Dogs with dermatitis: causes, diagnosis, and treatment

Learn to recognize and treat this common skin condition in dogs. If you are a seasoned pet parent, you probably already know this, but our pets can suffer from allergies just like we do. In fact, some of the most common problems we see in pets are related to allergies. But, unlike people whose allergies usually manifest as respiratory problems, allergies in our pet most often manifest as skin problems—something we term allergic dermatitis. Whether the offending allergen is inhaled pollen from grasses, trees, weeds, or molds, bites from insects—especially fleas, direct contact with household items like cotton, wool, feathers, tobacco smoke, house dust, house dust mites, or even the dander from other pets, our pets will present with skin problems.


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  • understand your pet’s symptoms of allergy
  • understand the nature and causes of your pet’s allergies
  • identify allergens
  • get treatment

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  • ignore the your pet’s symptoms
  • concentrate on just treating the allergy
  • wait too long before getting an allergy test
  • forget to treat the home

Dr. Jeff Werber, DVM‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do understand your pet’s symptoms of allergy

Typically, these affected pets will present to us with a complaint of intense itching—so bad at times that your dog or cat’s scratching will keep you up at night. The skin will be very red and inflamed, often with scabs or sores, and you might often see patches of hair loss. Many times, with certain allergies, your dog might present with an ear infection, or be rubbing his muzzle or chewing at his feet.

Do understand the nature and causes of your pet’s allergies

Often, especially with dogs, the area of its body most affected by the allergies can give us a clue as to the offending allergen. When most of the lesions appear on the lower back, or rump, just above the base of the tail, we think flea allergy. When the abdomen, groin, and inside thighs seem to be most affected, we think atopy, or inhaled allergies. When the face, ears, and feet seem to be the target of the irritation, we put food allergies high on our list. Of course if the allergies appear to be more seasonal (usually spring and summer), we’re thinking atopy, or inhaled allergies and, of course, fleas! If year round, household allergens and/or food allergies are high on the list, as these aren’t affected by the seasons.

Do identify allergens

Diagnosing allergies can be very challenging, though we can do a much better job today than we could years ago. Sometimes, we end up treating based on a good hunch, and noting the type and location of the allergy lesions. For example, if we note sores and lesions on a dog’s lower back, and see fleas or flea dirt, we are going to assume Flea Allergic Dermatitis, or FAD, and treat accordingly. Identifying specific pollen, mold, or household allergens is possible through either skin testing, often done by a veterinary dermatologist, or by a serum allergy test which can be done by a dermatology specialist or by a general practitioner. Diagnosing food allergies is much more difficult, and often requires a very strict food elimination trial. For more information about this process, see your veterinarian.

Once the offending allergens are identified, a pet can by hyposensitized by giving allergy shots, which a pet owner can be taught to do at home, or by administering sublingual drops, which are allergy drops placed into a pet’s mouth under the tongue using a small dropper.

Do get treatment

Depending on the severity of allergy signs and frequency of flare ups, we often tend to treat dogs symptomatically if their breakouts aren’t that severe. Treatments include anti-allergy medication, often antibiotics to treat any secondary bacterial infection, shampoos and topical sprays to medicate and soothe the irritated skin, as well as nutritional supplements to reduce irritation and enhance the skin’s natural oils. Of course, eliminating known offending allergens, like fleas, confirmed household allergens like tobacco, fabrics, dust, etc. is critical when trying to reduce allergy symptoms in your pets.

Dr. Jeff Werber, DVM‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not ignore the your pet’s symptoms

Once a pet begins to scratch from allergic skin problems, their scratching tends to exacerbate the symptoms, making the problem and their discomfort much worse. Seek veterinary help earlier rather than later.

Do not concentrate on just treating the allergy

The most common sequelae to pet allergy is what we term “secondary pyoderma,” or skin infection. This complicating problem can also cause much discomfort and pruritis (itching). Treating just the allergy symptoms and ignoring the secondary skin infection will lead to treatment failure and much frustration.

Do not wait too long before getting an allergy test

Waiting too long before opting for a definitive diagnosis will only cost you more in the long run (not to mention the additional discomfort suffered by your pet). If symptoms seem mild and infrequent, it is okay to treat symptomatically when necessary, but if the disease symptoms occur frequently or more aggressively, it is definitely in your pet’s best interest to institute allergy testing to try to identify specific allergens.

Do not forget to treat the home

Carpets, rugs and furniture can act as breeding grounds for fleas, pollens and other allergens. After treating your pet, make sure the rest of the house is clean and safe as well. Be sure to vacuum and wash any pet blankets/beds to minimize allergens.


Just like children, dogs can be very sensitive to allergens. It is essential to your dogs overall health and well-being that you address allergies before they are allowed to get out of hand. Allergic dermatitis is very common, and can manifest in dogs through constant chewing of their feet, itching, and licking, which can cause scabs, rashes, hair loss, and worse if not addressed properly. Keep this advice in mind to help you ensure your best friend is well taken care of.

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