A: This past week, the area pollen counts have been skyrocketing. Fortunately, there are many more options for treating allergic dogs than ever before. However, there are other causes of itching that need to be eliminated first. Please be sure to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible to discuss your dog’s symptoms. The earlier an accurate diagnosis is made, the more effective the treatment will be.

If your dog is diagnosed with a pollen allergy, it is important to include shampooing and ear cleaning as a routine part of treatment. Many pet owners underestimate the importance of this step. Anti-allergy shampoos and ear washes are designed to remove the aggravating pollen and to improve the protective barrier between the skin and the environmental allergens. Medicated shampoos and special therapeutic ear washes can also help to reduce secondary infections that are common in allergic pets.

Oral medications are also frequently used to combat allergies. Antihistamines can be very safe, inexpensive options for some pets. To be effective, antihistamines must be started in the very early stages of an allergic response – or ideally, even before symptoms start. They also must be given regularly and can cause some drowsiness early in the course of treatment. They also must be used at the proper dose. I routinely see pet owners underdosing their dogs using human Benadryl. Too low of a dose will not be effective. Any medication, even over-the-counter ones, should only be give to pets after consultation with a veterinarian.

Traditionally, veterinarians relied upon steroids to treat severe allergies. These drugs are inexpensive and effective, but come with a very, very long list of serious side effects. Most people know that steroids cause excessive thirst, excessive urination, increased appetite, and weight gain. However, steroids are also associated with more serious problems, including diabetes, liver damage, heart disease, kidney damage, hair loss, tendon weakening, infections, cancer, and behavior changes, including aggression. When steroids are absolutely required, veterinarians try to use the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible period of time. Using other treatments in conjunction with steroid treatments can help in that effort.

One modern alternative to steroids is Apoquel, a pill that blocks proteins that trigger allergic symptoms. Apoquel is highly effective, sometimes even working in dogs when steroids did not help. More importantly, it has significantly fewer side effects than steroids. When a dog needs allergy medications for more than a week or so each year, I frequently prescribe Apoquel.

Cytopoint, another exciting advance in allergy treatment, gives pet owners and veterinarians a drug-free options. Cytpoint is an injection of antibodies against a small protein that causes itching. When the antibody binds the protein, it cannot get into the skin and lead to itch. The injection lasts anywhere from four to eight weeks. Since it is not a drug, there are very few side effects to Cytopoint. With any injection, we can see some injection-site pain or an allergic reaction- but both are rare with this product.

It is also possible to try to condition an animal’s immune system to be exposed to an allergen and not react as strongly. Traditionally, this involved an intra-dermal skin test at a veterinary dermatologist and a lifelong series of allergy injections. These injections are designed to sensitize the body to the allergen, thereby reducing symptoms. Nowadays, blood tests get nearly as accurate results as the more involved skin testing. Plus, these tests can be run by your family veterinarian. If the thought of frequent injections causes you hesitation, there are now drops that can be given in the mouth at home that have similar treatment efficacy.  

Veterinarians also have access to stronger, immunosuppressive medications for very severe cases. However, with all of the above options at our disposal, we rarely need them.