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Environmental Allergies in Dogs: a Pain in the Skin!

Environmental allergies are sensitivities to substances or particles in the environment, such as trees, grass and pollen. They can cause atopic dermatitis (eczema), a condition that makes the skin red and itchy. 

In dogs, environmental allergies are more common than any other allergy (e.g. food, fleas) and are, in fact, one of the top reasons to visit the vet, including my dog Cruz. 

Cruz is a six-year-old Anatolian Shepherd Dog, a livestock guardian breed who lives mainly indoors (more specifically on the couch). 

He has always suffered from seasonal allergies, but over the past few months has been increasingly scratching his belly and ears, nibbling his paws and legs, brushing his runny nose across the walls and table edges (eeewww!), and rubbing his face on the carpets. 

My giant boy also has hypothyroidism, where the body does not make enough thyroid hormone, and causes dry skin and coat and hair loss.

Surprisingly, Cruz’s allergies did not subside this winter as it normally does. In fact, it got worse with hair loss and dry, flaky skin on his belly, inflamed paws and armpits not to mention a persistent ear infection, resulting in several vet visits over a period of three to four months. Thank goodness for pet insurance!

Our Vet Dr Luke Smith at Vineyard Vet Hospital (NSW) started Cruz on Apoquel, Neocort topical cream for his belly and paws, and weekly Malaseb baths. We saw some improvement with the allergies but the itching and head shaking returned once the meds finished.

We then tried Cytopoint - an injection that controls the itch for four to eight weeks - but instead saw a flare-up that led to a painful ear infection. 

Then I discovered a small reddish bump on Cruz’s outer lower lip. Was it dermatitis or something more sinister?

We saw Dr Rob Zammit, also at Vineyard Vet Hospital, who advised removing the lump and sending it for biopsy. 

Cruz had surgery the following day, during which Dr Zammit discovered two more small lumps on his lip. Lab results showed Cruz had an allergy-infused infected hair follicle – like face acne – and needed his mouth to be cleaned regularly with rubbing alcohol.

I felt at a total loss how quickly Cruz’s allergies developed and how bad they got. My livestock guardian is essentially allergic to the outdoors!  

Dr Zammit explained that allergies are ordinarily seasonal – generally spring and especially summertime – but nowadays he sees 
more flare-ups during the winter compared to 30 to 40 years ago

Atopic dermatitis is more likely to be long term, can be seasonal and complicated by secondary infections with yeast or bacteria,” he said.

“Allergies in dogs are caused by so many things in the environment. Most common triggers in dogs are tree, grass and weed pollens, mould and dust. Particularly buffalo grass, which causes a reaction in humans, too. The bottom of the chest and tummy is where we usually see contact allergy dermatitis.”

Paspalum grass weed, vines (e.g. Wandering Jew, Jasmine and Potato vine) and weeds like Morning Glory all cause allergies. Check this list of common plants toxic to dogs.

The best grass to have is couch
but it’s difficult to grow. Another solution is to cover the backyard with cement or install good quality artificial turf.

“Environmental allergies can trigger atopic dermatitis and otitis (inflammation of the ears) and most dogs with environmental allergies have otitis that is chronic and relapsing,” said Dr Zammit.

“There’s also a genetic component to environment allergies. Certain breeds are more prone to allergies, like Staffies and German Shepherds, but it can happen in any dog or breed.”

How to diagnose and treat environmental allergies

"The easiest way to see if a dog is reacting to its environment is to remove the animal from that environment" said Dr Zammit.

“You can put your dog in boarding for a week without medication and keep them on the same food. If they improve, the culprit is most likely in the environment,” he said.

You can also run a blood test, but the pathology goes overseas. Furthermore, they test on plants that are not in Australia, he said.

Or consider taking your dog to a veterinary dermatologist for an intradermal skin test, which can cost around $1,000! 

“The best way to treat allergies is to remove the offending allergens from the environment,” said Dr Zammit.

Allergen immunotherapy (AIT) – also called ‘desensitisation’ – weakens the body’s response to the substance causing the allergy by allowing the body to ‘get used to’ the allergen.

“Desensitisation can cure environmental allergies but does not work in all cases,” he said. “I haven’t had as much success in desensitisation as I would like.” 

Here are some of Dr Zammit’s suggestions to treating skin allergies: 
  • A non-soap type product like Sorbelene cream to provide some relief.
  • Epsom salt also works to calm down the inflammation. 
  • Malaseb Medicated Shampoo treats dermatitis, fungal and bacterial infections. 
  • An iodine-based wash, like povidone iodine (Betadine) is also a good antibacterial. 
  • Antihistamines, like Zyrtec, may also control the allergies (although rare). 
  • Prescription allergy relief medication (eg Apoquel) and antibiotics to treat infections.
  • If the problem is severe, corticosteroids (eg Prednisone) is used to suppress the immune system to help control the immune system mistakenly attacking its own tissues. 
“Corticosteroids, such as Prednisone, unfortunately come with some side effects, such as increase thirst and urination, but is necessary to break the allergy cycle,” said Dr Zammit. “I’m result driven. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, don’t persist!” 

So how did Cruz go post surgery? 

The day after Cruz’s surgery, we started him on a course of antibiotics, three days of cortisone, daily ear drops (that was fun!) and cleaning his paws and lips with rubbing alcohol.

Very quickly we began to see the side effects of the steroids – increase in thirst and urination. My husband and I took turns standing out in the cold for three nights waiting for Cruz to finish urinating... 

