Atopy – The Inhalant Allergy

by Anne Jones RN, BSNE

Atopy, simply stated, is the veterinary term used to describe allergy to airborne substances. Allergies can fall into four categories (airborne, contact ,flea and food) with contact and food allergies being the least common in dogs. Airborne allergy is difficult to diagnose because the allergen is often prevalent both inside and outside the home. The body translates these substances to be ‘foreign’ and therefore the body reacts by forming histamines to combat them. It is the chemicals like histamine in the body which cause itch, sores, upset tummy and gastrointestinal upsets that drive both the pet and the owner slowly crazy!

There is no real cure for atopy, only efforts to control the reaction and to clean up his environment of the substances that have caused it. Since many of the substances are in the outdoor environment, the allergic dog is best kept inside most of the time, bathed more often to rid the coat of the offending substances and observed indoors for indications of what may be aggravating the problems inside the house. Just as with humans with allergic rhinitis, frequent vacuuming of the house may help. Wool carpets and furniture may aggravate the problem. In other words, anything that might aggravate human allergy may well add to the pet’s misery.

While the picture seems bleak, atopy is not as severe in all dogs and may only be a seasonal problem. Since some of the drugs that will help to control the problem may have dangerous side effects, it is best to use topical treatment and to clean up his environment rather than to rely on sterioid medication. Of the drugs that can be used occasionally prednisone is best known and is also, unfortunately, the most dangerous if overused. Antihistamines may provide some relief and should be tried, fatty acid supplements will strengthen the immune system and a quality diet will create a healthier dog. These are all addressed elsewhere. Fatty acid supplements are readily available from veterinary clinics and catalogs dealing in pet supplies, as are special shampoos that may soothe irritated skin.

Skin testing is an option to determine just which are the offending airborne substances. These must be done by a qualified specialist since most veterinary clinics are not able to provide the proper test kits for these tests. Shots may be given to desensitize the dog to allergens. The most frequently diagnosed allergens are pollen, dust, molds and dust mites.

For the dog mildly affected, the following suggestions should be considered:

  • Keep your pet inside, especially during spring and fall and when cutting grass, which only stirs up the pollens;
  • Avoid housing him in the basement which may contain dusts and molds that could affect his allergies;
  • Reduce house plants which could produce pollen and which also tend to hold dust and to have molds in the soil;
  • Frequent baths, daily brushing, and wiping his feet when he has been outside may help;
  • Check the house for carpet, furniture and bedding that may hold irritants and vacuum or wash them frequently.

The actions listed above may well be sufficient to keep your pet from scratching. For the severely affected pet, it will be vital to do these and to watch him for signs of the other forms of allergy, such as flea allergy. Food and contact allergies are relatively rare in dogs but flea allergy is quite common. However do NOT use flea preventives unless you actually find he is allergic to fleas because these can have their own harmful effects! And remember that a clean house and a brushed dog will most likely never have a flea problem.