Skin allergies in dogs: The complete guide and how to curb the itch

Dogs are just like people in that they can suffer from skin allergies. Just like in people, the symptoms of skin allergies in dogs can be itchy, red, and inflamed skin. In this blog post, we will discuss the causes of skin allergies in dogs, the symptoms to look for, and 10 tips to help relieve the itch!

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What are skin allergies in dogs?

Skin allergies in dogs are caused by a variety of things, including atopic allergic reactions (such as pollen, grass, and mold), food allergies, and flea allergies (such as from flea bites or certain fabrics). Symptoms of dog allergies can vary depending on the cause, but they typically include itchy, red, and inflamed skin.

Allergies in humans often present as nasal symptoms such as hay fever and hives. But the dog’s immune system responds differently via the skin with pruritus (itchy, inflamed skin) and sometimes gastrointestinal signs such as soft stool and flatulence.

Source: Canva by By Aleksandr Golubev

What causes skin allergies in dogs?

There are three common causes of skin allergies that can affect dogs. Environmental, food, and contact/reaction.

1. Environmental Allergies: Canine Atopic Dermatitis (CAD)

Environmental allergies are also known as canine atopic dermatitis, allergic dermatitis or atopy, and are the most common type of skin allergy in dogs. These allergies are caused by direct contact with things in the environment, such as pollen, grass, house dust mites, and mold. Which are also very common allergens for humans.

These dogs are born with a defective skin barrier. Imagine that the layers of skin are like a brick and mortar wall. The bricks are the skin cells and the mortar is the ceramide and fat mortar “glue”. The mortar layer in atopic dogs is defective.

This allows the allergens such as the pollen to penetrate through the dog’s skin (mortar) layers and stimulates an immune response. This causes an allergic reaction.

Itchiness occurs more often on the hairless areas/less-haired areas where the allergens have access through the skin. Which can lead to further skin problems such as thickened and inflamed skin, discoloration, and secondary bacterial infection of the affected areas.

At what age does Atopy occur?

Canine atopy typically starts to occur between 6 months and 2 years old and is often seasonal. Just like hayfever in humans – the most common allergies such as pollen and dust mites are more common in spring and fall.

Atopy is a hereditary condition meaning that it is inherited by either one parent or both and is more common in some breeds.

Breeds that are more likely to develop atopy include:

  • Western Highland White Terrier
  • Bulldogs including French Bulldogs, English Bulldogs, American Bulldogs
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Dalmatian
  • Lhasa Apsos
  • Poodle
  • Shar Pei
  • Boxer
  • Lhasa Apso
  • Boston Terriers

2. Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD)

Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is the second most common allergic skin disease in dogs. FAD is caused by an allergy to flea bites – which only takes one bite to cause an allergic reaction!

Flea allergy dermatitis typically isn’t directed at the flea itself, but rather at proteins in its saliva. Surprisingly enough, dogs who are frequently flea-infested aren’t the ones most prone to this condition!

Dogs that are allergic to fleas will have a severe reaction to even one bite and will often lick, chew, and scratch at their skin obsessively causing it to become raw and infected. A single bite might produce a reaction that lasts five to seven days! In extreme cases, dogs can lose all their hair from excessive scratching and licking.

3. Food Allergies

True food allergies are the third most common type of allergy in dogs and account for about ten percent of all canine allergies. These allergies are usually caused by a reaction to one or more proteins in your dog’s food. There are less common causes of food allergies such as a reaction to the dyes or additives in your dog’s food.

At What Age do Food Allergies Occur?

Symptoms of food allergies typically appear between six months and three years old and can include itchy skin, recurrent ear infections, secondary infections, and gastrointestinal symptoms such as soft stool and flatulence. While any ingredient in your dog’s food could theoretically cause an allergic reaction – some are more common than others. The most common food allergens for dogs include:

  • Beef
  • Dairy
  • Chicken
  • Lamb
  • Fish
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Wheat
Source: AAHA 2021

Symptoms of skin allergies in Dogs

The symptoms and clinical signs of dog skin allergies can vary depending on the type of allergy they have. But all three can have very similar symptoms. There are some common symptoms that are seen with all types of skin allergies. These include:

  • Itching
  • Red, inflamed skin
  • Scratching
  • Chewing or licking at the skin
  • Hair loss
  • Hot spots
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Secondary bacterial infections or yeast infections

Allergies can be a very frustrating condition for both you and your dog. It is important to get a diagnosis from your veterinarian so that you can determine the best course of treatment for your dog. There are many different treatments available depending on the severity of the allergy and your dog’s individual needs.