Cruz a few days into his treatment: still itchy and with less hair but getting better! (Photo: supplied)

After three days, we saw a considerable improvement with Cruz’s allergies. His ears cleared up in about a week and he stopped shaking his head in week two. More importantly, he went back to sleeping through the night! What a relief to see him relaxed and enjoying his walks again without shaking his head or scratching his belly at every turn. 

Drugs and medicines certainly got us significant results in a short period of time. However, continuous use of cortisone is likely to weaken the immune system and have a variety of side effects, including becoming depressed, overweight or getting frequent pancreatitis. 

Alternative Treatments to Environmental Allergies 

Natural treatments are a gentler, immune-supporting approach to treating your pet’s allergies, said Dr Karen Goldrick, holistic veterinarian at All Natural Vet Care in Sydney. 

All of Dr Goldrick’s patients are challenging to treat because she typically sees them after poor response to conventional approaches and so they have chronic skin conditions

“Part of integrative veterinary practice is treating the patient as a whole. As well as skin allergies, we are addressing dysbiosis, stress and maybe other health conditions,” she said. “Our experience is that over time (minimum three months for chronic skin allergies) we see improvements in symptoms and quality of life, and less reliance on conventional medications if at all, but they may have symptoms from time to time.” 

Dr Goldrick listed some natural therapy options for treating allergies: 

✔️  Natural diet is a diet as fresh and unprocessed as possible, ideally sourcing human grade organic (free range or grass fed) ingredients. Dr Goldrick recommends feeding a nutritionally balanced ‘clean’ diet suited to your pet because of its many benefits, including supporting gut health. 

✔️  Probiotics address a dog’s gut health and his overall wellbeing by offering the necessary bacteria that help maintain an appropriate balance of the good and bad bacteria in the tummy. Studies show gut bacteria has far-reaching effects on allergies! 

✔️  Homeopathy is the use of a highly diluted medicine that work by gently nudging the immune system into healing itself of the symptoms. 

✔️ Herbs like nettles can help to manage your dog’s allergies. Nettle leaf given orally reduces itching in dogs and may also have immune modulation effects. 

Medicinal mushrooms to support and balance the immune system, promoting overall health and well-being for pets.

✔️ Apple Cider Vinegar body rinse to treat or prevent secondary infections, especially those due to yeast. It can be irritating on red inflamed skin so patch test first and dilute 1:3 with water. Very useful for wiping between pads and toes, lip folds and nose folds. Diluted ACV can be used to gently clean the ear canal opening but best to get it vet-checked first as it could make things worse. 

✔️  Omega 3 Fatty Acids may be useful to reduce inflammation and nourish the skin barrier. For dogs, Dr Goldrick prescribes cold water marine fish oil as a source of DHA and EPA. Wild salmon oil may be preferred to reduce potential heavy metal contamination. Farmed Fish oil may be less beneficial, but responsible sourcing also needs consideration, she said. 

✔️ Quercetin is a plant pigment (flavonoid) with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties found in various fruits and vegetables, such as apples, banana, broccoli, garlic and parsley

✔️  Replace chemical cleaning products with natural options. This reduces the chemical load for your pet and yourself and reduces stress on detox organs including the liver. Some chemicals are irritants which can inflame the skin. 

✔️ Wipe down your dog with a damp cloth to remove offending allergens like wet grass. Wiping feet and underneath the paws after walks not only removes potential allergens, but also potential toxins, such as herbicides sprayed at the park, which may otherwise be licked off.

Conventional and holistic treatments can also work well together, said Dr Goldrick.

“One example is that an acute painful hotspot may require a short treatment with anti-inflammatory medications and topical corticosteroid creams because it is very painful. In addition, we can use topical tea compresses and systemic anti-inflammatory herbs to improve recovery, as well as probiotics and liver support to reduce impact of the medications,” she said.

“Then we look at longer term diet strategies, immune modulation, natural anti-inflammatory treatments, strategies to address any dysbiosis, and stress and adrenal dysfunction using natural treatments.”

How are Cruz's skin allergies now?

It’s been a month since Cruz had his lip surgery and was treated for skin allergies. He has stopped biting his paws, scratching his belly and rubbing his snout around the house.

I’m also trialling a new diet, Pet Food Australia (grain-free, Turkey flavour), which includes hemp seed oil – rich in Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids with anti-inflammatory properties, and may assist in reducing itchiness, inflammation, anxiety and improve coat.

We will see over time the impact the new food has on his skin. We already see a positive difference in his energy levels. Maybe because the medications have kicked in? He is certainly more excited about eating, though!

With Spring around the corner, I’ve already started sneezing and my hands are dry so it comes as no surprise that Cruz has started itching a little, too. As Dr Goldrick suggested, I started him on daily fish oil tablets, wipe him down with a damp cloth after walks and have Apple Cider Vinegar ready to wipe down his paws.

Time will tell if Cruz’s skin allergies flare up or not. Either way, I feel more informed and confident to deal with it. Got to wipe the tables and walls after him!

written by Caroline Zambrano, Pet Journo, August 2020 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

About the writer

Caroline Zambrano is a Sydney-based pet writer with nearly 20 years of experience in journalism and public relations specialising in the Australian pet industry.  Her qualifications include a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communications in the United States.
Caroline is a PR & clinic volunteer for Pets in the Park, a national charity that cares for pets owned by people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and is a rescue/carer for Sydney Metropolitan Wildlife Services Inc.  She is also a member of the Australian Canine Scent Work Association and the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA).

You can contact Caroline at and follow her and Cruz on Instagram @petjourno

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