by Anne Jones RN, BSNE

There is no doubt that allergy is the number one health problem in Bichons. Ask anyone who has one and you will hear about some form of allergy, even if it is only a mild seasonal itch. Probably about half the Bichons out there have only a minor problem and their owners don’t consider them to be ‘allergic’ if the condition is not year round or chronic. Yet most do have the urge to scratch or to bite at themselves from time to time. This is a white breed and, like blondes in the human world, they have more sensitive skin. Strong pigmentation may offset that tendency so treasure those dogs with dark splotches on their skin!

Then there are the dogs that have such severe problems that they self mutilate with their constant scratching and chewing of themselves. While these are in the minority, there are thousands of Bichons that show some or all the assorted symptoms of allergy. Allergies can be food related but most in the breed are probably atopy, a skin condition related to inhalants. To further complicate matters for the dogs, the treatment of allergy may be almost as bad as the disease. Overuse of corticosteroids to control the itch sets the dogs up for a later occurrence of Cushing’s syndrome, which can shorten life considerably.

Allergy itself is an autoimmune disease wherein the body attacks itself. But this is only one of a number of related diseases that affect canines. Found on a list of autoimmune conditions are those that may affect blood, blood vessels, endocrine glands, eyes, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, musculoskeletal system, or nervous system. Virtually any part of the body may have screwed up immunity that causes autoimmune response. To further confuse the issue, veterinarians have, in the past, looked at these diseases as separate from each other, not fully understanding the relationship of one to the other.

With recent improvement in the understanding of autoimmunity, there is an increase of research into this complex issue. BFCA has helped to fund studies on allergy, as might be expected with this as our number one health issue. It will take patience and a lot of money to dig into the topic deeply enough to resolve the complicated and confusing processes that create autoimmune response. In fact, the more we know, the more we will realize what we do NOT know!

Immunity is nature’s very capable method whereby the body sends out certain hormones to ‘defeat’ or inhibit substances that are attacking the body. A normal response goes after germs and controls the attacker before the body, whether canine or human, becomes “sick” enough to cause concern. In humans, we find we can’treat’ a cold and it goes away in seven days. Or we can let it run its course and we ‘get well’ in a week. When the body does not ‘cure’ itself, we may have bronchitis or pneumonia as a secondary infection and become really quite ill. This is a simplistic version of how the body reacts normally.

When an abnormal response occurs, a different kind of result follows. The dog that would scratch at a flea begins to attack his own body as the inflammation becomes intolerable to him. What might have been, in a normal dog, a quick bout of soft stools may become chronic gastritis or inflammatory bowel disease. In the dog with a compromised immune system, the pancreas may trigger a diabetic condition or adrenal glands may change previously healthy adrenal glands to develop either Cushing’s or Addison’s disease. Such is the nature of autoimmune response. Immune mediated disease is a case of genes gone haywire and the resulting effect is complex, probably because of several genetic risk factors that combine during the same period of time and also affected by outside phenomena.

What outside conditions may start this generalized response? The immune system may be affected by such additional risk factors as environmental conditions, possibly chemical or physical changes, or stress. One stress factor that is being investigated is the effect on the total body at the time of vaccination, including boosters. Chemicals used for cleaning and in pest control are part of environmental changes. This is especially important in animals receiving preventive chemicals to control fleas, ticks and parasites. Therefore in judging your dog’s environment, you should certainly be aware of cleaning products, sprays and fertilizers or other products containing dangerous chemicals and poisons. Be cautious in using any of these substances. The dog that is being treated topically or internally with preventive medications may be getting a double or triple attack on his body!

Any discussion of treating immune mediated disease must include the use of steroids to treat these diseases. Corticosteroids are hormones that are both anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive in their action. As previously stated, as anti-inflammatory drugs, they calm down the inflammation that causes the itch in allergy. At the same time, the drugs suppress the immune response that protects the body from invasive disease elements. It is also important to remember that there is no way to separate these actions. It is constantly a challenge to balance the two actions, one against the other, also necessitating a gradual decrease in the drug when the dog is taken off the medication.

One other important issue is the effect upon several organs of the body, regardless of which organ or system is targeted for treatment. In other words, whether it is a skin problem or a blood disorder, there will at the same time be some residual effect on the metabolic system, the heart, liver, kidneys and endocrine systems. These drugs alter appetite, cause behavioral changes, and may affect bone growth. Prednisone is one drug specifically mentioned to avoid when treating dogs with calcium oxalate bladder stones, the most common form of stone formation in Bichons.

Safer alternatives to treat allergy should be used for milder attacks. Antihistamines are a type of drug that counter formation of histamine in the body. Histamine occurs in response to allergens. It has been determined that fatty acids omega 6 and omega 3 also are beneficial to boost immune response. Any boost to the immune system has a positive effect overall so this is one supplement that would be useful for all Bichons. Vitamins are not as useful and in a breed that is susceptible to calcium stone formation, extra vitamin C could have an adverse effect.

The breeder with dogs known to suffer allergy should be extremely careful in using those dogs in his/her breeding program. Since autoimmunity is an ongoing issue in Bichons, given their tendency to show signs of allergies, it has to be assumed that any Bichon may carry the genetic components that will allow that dog and its offspring to be at risk for other immunity problems. There is definitely an increase in all breeds to develop immune mediated diseases and we do get many reports of Bichons with thyroid problems, diabetes and Cushings, for instance. Immune mediated blood disorders are on the increase. Therefore it pays the breeder to remove from his/her breeding program any Bichon that has developed serious allergy or has produced offspring with severe allergies. At the very least, do NOT repeat that particular breeding which has shown evidence of a compromised immune system.

Several recent articles have addressed various factors that affect immune response. They will be listed below. Note that several address a holistic approach to treatment. It behooves each of us to go back to any of the articles or seminars by W. Jean Dodds DVM because her concerns are now being proven to be on the mark, including her theories of predisposition in certain breeds, including the Bichon Frise, to suffer genetic immune mediated disease. In BFCA health data for the past 10 years, we have documented numerous Bichons with autoimmune problems. Based on those figures, we know that allergy is the primary problem but one has to consider any dog with allergy to be immune compromised and therefore susceptible to any of the other immune mediated diseases!

Articles of interest are:

  • Any article by W. Jean Dodds DVM addressing the topic of immunity
  • “Their Own Worst Enemy”, AKC GAZETTE, August 2004, page 4
  • “Walking the Allergy Maze, THE WHOLE DOG JOURNAL”, August 2004, page 3
  • “Use Corticosteroids On Your Canine With Caution”, THE WHOLE DOG JOURNAL, July 2004, page 8