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Ditch That Itch

In the spring, a young dog’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of – itching. Eek!

Alas, English Setters are one of the breeds prone to developing allergies because of a genetic predisposition. Through the years, I have had a couple of Setters affected by allergies and have done my best to educate myself about how to treat allergies in dogs.

The symptoms of allergies are itching, usually followed by scratching and/or biting the affected area (frequently skin, ears, and feet), which can cause inflammation, hair loss, sores, infections, or worse. People who care for dogs with allergies often become frustrated by the intractable nature of the problem and the feeling of helplessness because no matter what they do, they can’t seem to provide their dog with long-lasting relief.

Food is the first allergen most people think of, but food allergies in dogs are fairly rare. More common are allergic reactions to a variety of plants and insects. If the dog exhibits symptoms only part of the year, then the cause may well be seasonal -- a plant or insect that is not present in the environment year round.

Owners can spend a lot of time and money in trial-and-error attempts to treat canine allergies, sometimes with good results, often not. Topical remedies, such as shampoo, salves, and the like, can soothe the inflamed area but won’t address the root cause, which is systemic. Likewise, food supplements might help temporarily but likely won’t solve the problem for all time. Eliminating contact with the allergen or desensitizing the dog to the allergen should stop the allergic reaction in most cases.

What if you could know for sure what your dog is allergic to and pinpoint treatment accordingly? Well, you can. There are two types of tests you can consider that will do just that: blood tests and skin tests.

In a blood test, a single blood collection from your dog is sent to a lab, which analyzes the serum against an array of common allergens and measures the type and severity of the allergic reactions. With one needle prick, you can screen for more than 80 allergens, including various foods, plants, and bugs.

Skin testing is more accurate and more expensive than blood testing and is harder on the dog. It requires the administration of a sedative first to relax the dog and prevent discomfort. The dog is positioned on one side; then hair is shaved on the side that is up. Next, a series of injections, each containing an allergen, is placed just under the skin with a tiny needle. Most veterinary dermatologists test approximately 60-70 allergens (that’s 60-70 pricks). If the dog reacts to an allergen, a small area at that injection site turns red and swells within minutes. A vet can see the reaction, if any, and determine its severity.

Allergy testing allows you to know what a dog is allergic to, but it does not treat the dog's allergies. If one or more foods are the culprit, the best treatment is to simply eliminate those foods from his diet – easy-peazy once you know what they are. However, most dogs are allergic to a variety of things and will require a more complex approach, called desensitization.

In desensitization, a customized serum is created to expose and desensitize the dog to its allergens over a long time period, slowly increasing the amount of exposure. The serum is given in injections that can be easily administered at home by most owners or, in a recent development, by drops under the tongue.

Two of my dogs with fairly severe allergies responded well to the desensitizing injections. Diagnosed with allergies at age 6, one was on a monthly injection and a limited ingredient diet for the rest of his life until he died of old age at 12. His hair coat returned to a healthy, lush state, and his general health was excellent. His granddaughter, now 3, has a different set of allergies. After a change in diet and an initial series of desensitizing injections brought her allergies under control, I experimented with suspending the injections during the winter, when the allergies went away on their own, and watched for their return in the spring. They did not return. I still do not give her the foods – beef and potatoes – that she’s allergic to, and I add a probiotic to her food once a week. So far, she has not displayed further allergic reactions. Now that the drops are an option, I would try those if I ever need to treat allergies again.

If you have been battling allergies in your English Setter without much success, rather than guessing and trying multiple approaches that may or not work or resorting to steroids (which can damage internal organs if used for a long time) to calm the inflammation, perhaps you could talk to your vet about getting a blood or skin test to find out exactly what your dog is allergic to and devising a treatment targeted to your dog’s unique situation.

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