By Nancy Dunham
You and your dog may have something in common you hadn’t considered before: spring and summer allergies caused by grass and other sources of pollen.
Devoted dog owners often scratch their own heads as they try to determine why their four-legged pals won’t stop clawing and biting their bodies to the point of causing wounds and hair loss. This self-harm is especially vexing to owners who have had their dogs tested and treated for flea, tick, and other parasite infestations, as well as for food allergies.
When the clean bills of health don’t buy dogs any relief, what should owners do? A good place to start is to consider the possibility of an environmental allergy.
Symptoms of Grass Allergies in Dogs
“The first step is for pet owners to understand that there’s really no difference between their allergies and those of their dogs,” said Diarra D. Blue, DVM. Blue works with Cy-Fair Animal Hospital in Cypress, Texas, and is a co-star on Animal Planet’s The Vet Life.
The culprit of the allergies may be pollen in grass and other plants, says Blue. Some dogs are allergic to grass and pollen their entire lives, while other dogs develop allergies as they mature. Other common environmental triggers are mold spores and dust or storage mites.
Blue says that just as “you can go weeks with no symptoms and then have watery eyes and all the other symptoms of an allergy, so can your dog.”
Humans and canines have similar reactions to allergens, but the site often differs. People with grass and flora allergies have the watery eyes, runny nose, and scratchy throat associated with hay fever. They may also develop patches of dermatitis — an itchy rash on the skin.
Dogs’ allergy symptoms are the same, but the severity is flipped, Blue explained. Canines allergic to grass and flora usually develop dermatitis, itchy patches of skin. It is usually localized to one or two spots, but can spread all over the dog’s body. Dogs that are allergic to grass may also have watery eyes, noses, and scratchy throats, but the symptoms are less pronounced than in humans.
Sometimes pet owners who don’t have grass or flora in their yards will insist that pollen cannot be the cause of their dogs’ distress. Blue reminds them that they may be forgetting that pollen from nearby areas can be blown into their yards.
Symptoms of Grass Allergies May Be Masking Other Conditions
Even when owners believe they’ve settled on allergies as the cause of persistent scratching, it’s important to double-check for concurrent parasite infestations and food allergies, said Victor Oppenheimer, DVM, director of the Perla del Sur Animal Hospital in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Blue agrees. “I see it every day,” she said. “People tell me they are positive their dogs don’t have fleas and I find them.”
The same is true with food allergies. Even if your dog’s diet hasn’t changed, that doesn’t mean the ingredients in the food have remained the same, or that your dog’s sensitivity to the ingredients have remained static.
Allergies that were minor and unremarkable can become more severe with repeated contact with the offending trigger. Adult-onset allergies to foods, pollen, and other substances can occur in dogs, just as in people.
If after other causes have been excluded and grass/pollen is still suspected, further testing may be ordered.
Testing Your Dog for Grass Allergies
The testing process for allergies may not be as straightforward as you think. “Intra dermal testing and blood serum testing are the most common tests available,” Oppenheimer said. However, veterinarians debate among themselves the benefits of the blood allergy test. Some believe the resultant data doesn't aid diagnosis, while others think it can be helpful, though most agree that it is not as accurate as skin testing for allergies.
Veterinary dermatologists may order skin biopsies and other tests for severe cases.
Standard Treatments for Grass Allergies in Dogs
The best way to treat mild seasonal grass allergies in dogs is to limit their exposure, keep the grass mowed, and wash and carefully dry their feet when they come into the house, said Jeff Levy, DVM, of House Call Vet in New York, NY.
“The feet are affected especially between the toes,” said Levy. “Have your dog walk through a foot bath [when it enters the house] and then gently but thoroughly clean and dry the feet. Leave no moisture between the toes.” Regularly bathing your dog will help remove pollen from the rest of its coat and skin.
If limiting exposure doesn’t adequately manage a dog’s symptoms, more aggressive treatment will be necessary. Options include oral or topical omega-3 fatty acid supplements, antihistamines, short-term doses of corticosteroids, immunotherapy, and the use of immunosuppressive medications (e.g., Atopica®) or drugs that reduce itching (e.g., Apoquel®).
Alternative Treatments for Grass Allergies in Dogs
Levy said that he is able to treat some allergy-prone patients with acupuncture. Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that can be used to modify dogs’ immune systems and lessen or alleviate allergic reactions.
Another alternative treatment, one which Oppenheimer specializes in, involves “very low, cold laser treatments.” These treatments can be used to restore the immune system and alleviate allergic reactions with no side effects, said Oppenheimer.
Allergy Prevention is Key
Even if your dog shows no signs of allergies to grass, watch for symptoms, said Levy. If your dog develops signs of allergies — the constant itching, watery eyes, and other symptoms listed above — limit your dog’s exposure and consult your veterinarian right away.
“It’s wise to jump in early in a pet’s life, when you see allergies just starting,” said Levy. “It’s the same as with children. It’s important to treat allergies early in life before they establish themselves in [the system of] a dog, cat, or child.”
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM