A Beginner's Guide to Dog Allergies

Posted by Nicole Wanner, D.V.M. on

A Beginner's Guide to Dog Allergies

 If your dog is constantly itchy or has digestive issues that are hard to control, allergies may be the culprit. Just like humans, dogs can be allergic to foods, plants, bug bites, and other substances in their environment.

Managing allergies in dogs can be challenging, but early detection and a comprehensive treatment plan will help your pup get back to feeling their best. This article will guide you through understanding dog allergies, recognizing the symptoms, and exploring effective treatment options.

Types & Causes of Dog Allergies

Unfortunately, allergies are pretty common in dogs. Around 10-15% of our furry friends suffer from an itchy allergic condition called atopic dermatitis (1).

An allergy develops when your dog's immune system overreacts to proteins found in certain foods, plants, animals, and insects. These proteins, or allergens, trigger a hypersensitivity reaction when inhaled, eaten, or after touching your dog's skin.

Allergy Emergency: Anaphylactic Shock in Dogs

There are multiple ways to classify dog allergies. However, acute vs. chronic allergies are the most important classification for your dog's safety.

An acute or rapid allergic reaction is also called anaphylaxis. People with this type of allergy carry an EpiPen or other device for emergency treatment.

In both humans and dogs, anaphylactic reactions are life-threatening and occur immediately after exposure to the allergen. Severe allergic reactions in dogs can occur in response to various allergens. However, bee stings, new medications, and vaccines are at the top of the list.

This article focuses on chronic allergies with less severe, long-lasting symptoms.

However, you can save your furry friend's life by learning the signs of anaphylactic shock in dogs. If your dog rapidly develops severe vomiting, bloody diarrhea, swelling around the neck, pale gums, cold extremities, or collapse, immediately go to the nearest emergency veterinarian for treatment.

know the signs of anaphylactic shock

Chronic Allergies in Dogs

Fortunately for dog owners, life-threatening allergies are relatively uncommon. However, less severe chronic allergies can still negatively affect your dog's quality of life.

Common long-term allergies in dogs include:

1. Flea Allergy Dermatitis: This allergy is a reaction to flea saliva. Even a tiny amount can lead to intense skin itching and inflammation.

2. Food Allergies: Some dogs are sensitive to certain ingredients in their food (2). This condition is usually an intolerance rather than a true allergy. Common culprits include beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb, soy, pork, rabbit, and fish.

3. Atopic Dermatitis: This common allergic reaction is caused by environmental allergens like dust mites, mold, dander, or pollen (3). The result is itchy and inflamed skin, especially around the face, feet, armpits, and belly.

4. Contact Dermatitis: This allergy occurs when a dog's skin comes into direct contact with certain substances in the environment. Itching, redness, and even small blisters can occur after contact with certain types of rubber, fabrics, detergents, and other chemicals. These household materials only cause problems for dogs that develop an allergy. However, it’s always important to keep household items that are toxic to dogs out of reach.

Notably, some dog breeds seem more likely to develop allergies than others. These differences are likely genetic.

dog scratching itself with an orange background

Dog breeds prone to allergies include: Shar-Peis, Boxers, Terriers, Bulldogs, Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Lhasa Apsos, and others.

Symptoms of Allergies in Dogs

As a pet owner, it's crucial to recognize the symptoms of a dog allergy(4).

Although the symptoms may differ depending on the type of hypersensitivity, there are some common signs to look out for. These symptoms will generally be present over the course of weeks, months, or years.

Typical signs of allergies in dogs include:

  • Itchy skin (especially around the eyes, ears, paws, and belly)
  • Runny nose or eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Chronic ear infections
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (particularly with food sensitivity)
  • Constant licking or "hot spots"
  • Red, inflamed, or crusty skin
  • Hair loss
  • Blisters
  • Diagnosing Allergies in Dogs

If you suspect your dog has an allergy, it's essential to consult a veterinarian for a definitive diagnosis. The vet may perform skin tests, blood tests, or special elimination diets to pinpoint the exact cause of the allergy.

Allergy testing can help identify the specific allergens affecting dogs (5). With skin allergies, a small amount of the suspected allergen is injected into the skin. If the dog is allergic, a small red bump will appear. However, these tests are not perfectly specific, and your dog may react to multiple allergens.

For food sensitivity, an elimination diet is typically used. This test involves feeding the dog a diet of proteins and carbohydrates that your dog has never eaten before. Your veterinarian will suspect a food sensitivity if symptoms improve on the elimination diet but worsen when the old food is reintroduced.

Treatment for Dog Allergies

Successful dog allergy treatment depends on correctly identifying the allergen. From there, management will include a mixture of environmental changes and medication.

a vet inspecting a puppy with an orange background

Common Strategies for The Treatment of Dog Allergies

Flea Prevention and Control: For flea allergy dermatitis, the most effective approach is flea prevention. Year-round use of flea and tick control products is a highly effective way to treat flea allergies.

Special Diet: For dogs with food sensitivities, feeding them a diet that eliminates the allergenic ingredient can effectively manage the symptoms.

Medication: Depending on the severity of the symptoms, your veterinarian may recommend prescription medications to control the allergic reaction. This strategy could include corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, antihistamines to control itching, and newer drugs like Apoquel and Cytopoint. It may also be an option to use Benadryl, but talk to your vet before getting started.

Topical Therapies: Prescription shampoos and conditioners for dogs are specially designed to soothe itchy skin and can also help manage symptoms.

Immunotherapy: If the allergen cannot be avoided, like in the case of pollen allergies, your veterinarian might recommend immunotherapy. This treatment involves giving your dog small amounts of the allergen to help build up their tolerance over time.

Home and Environmental Changes: If your dog is allergic to something in your home, like dust mites or certain fabrics, rigorous cleaning or swapping out go-to household products can help reduce allergen exposure.


Understanding dog allergies can help your pet live a more comfortable and happy life. From recognizing the signs to identifying the allergen and exploring treatment options, managing your pup's allergy is a journey.

Remember, allergy treatment in dogs is a marathon, not a sprint. The goal is to provide long-term relief and improve your pup's quality of life. Determining what your dog is allergic to can take a lot of trial and error, and treatment will likely include a mixture of strategies.

Working closely with your veterinarian is the best way to manage your dog's allergies effectively. With the right approach, your dog can thrive and get back to feeling their best.



1. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/riney-canine-health-center/canine-health-information/atopic-dermatitis-atopy

2. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/tell-if-dog-has-allergies/
3. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/riney-canine-health-center/canine-health-information/atopic-dermatitis-atopy

4. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/allergy-general-in-dogs

5. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/skin-disorders-of-dogs/allergies-in-dogs

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Dr. Nicole Wanner graduated from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine in 2018. Currently, she is an academic research veterinarian studying CBD and DNA. Her research has been published in trusted international research journals. Dr. Wanner is passionate about pet wellness and has professional interests in genetics, behavior, and healthy aging. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and reading sci-fi novels. She shares her home with her husband Evan and their two mischievous rescue cats, Sylvie and Nemo.
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