Yes, yes they can. I learned this the hard way. And hopefully I can save you a few steps if you're going through this process, too! (Here is a very in-depth article from our current vet, Dr. Alan Schulman, on the topic of allergies if you want something authoritative.)
Chance was just a baby, maybe 6 or 7 months old, when he started scratching himself. He would suddenly stop whatever he was doing, contort into a pretzel, and whack away at his face with a hind paw. At first I didn't really think much of it--dogs scratch themselves all the time!
But soon he was doing it near-constantly, rattling his crate all night (and keeping us both awake). When his scratching started drawing blood, I made our first vet appointment.
This launched a nearly year-long battle against environmental and food allergies. We tried everything under the sun (thankfully all covered by our amazing insurance) before finally finding the right solution for us.
How to Tell If Your Dog Has Allergies
My first clue that something was wrong was obviously the scratching. The second big clue was that he kept getting ear and eye infections. In humans, symptoms of allergies typically center on the eyes and nose; when dogs are dealing with allergies, it's their eyes and ears that are mainly affected.
Chance's eye infections were pretty easy to spot--suddenly there'd be a dribble of disgusting green pus trickling out of the corner of his eye. Took me a little longer to become aware of the ear infections. I didn't realize that his scratching had become really focused on one ear, until I noticed that it looked MUCH redder than his other ear. Then I sniffed it. You will notice if your dog has an ear infection--STINKY!
Other tell-tale signs that your dog might have allergies include general redness (inflamed skin), hotspots (oozing sores on the skin), chewing/licking on paws, diarrhea, and vomiting.
What We Tried First
First we tried Atarax, which is an antihistamine for dogs. I didn't notice much improvement. The next suggestion was trying medication intended for humans--we tried Benadryl, Claritin, and Zyrtec. Granted, you're supposed to use them each for a couple months to see if they're helping, and we only did a couple weeks of each. But his scratching was getting worse every single week.
Then we did a course of Temaril-P, which is an antihistamine and a steroid combined. Steroids aren't safe to use over the long-term (they are very hard on a dog's body), but the idea was to "disrupt the cycle" of itching and scratching and itching some more. Apparently this really works for some dogs, especially with just mild seasonal allergies.
It did work for Chance, for the few days he was on it. As soon as the course of pills was done, he went right back to his itching and infections.
At this point I was also treating his eyes and ears pretty regular with drops, ointments, flushes, and wipes, and giving him medicated baths every few days. Contrary to popular belief, a dog can be bathed weekly without irritating his skin, and if he's got allergies it's recommended to bathe every couple of days to get the dust/pollen/etc. off his skin.
Since the steroids worked while he was on them, it was pretty clear that he had allergies. But...what was he allergic to??
Getting Allergy Tested
One way to "test" for food allergies is what's called an elimination diet. It's a long process and involves controlling for a lot of food variables while you figure out which food exactly is causing the problems.
I was super-sleep deprived at this point because of the constant nocturnal scratching, so I honestly didn't have the patience for that. Fortunately...there was an alternative.
Initially, we were referred to a dermatologist after nothing seemed to work. Chance's Healthy Paws insurance is really great, but one thing it does not cover is the office visit itself. This is fine usually, because most vets charge between $40-80 for a visit. A doggie dermatologist apparently can charge $300 JUST FOR THE VISIT! However, a new vet we saw let us know that they could actually perform an allergy test in-house, and we wouldn't have to go to the dermatologist.
There are two main ways dogs can get truly tested for allergies--blood testing and intradermal skin testing. Our vet suggested the blood test, which cost $375 but was covered by insurance. The word of caution, however, is that the blood test can return quite a few false positives--that is, it will look like your dog is allergic to something that he really isn't allergic to.
Upside? It should ALSO catch the things he really IS allergic to.
It had been six months of near-constant symptoms for Chanceypants, so I opted to full-steam-ahead with the blood test. I just needed some answers.
Apparently, my snowflake is allergic to EVERYTHING. EVEN ME! (a little bit)
As you can see...a lot of things showed up as "low level" or "high level" on the environmental panel, and several things showed up as "low level" or "very low level" on the food panel.
