Beagle scratching his ear.

8 Signs a Dog Has Allergies and How to Fix It

Regarding pets and allergies, our minds often jump to humans having allergic reactions. Little did I know that dogs could also have allergies until Harvey became a part of my life. It all started with increased licking, itching, and redness around his mouth, signaling something was amiss.

After a spontaneous visit to the vet and some trial and error, it became clear that Harvey was allergic to his food, specifically chicken-based. We thought we were doing the right thing by providing him with a dependable source of quality protein. Unfortunately, our poor pooch unknowingly suffered while indulging in his favorite activity—eating.

The Prevalence and Impact of Canine Allergies

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Allergies are common in pets with 10% to 20% of the pet population impacted by some type of allergy. When you consider dogs with inhalant or environmental allergens (like pollen or mold) and flea allergies, you're looking at a sizeable portion of the canine population suffering from allergies.

How to Tell if Your Dog Has Allergies

Dog Allergy Symptom chart.
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Many diseases can cause the same symptoms as allergies in dogs, so it will be up to your veterinarian to determine whether allergies are to blame and, if possible, the cause of those allergies.

Navigating the realm of medical expertise can be daunting, considering the associated costs. To assist you, here are some signs to observe before contemplating a potentially expensive vet visit. Keep an eye out for these indicators, and when in doubt, consult your vet for a thorough confirmation of whether your dog is indeed grappling with allergies.

Excessive Scratching

Dog scratching at his ear while playing outside.
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One of the most common symptoms of allergies in dogs that pet parents notice is itchy skin. The severity of the itchiness can vary from quite mild, in which case the skin and haircoat look mostly normal, all the way to nonstop scratching.

In the more severe cases, hair may be missing, and the underlying skin can appear red, raw, and inflamed.

Commonly Scratched Areas

Dog gnawing at backside due to itching.
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Dogs experiencing allergies often exhibit scratching in various areas of their bodies. Common sites for itching include the chest, armpits, and belly, particularly the front feet, ears, eyes, and mouth. 

Although all dogs will occasionally scratch, when scratching becomes persistent in these regions, that may indicate discomfort and is often a sign of allergic reactions. In dogs, itchiness of the lower back, specifically near the base of the tail, is a hallmark sign of flea allergies.

Licking and Chewing of Feet

Dog licking and chewing on feet.
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Dr. Jerry Klein, DVM, and the American Kennel Club’s chief veterinary officer explains that dogs have some level of bacteria and fungi on their skin at any given time. “When your dog’s paws have a bacteria called Pseudomonas and Proteus, they can give off a yeasty odor that smells similar to corn chips.” (AKC). 

While most humans think that the corn chip smell is normal for a dog's feet, it's actually a sign of bacteria. If your dog is also licking their feet, it's not because they're cleaning – their feet are itchy.

The smell itself isn’t enough to determine if a dog has allergies. But combined with obsessive licking and “fur staining” of the feet, a symptom in which the fur takes on a dark red, coppery color due to the dog's saliva, may be the impetus to visit the vet.

How Is Licking Related to Allergies?

Bulldog licking his feet.
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If your dog's hair is a light color, you may notice The classic corn chip odor of the feet, which many people believe to be completely normal in dogs. This could be caused by skin infections from bacteria (usually Staphylococcus) or fungi (usually yeast).

The inflammation associated with skin allergies breaks down the normal skin barrier over time. As a result, opportunistic microbes like yeast and bacteria can go from resting peacefully on the surface to diving deeper, where they set up infections and cause problems.

Addressing these secondary infections will be one of the first steps your veterinarian will want to take in treating your allergic dog.

Chronic Ear Infections

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Many dogs with allergies will experience ear infections that recur frequently or never seem to go away entirely. As with the feet, this problem is often caused first by allergies.

The allergies break down the healthy skin barrier, and opportunistic bacteria or yeast create an infection, further contributing to the itch (although ear infections unrelated to allergies are also common).

Dogs that have gone years with either undiagnosed or undertreated allergies will often have ears that are raw, smelly, and thickened.

