Allergic Skin Disease

West Highland White TerrierAllergic skin disease is a common problem in dogs.  It has a genetic basis with some breeds being more prone than others, particularly:

  • Labrador Retriever
  • West Highland White Terrier
  • Shar Pei

Allergic skin disease causes an intense itch which can be severely damaging to a dog’s quality of life, as well as affecting their owners.

Allergies are caused when a dog’s immune system has an abnormal (overly sensitive) reaction to a particle known as an allergen.

There are 4 main categories of allergic skin disease:

  • flea allergy – dogs react to allergens in the flea saliva
  • seasonal atopic dermatitis – usually due to seasonal allergens such as pollen
  • non-seasonal atopic dermatitis – usually due to other environmental allergens such as house dust mites
  • food-related atopic dermatitis – caused by a sensitivity to allergens within the food – most often the protein component of the food

What are the signs of allergic skin disease?

Environmental allergies normally start when a dog is between 6 months and 3 years of age.

Flea allergies and food allergies can develop at any age.

Dog with bald patchesThe first sign of allergic skin disease is normally a dog scratching or licking excessively.  The areas affected most commonly are the ears, paws and rear end.

If untreated, other signs will develop:

  • redness of the skin
  • hair loss
  • thickening of the skin
  • smelly skin
  • blackening of the skin

How will my vet diagnose allergic skin disease?


Allergic skin disease cannot be diagnosed with a blood test or hair sample so anywhere offering this is a complete waste of money.  Sometimes a blood test will be used to check for other underlying problems, or to help formulate a treatment, but it will not diagnose an allergic problem in the first place.

Allergic skin disease is what is known as a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that other causes must be ruled out first.  These include:

  • Parasites such as fleas and mites
  • Fungal infection such as ringworm or yeast infections
  • Bacterial skin infections
  • Autoimmune skin diseases
  • Other underlying health problems such as Cushings disease

Tests that your vet may need to do, depending on their findings on examining your dog include:

  • skin scrapes, hair plucks and coat brushings to check for parasites
  • tape strips or ear swabs to check for bacteria and yeasts
  • bacterial or yeast culture
  • skin biopsies
  • blood tests to check for underlying disease

How is allergic skin disease treated?

Allergic skin disease is a life-long condition are there is no complete cure.  It can, however, be managed successfully to help your dog enjoy a good quality of life.

There are several parts to successful treatment:

  • Treating any secondary infections or ‘flare factors’ – this will involve regular parasite control and may involve antibiotic treatment and antifungal treatment
  • Controlling the itch and reducing skin inflammation – there are various different options available for this and your vet will be able to advise you on the most appropriate one for your dog
  • Improving and maintaining the skin barrier function – improving the general health of the skin will help to reduce its sensitivity to allergens.  This can involve moisturising baths and dietary supplements.

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