by Anne Jones RN, BSNE
Allergies can occur in any breed but most often seem to trouble white breeds. The Bichon is no exception. Allergies in dogs can be food related but are more likely to be associated with inhalants. Dogs can be tested for specific allergies; however it can be difficult to avoid the trees, grasses and molds that are a part of the environment. Therefore it becomes logical to try to treat the allergy in the most effective way.
We would make it very clear that dealing with allergies has to be done in cooperation with your veterinarian. He must prescribe any medications used and you may need to purchase some products from him, such as special shampoos and food additives. You need to work with your groomer as well.
It is probably more important that the dog be well rinsed than to use a medicated shampoo with mild allergies. You may have to experiment with different brands of shampoos and conditioners to find the best for your dog. Do not let the dog get matted because that extra brushing and pulling of hair to get out the mats only further irritates the skin. Avoid excessive heat when blow-drying for the same reason (there are forced air dryers that make it unnecessary to use any heat).
Allergies tend to be seasonal (pollens occur primarily in spring and fall). Your main focus on medications will be during the worse times. You should try to control the "itches" without a lot of medication whenever possible. A voice command with a strong "no!" when the dog begins to scratch can help. Scratching can become a habit, as can licking the feet. Boredom can add to these behaviors so avoid leaving the dog alone for hours at a time. (Bichons do not make good "home alone" dogs! They like their people around.) Keep the dog inside with air conditioning as much as possible.
Licking and chewing can often be discouraged by the use of certain sprays that act as a deterrent. These taste bad to the dog and he does not go after the itchy spot as often because of the bad taste. One product that can be found almost any place has "bitter" in the name but must not be very bitter because it does not seem to work as well as other products. You may want to try it as it seems to be harmless and is readily available. The #1 favorite for most breeders and exhibitors is a product called tea tree spray or melaleuca alternifolia. It is supposed to have healing qualities as well as discouraging the dog from biting or licking himself due to the bad taste. Such products are over-the-counter and may be found at pet supply stores or ordered through pet supply catalogs.
Flea allergy is another problem altogether. While the treatment for the allergy is the same, it is important to rid the house and the dog of fleas or treating the allergy will not help. There are many products available from your veterinarian to prevent flea infestation as well as shampoos to rid the dog of existing fleas. However the home must be treated and all bedding washed to prevent fleas from returning. The yard can be sprayed to rid the grass of fleas. Your vet can also advise you on proper procedures. It is critical to the welfare of the dog that you are very careful in how you use these products. Each of them is a poison and can kill your dog if you combine several at one time.
Fleas can be one cause of hot spots. A hot spot (also called moist dermatitis) is a localized reaction to some allergic condition. Hot spots can also occur from repeated biting of the skin to relieve itch. If the hot spot is treated quickly it may disappear within a day or two. One method of treating the spot in its early stage is to dust it with medicated powder several times a day. These products are readily available over the counter (not foot powder) and they dry the moisture and soothe the itch. Creams and ointments tend to keep the area moist and are not as effective, though a prescribed ointment may be needed if the area becomes infected. At this stage, the hot spot needs to be seen by a veterinarian for treatment.
Now let's get to the medications used for allergies. Pet owners want an instant fix and are not tolerant of vets who require return visits. Therefore, vets will give that quick fix by prescribing steroids for allergies. You probably have had at least one prescription for prednisone to be given over about 10 days, with the last doses being given on alternate days - or some similar schedule. This is the quick fix that pet owner’s demand. However, you are setting up your Bichon to have serious problems later in life if you do this repeatedly. A steroid given over and over affects the balance of cortisol in the body, resulting in a condition called Cushings Syndrome.
Remember there are certain times when steroids are necessary and have to be given. Treating simple allergies can be done without overmedicating. You administer a single dose of prednisone, followed by antihistamines. The single dose breaks the itch habit by soothing the skin, allowing the antihistamines to be effective. Together with your veterinarian, you can determine which antihistamine works best for your Bichon. If you have to give the pred once or twice a month during allergy season, this will not be enough to affect the natural production of cortisol. Fatty acid supplements may be useful, too. Ask your vet to prescribe one.
The dog that is highly allergic may need skin testing to determine his specific allergy. There are veterinary dermatologists who can best treat the severely allergic Bichon and they can be found at university veterinary hospitals or in major cities. Your veterinarian will help you to locate such a specialist. There are also many special diets that can be fed to dogs that are food allergic. However frequently changing the diet on your own may only increase the allergic response. It has been found that allergies are made worse when the dog’s diet is changed often early in life. The primary cause of the allergy is the protein source and each change sets up a response in the immune system so that eventually there is no food left that the dog can tolerate.
A condition that is not an allergy is called immotile cilia syndrome (or Kartagener's syndrome) and may mimic pneumonia, kennel cough, distemper or just be a chronic runny nose. This autoimmune condition must be treated by a specialist who understands this inherited condition.
One symptom that pet owners often fear is allergy is reverse sneezing. The dog snorts and seems to be choking while repeatedly “honking” and sneezing. The cause for this condition is unknown and it can be stopped by either massaging the dog’s throat or by pinching the nostrils together for a brief time until the episode is over. The condition is not dangerous to the dog.
It is critical to your allergic dog’s health and comfort that the best treatment for your particular pet is found. Your veterinarian is the best source for information. Together you CAN control the problem. Good luck!