Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs | PetFirst
Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs
Pet Care & Health

Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

by PetFirst Pet Insurance
2 years ago

With springtime comes warmer weather, blooming flowers, and—you guessed it—allergies. Pets who suffer from allergies can become miserably itchy and scratchy, which definitely puts a damper on them having a good quality of life. 

Canine atopic dermatitis (AD), also known as allergic dermatitis and canine atopy, is one of those allergies that can make a dog feel like an itchy mess. Affecting 10–15% of dogs, AD is important to learn about, especially if your dog is scratching seemingly every time you turn around. 

AD is an exaggerated allergic response to common environmental particles, such as dust or pollen. Certain breeds of dogs, such as the Golden Retriever, Boston Terrier, and Labrador Retriever, are genetically predisposed to developing AD. 


Symptoms usually begin between 6 months and 3 years of age. These symptoms may be seasonal (when the weather warms up) or nonseasonal.

Itchiness, commonly on the paws, face, and belly, is the most characteristic sign. A dog with AD will scratch, bite, and chew the itchy areas, which can lead to hair loss and serious skin lesions that can become infected. Interestingly, for many dogs, chronic ear inflammation may be the only noticeable sign of AD. 


Diagnosing AD can be challenging, requiring the exclusion of other itchy skin conditions, such as food allergies and flea allergy dermatitis. A veterinarian will first perform a thorough physical examination and ask detailed questions to learn more about your pets health history. 

Allergy testing is frequently used in cases of AD. It does not diagnose the condition. Instead, allergy testing identifies the ‘culprit’ allergens, which helps guide treatment. Two types of allergy testing are available: intradermal and blood testing. 

Intradermal testing involves sedation, injecting tiny amounts of different allergens into the skin, and waiting for a response. For blood testing, a blood sample is sent to a laboratory for the detection of antibodies to the allergens. Intradermal testing is the preferred allergy test. 


AD is not curable, but it is manageable. Allergen-specific immunotherapy (ASIT) is the gold standard for treating AD. ASIT, which is developed according to intradermal allergy testing results, improves how the immune system responds to the offending allergen. Administered by either injection or allergy drops, ASIT takes about 6–12 months to have a significant effect. It is a lifelong therapy but can be given less frequently over time.  

Anti-allergy medications are also available. For example, cyclosporine and oclacitinib suppress the immune response to allergens; impressively, oclacitinib begins working in as little as 1–2 days. Other medications include antihistamines and steroids. Several medications may need to be tried before finding one that works. 

Other treatment strategies are listed below: 

  • Culprit’ allergen avoidance. Avoiding the offending allergen is usually difficult and impractical, depending on a dog’s geographic location. 
  • Bathing. Bathing relieves itchiness by mechanically removing itch-inducing allergens.  
  • Year-round flea control. Flea allergy dermatitis can worsen AD. Providing year-round flea protection can help keep AD from getting worse. 
  • Anti-itch medications. For acute flare-ups of AD, a short treatment course of steroids can provide short-term itch relief. 

AD is a common skin allergy in dogs. Identifying the ‘culprit’ allergen through allergy testing helps a veterinarian devise an effective treatment plan. Because AD requires lifelong treatment, both the pet parent and veterinarian need to be committed to providing long-term, consistent itch relief for a dog with AD.  

Atopic dermatitis affects 10–15% of dogs. Lifetime treatment costs can add up quickly. Insurance through PetFirst can help you defray the cost of atopic dermatitis treatment and management for your dog. Contact PetFirst today for a free quote! 

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