Skin allergies in dogs: Diagnosis

If you think your dog may have a skin allergy, the first step is to make an appointment with your veterinarian. They will likely perform a physical examination and take a detailed history from you about your dog’s symptoms. They will also want to know a full diet history so have a good think about all the food and treats you have fed your pet over the last year or so.

Diagnosing which specific skin allergy your dog has (or, sometimes multiple skin allergies) can be a long and sometimes difficult process so be prepared. Your vet will likely recommend some diagnostic tests such as:

Skin scrapes and cytology

This is done to look for evidence of yeast, bacteria, and parasites such as mites

Food Elimination Trial

This is done to rule in or out food allergies. It is a long and difficult process but it is the most accurate.

The food trial involves feeding your dog a limited ingredient diet (or elimination diet) that can be prescription or homemade for 6-12 weeks.

If your dog’s symptoms improve they are likely allergic to one of the ingredients in their previous food. You then start slowly adding back in each ingredient, one at a time, to see if symptoms return. If not is more likely to be environmental allergies

Bloodwork (CBC and Chemistry)

There are some underlying conditions such as hormonal and autoimmune conditions that can look like skin allergies such as hypothyroidism and Cushings Disease and your vet may need to rule them out.

Allergy tests

Once your vet has ruled out flea, food allergies, and other causes of itchy skin, it is likely your dog has environmental allergies. Your vet may recommend allergy testing, which can be done either by blood test or skin prick test to identify which common environmental allergens your pet is allergic to.

Skin prick tests are more accurate and more reliable but blood tests are less expensive. Keep in mind blood allergy testing is less accurate and has more false positives. This means the test may say that your dog is allergic to an allergen when, in fact, they are not. Confusing I know!

skin allergy testing

Skin allergies in dogs: Treatment

There are different treatments for each type of skin allergy. Most will involve more than one type of treatment.

Flea Allergy Dermatitis

This is probably the easiest skin allergy to keep under control. If your dog is hypersensitive to flea saliva then you will need very effective flea control.

Ask your vet about their preferred flea control product. Most over-the-counter flea products are ineffective. They are older generation products and the fleas have developed resistance to them.

Food allergies

Once you have worked out what protein your dog is allergic to you can either:

  • Continue to use the diet your pet was on during the diet trial, or
  • Choose a diet that does not contain the protein your pet is allergic to.

This is why it is important to do a diet elimination trial.

It is really important to examine the ingredient deck on the bag to see all the potential protein sources. Also, you should know that many over-the-counter limited ingredient diets are produced in facilities where cross-contamination can occur. So you may want to discuss the best diet options with your vet.

If you want to go down the homemade route make sure that you get a vet nutritionist to double-check it as you don’t want your dog to suffer from a nutritional deficiency.

Around 10% of pets that have food allergies also have Atopic Dermatitis so read below for the treatment options

Dog scratching bum

Atopic Dermatitis

Canine atopy is the most complicated condition to treat and almost always involves more than one type of treatment.

The good news is that there are many different treatment options available and, with time and patience, most dogs can be managed very well.

Prescription Medications

One of the cornerstones of treatment is medications. There are several types of medications for atopy, some are better than others and some have more side effects than others. So it is best to discuss this with your vet.

Medicated Shampoos and conditioners

Considering the allergens penetrate the skin it makes sense to remove some of the allergens and control any bacteria and yeast by using medicated shampoos.

