Fair warning — I’m writing this post hopped up on antihistamines. This year’s allergy season has been a doozy in Colorado, and I’ve made the decision that the jitters I suffer as a side-effect of these meds are just the price I have to pay for being able to breathe through my nose.
Many of our canine friends are suffering as a result of the sky-high pollen counts, too. Allergic dogs typically suffer from itchy skin, hair loss, and recurrent skin and ear infections — a condition that goes by the name atopic dermatitis when it’s triggered by pollen, molds, house dust, and the like. Symptoms may be seasonal at first, but often progress and become a year round problem with time.
Diagnosing environmental allergies in dogs is a bit of a chore. Lots of other diseases (e.g., food allergies and external parasites) cause similar symptoms and must first be ruled out before we essentially back into a diagnosis of atopic dermatitis.
When it comes to treatment, I divide the options for allergic dogs into three categories — limiting exposure, symptomatic care, and desensitization. While it is generally impossible to completely prevent a dog’s contact with environmental allergens, owners can do a lot to reduce their exposure. Frequent baths are vital, and topical products that improve the skin’s natural barrier function can be very helpful. Symptomatic care includes medications like antihistamines (usually minimally effective for dogs), corticosteroids, and cyclosporine, all of which act to reduce the body’s abnormal allergic response.
But let’s focus on some new choices available in the third category — desensitization. In my experience, most owners forgo this route because of its expense and inconvenience. Traditionally, desensitization has entailed intradermal skin testing (usually necessitating referral to a veterinary dermatologist) or blood tests of questionable value followed by a series of allergy shots given over many months. I can understand why a pet owner might balk at this protocol, particularly when it only has a moderate success rate.
Recently, several companies have started to (heavily) market oral immunotherapy for atopic dogs to veterinarians. The effectiveness of the allergy drops doesn’t appear much better or worse than allergy shots, but they can be given more easily at home by owners which eliminates the need for frequent trips to the veterinary clinic. Oral dosing also greatly reduces the risk of a rare but life-threatening anaphylactic reaction and can work in dogs that have failed to respond to a previous round of allergy shots.
One company is even marketing a standardized mixture of regional allergens that supposedly eliminates the need for allergy testing. If true, this has the added benefits of significantly reducing the cost of desensitization and eliminating the weeks of misery that preceded intradermal allergy testing caused by the need to take dogs off of their symptomatic medications prior to this procedure.
I don’t have any firsthand experience with oral immunotherapy in my patients. Has anybody out there tried it? What’s your experience?
Dr. Jennifer Coates