Itching for a Fix for Your Dog’s Seasonal Allergies?

A vet explains why environmental allergies flare up in the summer and what you can do about them.

by Charlotte Brackett
June 18, 2021
Brown terrier dog scratching its ear outdoors
Olga Moreira / Stocksy

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Scratching. Every dog does it. Some more than others. But here’s something you may not know: Itchiness can be seasonal, and if you notice that your dog is itchier in the warmer months, they may have allergies. Ugh.

Unlike us, it’s much harder to pinpoint what exactly is ailing your dog when they start to scratch. The causes can run the gamut from dry skin to a mosquito bite to a new detergent. Unfortunately, our dogs can’t tell us what’s up (how cool would that be?), but with allergy season upon us, it’s as good a time as ever to consider summer allergens as the culprits. We asked Dr. Aletha Carson, DVM, how to tell if your itchy dog has seasonal allergies, what treatment options are available, and which breeds are more allergic than others.

Why do some dogs only itch in the spring and summer?

Itching can be seasonal, and part of that is because there are different amounts of allergens in the air. You’ve got pollen, you’ve got mold. Depending on where you live in the country, the seasonality can vary significantly. Pets can be allergic to fleas, which like to come out when it’s warm. Mosquitos (as a side note, carry heartworm and are particularly nasty little buggers) can cause our pets to be pretty itchy as well.

How can you tell if it’s just seasonal scratching or a chronic skin problem?

Seasonal scratching can also be a chronic skin condition, as environmental allergies can be seasonal. It becomes a little bit of a sleuthing game to sort out exactly where the scratching is coming from and ruling out the obvious things. Have you changed your bedding? Did you wash your dog with a new shampoo? Are you using flea preventative? If your veterinarian suspects that there’s a food component to it, they may recommend doing a hypoallergenic food trial.

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What treatment options are available for seasonal itchiness?

Shampoos and wipes

It really depends on the cause but there are some fundamentals. If allergies like pollen and grass are suspected, bathing your dog with a gentle allergen shampoo after they have been playing outside can help remove the allergens from their skin. But if you use a topical flea preventative, shampoo can wash that off, so it’s a bit of a balancing act.

Editor’s note: If your dog is licking their paws, wiping their paws when they come in from a walk can also help remove allergens. If they have a bacterial or fungal infection in their paws, a topical treatment such as using an anti-fungal mousse or wipes with Ketoconazole and Chlorhexidine daily is usually recommended over antibiotics.

Medication

New medications, like Cytopoint injections and Apoquel pills, have been game changers for itchy dogs.

Editor’s note: These medications are specifically helpful for dogs with allergic dermatitis, a.k.a. skin allergies. Unlike antihistamines and steroids which suppress the immune system, Apoquel and Cytopoint both block the allergic itch at its source, just in different ways.

Allergy shots

There are also allergy shots for animals, just like there are for people, that can knock allergies down to a manageable level. And we have tons of great allergy medications that are on the market. When I first started practicing, we had antihistamines, which don’t traditionally work well in dogs, and steroids, which work really well for itching but have a lot of potential side effects — they can change a pet’s behavior, making them moody or anxious.

Having had to take prednisone myself, I really empathize with my patients if they’re on it. They get really hungry, thirsty and have to pee a lot. So, we have to think about the effects that these medications have on the dog as we put together a holistic treatment plan. The best thing is to work with your veterinarian to figure out what is ideal for your pet.

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Are some breeds more prone to allergies than others?

Certain breeds are known to have more allergies. We think it’s genetic, but we haven’t proven it just yet. Labradors are prone to chronic ear infections and food allergies. And if a pet parent comes in with a Pit Bull mix [American Staffordshire Terriers] or West Highland White Terrier with skin allergies, I’m not shocked.

What happens if allergies are left untreated?

When dogs scratch, their nails tear at their skin, introducing bacteria. That bacteria populates the area and makes their skin even itchier. And that’s the beginning of what we call a hot spot. When that happens, the itch can go from zero to 60 overnight — to an oozy wound of horrors that’s painful, uncomfortable, and needs to be aggressively treated. The dog usually earns a cone of shame and some medication. That’s why it’s important to catch that itch before it turns into something really detrimental.

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charlotte brackett

Charlotte Brackett

Charlotte Brackett is a writer and content manager for the Pet Insight Project, which gathers data about dog behavior that may improve the lives of pets. She enjoys interviewing veterinarians and writing articles that help make dog ownership as easy and fun as possible. Charlotte earned a degree in journalism and English from the University of Richmond.