Spring is in the air, and so are pollens and other potential allergens! It is this time of year that we start to see an increase in canine atopy. Atopy is a general term used to describe allergies in dogs. For a long time, we considered atopy to include only inhaled allergens, like pollens, but now we think it is more likely to be a combination of inhaled and contact allergies.

Signs of atopy in pets include:

• Seasonal itchiness (this may eventually become non-seasonal, or year-round)

• Occurrence of signs between six months and three years of age

• Itchiness that rapidly responds to steroid treatment

• Itchiness in specific areas, such as the belly, armpits, ears, and feet

Atopy is often accompanied by bacterial or fungal (or sometimes both!) infections that need to be treated in order to stop the clinical signs. Your veterinarian should test the skin for these organisms and start oral or topical treatment against these infections.

Unfortunately, atopic dogs are prone to skin infections, so they often recur as soon as the medications are discontinued. Frequent rechecks are necessary to stay on top of chronic skin conditions, and having Petplan pet insurance, which covers chronic conditions for life, can help make sure your pet gets the treatment he needs.

Treatments for atopy

There are many different possible treatments for atopy, but unfortunately, none are 100% effective for every dog. Some of the most common include:

• Frequent bathing (1-2x a week) removes the allergen from the skin. Some shampoos contain antibacterial and antifungal agents to help control infection.

• Topical therapy, such as antibacterial or steroid sprays can help control itching. Leave on conditioners can protect against excessively dry skin.

• Oral medications, such as steroids, antihistamines, and essential fatty acids play a role in managing atopy

• Make sure your pet stays parasite free. Flea bites are itchy, and many pets are hypersensitive to flea saliva.

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What’s food got to do with it?

It can be very difficult to differentiate between atopy and food allergy. For this reason, your veterinarian may suggest a food allergy trial. In this trial, your dog will be placed on a novel protein diet (a protein to which he has never been exposed) or a hydrolyzed protein diet. The trial will last at least six-eight weeks and during this time, you should not give your dog any other food (including treats, people food, rawhides, etc.)

Allergy testing

If your pet is prone to atopy, you can discuss allergy testing with your veterinarian. You may have had to get “allergy shots” as a child to help with allergies. Your dog may benefit from a similar treatment. It is worth mentioning, however, that unless you are able to administer allergy shots to your pet for at least a year, you probably shouldn’t consider allergy testing.


An oral medication called cyclosporine (trade name=Atopica) has been shown to be very effective at controlling atopy and can help reduce the use of oral steroids. Steroids have a lengthy list of side effects, and long term use (which is common with atopy) can be detrimental to your dog’s health.

Atopy is usually a lifelong condition which requires frequent visits to the veterinarian and potentially costly medications to keep your pet comfortable, so having dog insurance that covers medications can be greatly beneficial. It is, at times, a very frustrating condition for both you and your veterinarian, so keep the lines of communication open for the best results.

Updated October 23, 2019

Apr 4, 2011
Pet Health

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