Moisturizers and Emollients

Using moisturizers and emollients can help protect and improve the skin barrier. Just like with humans with eczema, they can be very beneficial for dogs and are fairly easy to apply to the hairless areas

Fatty Acids

Omega 3 fatty acids, and Omega -6 fatty acids can be very beneficial for dogs with skin allergies. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can help soothe the skin and help reduce inflammation.

Omega-6 fatty acids (such as those found in vegetable oils) are important to help repair the skin barrier.

Vitamins A, E and B are also important to help repair the skin


There are diets made specifically for dogs with environmental allergies such as Hill’s Prescription Diet Derm Complete, Royal Canin Skin Support, and some limited ingredient diets that are high in fatty acids.

Immunotherapy (Hypo-sensitization)

This is the only cure for atopy and involves injections of very small amounts of the allergens that your dog is allergic to. Once the allergens for the dog are identified, specific immunotherapy can be manufactured for that dog. Treatment can then begin. After the offending antigens are identified, a mixture of these antigens can be formulated into a hyposensitizing injection.

The goal is to desensitize your pet so that they are no longer allergic to the allergen. It can take up to a year for this treatment to be fully effective but most dogs show some improvement within the first few months.

Environmental Control

This is probably the most important part of treatment, especially in the beginning. By removing as many allergens from the environment as possible you can help your dog immensely

Here are some tips:

  • Wash your dog’s bedding in hot water weekly
  • Vacuum and mop floors frequently
  • Use an air purifier with a HEPA filter
  • Wash your dog with a hypoallergenic shampoo weekly
  • Limit your dog’s exposure to the outdoors during peak allergen times (usually early morning and evening)
  • Keep windows closed and use air conditioning

Home remedies for skin allergies in dogs

There are many different home remedies for skin allergies in dogs. Some people swear by them, others not so much. The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for skin allergies in dogs.

It is important to work with your vet to find the best treatment plan for your pet. And, if you decide to use home remedies, make sure you do your research to ensure they are safe and effective. I personally feel that if they do no harm, you can always try them but check with your vet first.

Coconut oil

Is a popular one as it has antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. It can be applied topically or added to the diet.

ACV (Apple Cider Vinegar)

Also popular as it can help to restore the pH balance of the skin. It can be diluted and applied topically or added to the diet.


There are some reports in humans that probiotics have helped with human atopy (eczema). There are no studies on dogs but it does not hurt to try them.

Herbs such as chamomile, oatmeal, and aloe vera

Some people swear by these to help soothe the skin and reduce inflammation

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you test for canine allergies?

Yes. Your vet can do a skin allergy test or a blood allergy test to help diagnose environmental allergies. The only reliable test for food allergies is to do a food elimination trial, unfortunately.

At what age do dogs get canine atopic dermatitis?

Usually between 6 months to two years. However, they can occur at any age – especially if you move interstate or to a different country with your dog that may have different allergens.

At what age do dogs get food allergies?

Typically between one to three years but they can occur at six months or later in life

Is there a cure for canine atopic dermatitis (atopy)?

No, technically there is not. You can do desensitization immunotherapy (similar to humans). Ask your vet who will put you in touch with a veterinary dermatologist who does these.

Is canine atopic dermatitis contagious to humans or other pets?

No, it is an inherited condition they are born with and cannot be transmitted

What is the cost of treating canine allergies?

It depends on the severity of the allergies and what you are doing to treat them. If you are doing a food trial, that will be the cost of buying limited ingredient diet dog food for several months. Plus any supplements or medications your dog may need to treat secondary bacterial infections and yeast infections.

Skin allergy treatment can range from topical ointments to immunosuppressive medications to immunotherapy injections. These can cost you a hundred dollars or more per month depending on your dog’s size and the frequency they need to be medicated.

The cost of skin allergies is one of the reasons you may want to consider pet insurance.

Summing Up

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for skin allergies in dogs, but there are many options available to help relieve the itch. Work with your vet to find the best treatment plan for your pet, and consider using home remedies like coconut oil or apple cider vinegar to soothe the skin. If you have any questions about canine allergies, be sure to ask your vet. With the right treatment plan, your dog can live a happy and comfortable life despite its skin allergies.

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