Skin allergies in dogs – an essay about treatments and options

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Today I want to talk about allergies in dogs and treatments from my personal experience, knowledge and understanding. This article is not and does not replace professional advice. But it may be able to give some owners a first slightly deeper understanding of what they are up to when a dog is dealing with skin allergies.
Bull Terriers are sadly known for being prone to skin conditions. Our last Bull Terrier, Fancy, was suffering from very bad skin allergies and we went the entire route of confusion, questions, misconceptions, trial and error all the way down to steroids and Apoquel.
A large part of the information in this article is based on my personal experience and much of it is the result of extensive research for years because our dog was suffering so badly.

First of all because I often hear that question. Let’s make this clear:
There is NO cure to an allergy except either

1) lifelong suppression and/ or relief of the symptoms, which is done by different medications, such as steroids and immunosuppressive meds (Apoquel)

2) removal of the trigger (if possible)

Allergies don’t stop – there is no miracle medication for that

As long as the allergic individual remains exposed to the trigger the allergy will not stop. The only way to provide relief – in the case the trigger can not be removed – is suppressing the symptoms, which means that the body’s reactions to the allergy (inflammation etc.) will be put “on hold”, just like using a switch. And the dog may seem healthy and recovered under the medication. But as soon as the suppressing medication is stopped the symptoms will return. Not to speak of the sometimes massive side effects of suppressing medication.

In dogs the main problem in terms of skin allergies usually is the itch. Because the dogs start licking and biting their itchy parts if they can reach them, causing tiny lesions which then become infected by bacteria. That again contributes to the itch, the dog licks and bites even more and the infected areas “explode” with redness, pus and inflammation. Eventually when enough of the inflammation is present or the present lesions are big enough that will affect and weaken the entire immune system of the dog, sending the bodies of many dogs into a state of emergency.

Inflammation is a natural process In the body

Inflammation itself in general is not a bad thing. It is a protective mechanism of the body to fight and eliminate harmful “intruders”, such as bacteria, for example. Elevated body temperature and the enhanced production of white (killer-)blood cells are all measures to fight the body’s enemy.
Sometimes this happens in a very confined area, for example when we catch a splinter or an abrasion. Then we sometimes notice a little infection and pus in that area that’s usually gone within a few days.
Other immune fights involve the entire system. When we catch a cold symptoms usually show around our respiratory tract. But often lymph nodes (defense systems) all over the body get involved, noticeable by swelling in different places.
The effectiveness of the body’s defense mechanism is limited and depends on a very delicate balance.
Once the body temperature gets too high, too many toxins result from the fight, the white blood cells are not enough to eliminate the intruder or all of this comes together, other parts of the body can be affected by the fight and sustain collateral damage. Also the body is only able to fight “full throttle” over a certain period of time and this is very exhausting.

Allergies are “false alarm” that never stops

In the case of skin (or any other) allergies the dog’s body is in principle in the same situation as in the fight against harmful invaders. The only difference is that it starts to attack “everyday substances” it mistakes as enemies.
Unlike pathogens that are not necessarily all around us nonstop and against which the body can also develop immunity, to many environmental or food allergens the individual is usually exposed over and over again. That leads to the dog’s body being repeatedly or even constantly in its exhausting defensive state.
There are therapies that try to simulate the process of immunization as we know it from vaccinations, for example, using tiny amounts of the allergen and exposing the body repeatedly under controlled circumstances. But this approach is sadly not effective in every case and it is stressful for the individual. At least that goes for humans with environment-related allergies. So far I have never heard of such therapies for dogs. Professionals, please correct me if I am wrong.

Sadly, in the case of allergies the body also does not develop immunity against the allergens on its own over time, as it does with some pathogens (like when we have a cold and got over it and then can not fall ill again through infection by the same strain).

The allergy is an overreaction, a “false alarm” in the body. And with the trigger not removed it never stops. And over time that starts taking its toll. No longterm-fight can be won without a cease-fire now and then for the body to regain its strength.

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2 thoughts on “Skin allergies in dogs – an essay about treatments and options

  1. Hi, I’m just wondering if you can help, I have a bull terrier and she’s pregnant she’s got a load of scabs at the back end on her back above her tail she’s been itching them and it’s left a big sore and her hair falls out with the scabs I don’t know what is causing this how would I find out ?

    • Danielle,
      I am so sorry. I will probably not be an immediate help. In such cases there rarely is.
      The itch and hair loss could absolutely be related to the pregnancy. Just as humans, dogs go through hormonal changes during a pregnancy and that can have some undesired side’effects, so to speak.
      But it could as well be completely unrelated. Allergies, inflammation, hair loss and itch can be caused by an abundance of triggers. Environment, nutrition, general health, genetics, stress or lack of exercise – just to name some things.
      My experience is that in Bull Terriers allergies are very often related to their nutrition. Even if it’s not the trigger, a good nutrition supports the immune system which then helps the dog to cope better with allergies.
      What I would do in your case is, first, take a VERY close look into the time period since the hair loss and itch started and try to see if anything changed for your dog since then. Products you use it could come in contact with (detergent etc.), food, treats, seasons, stress or boredom.
      And then I would make an appointment with a vet you trust and discuss your findings with them.
      In the meantime you could use a disinfectant for animals and epsom salt rubs (it the spot is not raw and open, because epsom salt stings, dogs usually hate that) to prevent the spot from attracting secondary infection, because that will only make things worse and harder to handle.
      If you want, feel free to post the vet’s opinion and your own findings here. I will be happy to help keep digging through the information you are able to gather in order to maybe get closer to the causes.

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