In severe cases, ear infections may become so resistant to treatment that surgery to remove the ear canal may be required. To avoid this situation, it is important to have your dog examined by your veterinarian as soon as you suspect that your dog may have allergies or ear infections.

Recurring Hot Spots

dog paw being held by owner to show hot spot on leg
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Formally known as “pyotraumatic dermatitis,” hot spots are common in dogs, especially in breeds like Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Saint Bernards.

Like ear infections, hot spots can arise on their own, or they can be secondary to underlying allergies. If you feel like you're always treating a new hot spot on your dog, talk to your veterinarian about allergies.

Chronic Diarrhea and Related Symptoms

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You might think that the skin is the area that's most commonly affected by allergies in dogs, but the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is just as likely to suffer when a dog's allergies are poorly controlled.

​​Allergy symptoms affecting the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in dogs encompass a range of manifestations. These include diarrhea, heightened frequency of bowel movements, straining during defecation, vomiting, audible “gurgly” gut noises, gradual weight loss, increased salivation, passing gas, and signs of abdominal discomfort. 

Resolving GI Tract Discomfort in Dogs

Chart showing common food related allergies in dogs.
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Whenever Harvey experiences some degree of GI tract discomfort we start with simplifying his food. Rice and some pumpkin powder, specifically for dogs, can go a long way in helping him overcome his issues. However, we will visit the vet if it persists after a few days.

Observing these symptoms in your dog may signify an allergic response, prompting the need for veterinary attention. If you notice any of these GI-related signs, consulting with your veterinarian is crucial for an accurate diagnosis and tailored allergy management plan for your pet.

Red Eyes

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It's less common for dog allergies to manifest in their eyes, but it is possible. When certain parts of the eye become red and inflamed, especially if both eyes, it is time to visit the vet. 

You may see an ooze or excessive drainage of the eye along with the redness. Dogs will often try to scratch or wipe this discomfort away on the carpet and can't seem ever to get relief. Once again, this persistent action is the tell-tell sign of a potential problem.

Red Skin and Mouth

Bull dog with pink and red skin issues.
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Perhaps the most telling sign we had of Harvey being allergic was increased pink to red pigment around his jowl, belly area, and feet. This coincided with excessive scratching and some drooling, which was unusual for him (some dogs drool, not Harv).

This usually occurred during the same seasons when humans experienced heightened allergies or when the dog food formula was different than his norm. 

Persistent Coughing

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If your furry friend is experiencing a nonproductive cough that intensifies during physical activity, it could be a potential indicator of allergies. Allergic bronchitis, though more prevalent and severe in cats, is not unheard of in dogs with allergies.

Concern deepened when Harvey, my furry companion, developed an occasional cough that intensified during play. After days of anxious internet research and worry, we consulted our vet. To our surprise, the vet identified it as an allergy linked to widespread air quality issues from recent hurricane activity blowing up dust. Remarkably, she had encountered similar cases in other dogs and prescribed medication to ease Harvey's discomfort.

Engage in a Conversation With Your Veterinarian

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Consulting your veterinarian is crucial if you suspect your dog is grappling with allergies. Veterinarians possess the expertise to conduct tests, ruling out common ailments or more serious conditions with similar symptoms. 

Factors such as the age of onset, breed predispositions, seasonality of symptoms, and dietary history are considered to determine if allergies are the likely culprit. Environmental allergies typically manifest in a dog's first three years, while food allergies are often observed in dogs aged 5-7 years. Different breeds may have varying predispositions to specific allergies, and season-dependent patterns can aid in diagnosis. Assessing both past and present diets helps identify potential triggers. 

Open communication with your vet ensures a comprehensive understanding of your dog's health, guiding effective allergy management.

Scratching the Surface on Canine Allergies

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In the wide breadth of topics concerning canine health, understanding and addressing allergies is a vital thread. From recognizing subtle signs to navigating diagnostic considerations, your dog's well-being is in capable hands when you collaborate with your veterinarian. 

Remember that every scratch and sniff holds valuable clues when seeking to alleviate your furry friend's discomfort. With vigilant care and the right guidance, you and your dog can stride towards a future free from the itchy grip of allergies. Here's to a paw-sitively happy and healthy life for your beloved canine companion!