Pet Science

Can Dogs Really Get Seasonal Allergies? These Bizarre Behaviors Could Be A Sign

There are ways to distinguish allergies from infections — in humans, and in dogs.

ENGLISH BULLDOG gaining relief from itchy herself with back leg.sitting on carpet at home
Carol Yepes/Moment/Getty Images
Pet Science

Some people have seasonal allergies so bad they wouldn’t wish them on their worst enemy. So it might be devastating to learn that our sweet pets can get seasonal allergies, too. But they don’t get itchy eyes and a runny nose.

Indeed, dogs can have overactive immune systems that flare up at certain times of year. These symptoms can be hard to distinguish from everyday behaviors because it mostly involves scratching, but just in the same way you can distinguish allergy symptoms from a cold in humans, you can do the same in dogs to help them get some relief.

Like humans, dogs can be allergic to pollens, dust mites, and mold spores, which typically shouldn’t pose a threat to the body. “You can think of allergy as an overactive immune system,” says Douglas DeBoer, a veterinarian and professor of dermatology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “Your immune system normally is supposed to be protecting you from foreign things like bacteria and viruses. In some cases, your immune system becomes overactive and it starts responding to things in the environment that it shouldn't be responding to.” He adds that allergies often develop in a dog’s first three years of life.

Why do dogs get allergies?

And, as in humans, there’s a genetic basis for allergies. As such, certain lines within dog breeds are predisposed to allergies. DeBoer says that retrievers, terriers, and French bulldogs are all more prone to allergies.

However, the big difference between dogs and humans is in the allergic response. “Dogs don’t get asthma or hay fever,” says DeBoer. “Dogs manifest [allergies] by having itchy, inflamed skin.”

While this itch can pop up anywhere, DeBoer says it’s most common around the face, feet, belly, and sides. It all depends on the dog, though. Some dogs may only get itching on their face, while others will have it all over. Likewise, severity can vary. Some dogs may have severe itchiness, other dogs may only have a mild case.

Since most dogs normally scratch themselves throughout the day, it can be hard to tell when your dog is suffering from allergies or just tending to itself. DeBoer offers a few clues so you can best help your pup. Duration of these itchy periods is a big tell, because they might last just a few weeks out of the year and resolve without intervention.

How do you know if it's allergies, or something else?

DeBoer also says that pet parents might initially think their dog has fleas. However, if you give your dog a monthly flea preventative medication, that can help you rule out fleas. Often if your dog has severe allergies, it’s easier to notice the sheer discomfort it’s in. “Whether or not an owner recognizes the kinds of seasonal allergies is mostly a reflection of how severe it is,” DeBoer says. If your dog scratches itself so much that it starts bleeding, or scratches so much that it can’t sleep or interferes with your sleep, that’s when you know it’s time to go to the vet.

Pet parents have a few treatment options. The most effective treatments are prescription only, and range from daily pills to occasional injections administered by a vet. Other shampoos and topicals are also on the market. It may surprise you that over-the-counter antihistamines are actually safe for dogs to take, but they’re generally no good at tending to these symptoms because in dogs, “histamine is not a terribly significant itch-causing chemical,” DeBoer says.

You might also be tempted to slather some cream or lotion on your pooch, which DeBoer posits should work. “But the problem in dogs is you have this big, hairy body,” he says. “Creams or lotions would theoretically work on a dog, but they’re not practical to use.” But if your dog’s feet or hairless belly shows signs of allergy itch, over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can do the trick.

As much as we want to protect our fur children from any possible discomfort, allergies might just be a part of your dog’s life. But DeBoer offers some guidance for effectively treating allergies: Use flea preventative regularly to rule out one problem, and if your dog is damaging its skin or keeping you up at night, it’s time to see the vet.

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