So, what to do with this information?
Our vet at the time said that the broad variety of environmental allergies made Chance a good candidate for allergy shots, and that we should avoid ANY food ingredients that showed up on the food panel, as he was such a sensitive dog that any of them might impact him. He was actually on a kibble that was bison-based and she thought it was too close to beef!
The good news is that I was able to immediately avoid foods he might have an allergy to. The bad news, of course, is that allergy shots take a long time to work.
The Miracle Cure (for us)
In the past, the last line of defense for dogs with chronic allergies (besides allergy shots) was a medication called Atopica. But, just a few months after we got Chance's test results back, a brand-new drug hit the market--Apoquel. Dr. Jon Plant DVM describes the difference between the two drugs better than I ever could hope to:
Both Atopica and Apoquel affect the immune system. An allergy is, after all, an overactive immune system. Atopica is considered immunosuppressive, effecting T-cells. Apoquel is considered immunomodulatory, blocking transmission of the itch sensation, among other activities. Both medications have the potential to increase the risk of dogs getting infections. In reality, this is uncommon at recommended doses.
Oversimplified, this means that while Atopica turns off the immune system, Apoquel just sort of dampens it a little.
Because this is a new drug, there are no long-term studies that track the impact on a dog over many years of taking it. Some people worry that modifying the immune system could lead to an inability to fight off precancerous cells that could turn into tumors, among other concerns. However, many vets have found it very beneficial. In a really great post about her clinical experience with Apoquel, Dr. Dr. Melissa Eisenschenk, DVM, DACVD had this to say:
I like Apoquel. The benefits of Apoquel include: rapid onset of action, low likelihood of GI side effects, rare side effects with long term use, no withdrawal needed for skin testing, and decent price. The downsides include: increased infections, monitoring needed for bone marrow suppression, does not work for many pets, and we do not have long term data... Allergy testing and shots remains the only effective management of allergies that does not involve immune suppression.
Ultimately, when deciding whether to use Apoquel, there is one question a dog-owner really must face:
Is easing my dog's allergy suffering today worth risking health problems like cancer down the line?
In Chance's case, his quality of life was absolutely suffering due to his allergies. He may get cancer and live a shorter life than I hope he does. But, he won't have spent his years on the planet constantly scratching himself raw and oozing pus out of his eyeballs every few weeks. So, for me? The decision was simple.
We got a prescription.
Within two days of starting on Apoquel, ALL OF CHANCE'S SYMPTOMS DISAPPEARED. It was that drastic and that fast. He hasn't had a SINGLE eye or ear infection since he went on the medication, and his scratching is normal dog scratching--occasional and brief.
And yours truly could FINALLY get some sleep.
So my advice for everyone with a dog who may be suffering from allergies is as follows:
- Obviously get insurance BEFORE any symptoms show up.
- Try the antihistamines if your dog isn't physically harming himself with scratching.
- If they don't work, get an allergy test. MAYBE your dog is just allergic to one thing that you can easily manage. If not...
- Try Apoquel.
Apoquel doesn't work for everyone, though. So if you're one of the unlucky few, it looks like allergy shots are still your best bet. But I truly hope you all find the same relief Chance and I did!
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
1. Yes, dogs can suffer from both environmental and food allergies.
2. There are multiple treatment options you can try, though without insurance they are mostly very expensive.
3. An allergy test is the only way to get a real idea of what, exactly, your dog is allergic to.
4. Apoquel is a new drug that, if it works for your dog, can dramatically increase his quality of life.
I hope this post has been helpful! I'd love to hear about your experience with allergies--leave a comment below or come join the discussion over in the Patchwork Dogs Facebook Group! And don't forget to subscribe to the newsletter to be notified when we post new content and to be eligible for raffles, promotions, and more!
Carrie Wiita is a grad student, actor, blogger, cheap-wine enthusiast, and dog-parent to Chance, a three-year-old rescue. She has suffered from environmental allergies as well as food allergies (eggs/tree-nuts/shellfish) since birth, and she likes to think this means she and Chance were meant for each other.