Canine atopic dermatitis, often called atopy for short, is a relatively common allergic skin disease that makes life miserable for dogs the world over. It’s frustrating for your vet because it can be challenging to manage, and also for you – you’ll need plenty of patience and commitment to properly care for your pet. Atopy is a genetic disorder that is hereditary, so if your dog is affected, it’s a good idea not to breed them.
Itching is the main symptom of atopy. Your dog’s face, ears, feet, and tummy will be red and may lose some hair. Constant licking and scratching can traumatize the skin which then leads to secondary bacterial and fungal infections. These also cause itching so the problem is exacerbated.
You’re likely to first notice symptoms of atopy when your dog is nine months up to the age of three, although there are always the exceptions to the rule – less commonly, dogs may start scratching at three months or as late as seven years old. Initially, symptoms will be seasonal, so you’ll only see them at certain times of the year. As time goes by, the symptoms will become a year-round problem and your dog will be less likely to respond to treatment.
Before your vet diagnoses your dog with atopy, they’ll need to rule out other causes of similar symptoms such as food and flea allergy. They are much easier conditions to manage than atopy so it’s well worth seeing if they’re the cause of your dog’s misery. Some of the criteria used to reach a diagnosis of atopy is the age of your dog when symptoms first appear, where on their body they are itchy, and whether the itching eases when corticosteroid drugs are given.
Until recently, atopy was thought to be caused by a dog inhaling allergens such as dusts and pollens, much like people and hay fever. Recent research has found that dogs with this condition actually have a defective skin barrier, and allergens gain access to their body through their skin. This has turned veterinarians’ attention to how to support and improve that skin barrier to reduce the number of allergens that get through.
There are a number of ways to support the skin barrier. Weekly bathing with a gentle shampoo will physically remove allergens from the skin. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in the diet can improve skin conditions, whether these are incorporated in a dog’s kibble or fed as a supplement. If you’d like to use a fatty acid supplement, ask your vet for advice on a suitable product and dose rate. There are also topical products that can be left on the skin to retain moisture and fill in spaces between skin cells. Some moisturizers contain ceramide which is a major part of the skin barrier in both people and dogs. One 2013 study published by Veterinary Medicine International involved twenty dogs; not a huge number, but the results were interesting. Researchers found that using such a moisturizer helped to restore a damaged skin barrier and there was less itching and a reduction in the areas of affected skin in all the dogs.
This on its own is often not quite enough to keep an atopic dog free from itching and scratching. There may be flare-ups from time to time that need additional treatments. Low-dose corticosteroids reduce the body’s reaction to an allergen and quickly ease the itch. Antihistamines can help in some dogs and if there is any secondary infection, antibiotics and anti-fungal shampoos may be needed. If your dog’s symptoms are severe, another option is skin testing to identify what they’re allergic to, then giving them desensitizing injections to stop their body from reacting to the allergens.
Atopy isn’t a life-threatening condition, but it’s usually a permanent one that affects the quality of life of both you and your dog. Managing it well involves a partnership between you and your vet to keep your dog free from the discomfort of chronic itching.