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Pet Allergies

Itching, irritated skin, ear infections, digestive upset — many pet owners see symptoms in their pets that they would describe as allergies. Allergies are one of the most difficult problems to effectively diagnose and treat. Here are some things to consider to help identify, manage and treat allergies in your pet.

Managing Allergy Symptoms.

The two main causes of allergies in pets are environmental or inhalant allergies and food allergies/intolerances. Some allergies are chronic and some are seasonal.

Identifying the cause of a food allergy is often a system of trial and error. So, allergies are often managed appropriately with a combination of avoidance, supplementation, medication through your veterinarian, and food trials.

First Things First.

Many dogs have both food and environmental allergies. Since there are so many variables in a pet’s environment, changing food is good place to start. Dr. John Gordon, board-certified veterinary dermatologist at MedVet finds that a change in diet will improve allergy symptoms in at least 30% of the pets he evaluates. Food allergies affect both dogs and cats, males and females, neutered and intact animals equally. They can show up as early as six months of age up to any time in life. Most though occur between two and six years old. Many animals with food allergies also have inhalant or contact environmental allergies. A limited ingredient diet change or a veterinarian prescribed hypo-allergenic diet may alleviate symptoms dramatically, if not provide 100% improvement.

It is difficult to determine if an animal is suffering from food or environmental allergies based on physical signs alone, however, there are a few signs that increase the suspicion that a food allergy is causing the symptoms:

  • Recurrent ear infections, especially yeast infections
  • A young dog with moderate or severe skin problems
  • Symptoms occurring year-round
  • Symptoms such as itching not responding to steroids or medication

Is it allergies?

Work with your veterinarian to eliminate other potential causes of the symptoms you’re seeing, such as a respiratory infection, illness, or parasites prior to addressing suspected allergies.

Food Intolerance.

Treatment of a food intolerance can be approached the same way as a food allergy – with a food trial.

Food Trials and Elimination Diets.

Although it would be nice if there was a reliable test for food allergies, most Veterinary Dermatologists recommend that a food trial is the best way to determine a food allergy.

During a food trial, a pet is fed a diet consisting of a novel protein and a novel carbohydrate source. Ingredients that have been most commonly used in pet foods in the past (beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb, and soy) are the most often seen allergies today. In addition, look for a Limited Ingredient Diet. The fewer ingredients a food has, the less likely there is to be a potential allergen.

Just 26% of dogs show improvement in the first 21 days. That’s why it’s important to stay on the food trial for a full 12 weeks. If there is no change after 12 weeks, start another food trial using a different protein source.


There are a lot of things that can trip up a food trial. Literally one bite of an offending ingredient can cause allergy symptoms all over again. Here are some of the other factors to consider in a food trial.

Treats. Only treats that have the EXACT same ingredients that are already in the food should be given

Chews. No animal parts, including rawhide, unless it’s from the protein source that’s in the food

Table Scraps. No last bites of your meals or scraps while cooking

Flavored Medications or Supplements. Use a non-flavored alternative

Flavored Toothpastes or Plastic Toys. Unflavored products are your safest option


Additional Treatment.

In addition to working with your veterinarian and getting appropriate medication, there are some over the counter options that may help alleviate allergy symptoms as well.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids. These beneficial oils work in the skin to help reduce the amount and effects of histamine and other chemicals that are released in response to allergies. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered very safe and have few, if any, side effects. Most pets need to be on this supplement daily for several weeks to months to see improvement.

Topical Treatments. Bathing your pet more often removes potential environmental allergens. Topical therapies like shampoos, conditioners and topical anti-itch solutions offer immediate, though short-term relief. Many over the counter sprays contain ingredients such as topical anesthetics to lessen the severity of the itching, an antibiotic to prevent secondary infection and a bittering agent to prevent constant chewing. Pets should be bathed weekly or bi-weekly with a hypoallergenic or oatmeal shampoo to decrease allergy symptoms. Topical sprays containing steroids such as hydrocortisone may offer additional relief for localized itching.

Environmental Allergens.

A large portion of allergies are environmental. Many pets suffer from intense seasonal itching from pollen and grasses, but symptoms can turn into a year-round problem. Environmental allergy testing should be considered for allergies that occur more than four months out of the year, or don’t respond to initial treatment. 

Intradermal Skin Testing is considered the gold standard to test for environmental allergies. Though there are other blood and swab tests available, many false positive results can occur. Consulting with a board-certified veterinary dermatologist near you is best. Go to to find one in your area.

In Conclusion.

Pinpointing the source of your pet’s allergies can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience. By using a combination of diagnostic tools, food trials and various treatment options, you can manage symptoms and help your pet live a more comfortable life.

PetPeople is Grateful for the Guidance and Support of Dr. John Gordon, DVM, DACVD.

Dr. John Gordon, DVM, DACVD
Board-certified veterinary dermatologist
MedVet Medical & Cancer Center for Pets
300 E. Wilson Bridge Rd. Worthington, OH 43085 Phone: (614) 846-5800