People with allergies usually have “hay fever” (watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing) or asthma. While dogs can rarely also have respiratory allergies, more commonly they experience the effects of allergic hypersensitivities as skin problems. Though there are a variety of presentations, this can often be seen as redness and itching, recurring skin or ear infections, paw chewing and hair loss.
Veterinarians usually treat environmental allergies with a combination of methods, depending on the severity of the symptoms. If your dog is scratching non-stop and you measure the itchiness on a scale of 1 to 10 at 8 and over, then it’s clearly affecting his quality of life then I would recommend going straight to pills. However, there are certain things you can do at home to help.
These options can include:
1. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements:
Fatty acids have been recommended for years to improve coat quality and shine. Recently, new research has shown that certain fatty acids – the omega-3 fatty acids – are also very beneficial in the management of allergies in dogs and cats. Omega-3 fatty acids work in the skin to help reduce the amount and effects of histamine and other chemicals that are released in response to allergies. Not every allergic pet responds to omega-3 fatty acids. Some pets show improvements, others have a complete cure, and others show no change after being on the omega-3 fatty acids. Most pets need to be on the omega-3 fatty acids daily for several weeks to months to notice significant improvement. Omega-3 fatty acids are very safe and have very few side effects. Studies show that when omega-3 fatty acids are used in conjunction with other treatments, such as antihistamines, the use of steroids can often be decreased or discontinued.
2. Topical Therapies:
Topical therapy consists of shampoos and rinses and topical anti-itch solutions. Topical therapy offers immediate, but short-term relief. It is often recommended to bathe your dog at least once every two weeks with a hypoallergenic shampoo or colloidal oatmeal shampoo. Hydrocortisone shampoos may also be used. Weekly or even twice weekly shampoos may offer increased relief for some dogs. In addition to bathing, it is helpful to simply wash off the dog’s feet after he comes in from the outside. This will remove any allergens from his feet.
Topical solutions containing hydrocortisone may offer some relief. They are the most practical in treating localized itching. These products are very poorly absorbed into the bloodstream, and when used in moderation, do not create long-term side effects or problems associated with injectable or oral steroids.
Antihistamines are widely used in both the human and animal medical fields. Most of the antihistamines used in veterinary medicine are antihistamines that were designed for and used primarily by humans. Antihistamines have been shown to be effective in controlling allergies in up to 30% of dogs. When used as part of a treatment plan including fatty acids and avoidance, the percent of respondents goes much higher.
Every animal will respond differently to each of the different antihistamines. Therefore, several different antihistamines may have to be used before an effective one is found. Every antihistamine has a different dose and risk of side effects. Antihistamines (ex: Benadryl) should be used with veterinary guidance. Some common side effects include sedation, hyperactivity, constipation, dry mouth, and decreased appetite.
Steroids are extremely effective for relieving severe itching and inflammation. The problem is that they can have many short and long-term side effects, if not used correctly. If used correctly, they can be as safe as any other drug that we use. The problem is that they work so well that they are often overused. Because of their potential side effects, they should be used carefully, and at the lowest effective dose. They are usually reserved as one of the last lines of treatments, but if nothing else works, use the steroids.
Best of luck,