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All You Need to Know about Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

Call it what you like: atopic dermatitis, allergic dermatitis, or an obsessively itchy dog; this condition is distressing for both dog and pet parent. Whilst there’s no cure for allergies in dogs, they can be controlled. This article explains how.

What is Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs?

Knowing how allergies are triggered empowers you to take control.

Do you suffer from hay fever?

In people, a runny nose, streaming eyes, and constant sneezing are symptoms of pollen allergy.

The doggie equivalent of hay fever is skin irritation and itchiness.

Odd as it sounds, pollen on an allergic dog’s skin, activates a battery of natural, itchy chemicals such as histamine and cytokines. So where people sneeze; dogs scratch…and itch…and chew themselves to pieces. And instead of ‘hay fever’ as in people, this condition is called ‘atopic dermatitis’ in dogs.

Signs your dog has atopic dermatitis include:

  • Itchiness: This may be seasonal (for pollens) or all-year-round (food allergies)
  • Especially on the muzzle, paws, belly, and groin
  • Red, inflamed skin
  • Hair loss

Your vet needs to rule out other causes of itchiness (never underestimate fleas and other parasites!) to diagnose atopic dermatitis.

Is Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs Contagious to Humans?


In the same way hay fever can’t be passed between people, neither can dogs pass on atopic dermatitis.

However, atopic dermatitis in dogs is a hereditary condition. If your dog has particularly itchy skin,  avoid breeding from them. There’s a distinct risk of parent passing the itchy-gene down to the puppies and perpetuating the discomfort.

Overview of How to Treat Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

Even severely atopic dogs do well, with a global approach. Tackle atopy from different angles and your dog will win.

This global approach includes:

    1. Bathing the Dog: Rinse the allergens from the dog’s coat after a walk. Use a gentle moisturizing shampoo to wash away the itchiness
  • Optimal Skin Condition: Great skin condition acts as a shield to ward off allergies. Help your itchy hound with:
    • Skin supplements rich in essential fatty acids, such as omega 3 & 6
    • Feeding a good quality food
    • Keeping the skin clean and free from mud (and therefore bacteria)
    • Use skin moisturizers. Yes, there are moisturizing sprays for dogs. Spritz your pet pal after rinsing them
    • Topical treatments: Apply soothing creams and sprays to troublesome areas
    • Medication: Your vet has an armory of treatments to control symptoms
    • Antihistamines: Sadly, the effects are disappointing in dogs
  • Avoiding Allergens: For example, many dogs are allergic to grass sap and freshly mown grass in a ‘No-no.’ Or, if your dog is allergic to house dust mites ( a common allergen) hoover daily with a vacuum with a HEPA filter

Home Treatment for Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

Yes, your dog may need prescription medication. But home care also makes a big difference.

Here’s how:

Best Shampoo for Atopic dermatitis in dogs

The ideal shampoo is mild, replaces lost moisture, and soothes the skin. Also, avoid artificial  fragrances and colours; remember, canine skin is highly sensitive and could react to artificial additives.

Top picks for sore skin include:

A Special Note about Yeast

Have you had athlete’s foot? Itchy, isn’t it!

The doggy equivalent is a yeast, Malassezia, which lives on the skin’s surface. For healthy skin, it rarely causes a problem. For dogs with atopic dermatitis, their skin is weak and the Malassezia breeds out of control…causing an itch.

A sign of doggy yeast infection is a greasy feel to the skin. The last thing the dog needs is another thing that makes him feel itchy, but shampooing can help!

Look for a shampoo containing chlorhexidine, and bathe the dog every two to three days. This washes away those itchy yeasts and removes a complicating factor.

And if your dog chews their paws, then use a chlorhexidine wipe. This targets the yeast that flourish in the warm, moist spaces between the toes causing athlete’s paw!

Best Food for Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

Strictly speaking food allergy isn’t the same as atopic dermatitis, but the symptoms are often the same. And if you have an itchy dog, there’s nothing to say they can’t have two allergies: both to pollen and to food.

In which case, taking reactive foods out of the diet, will make your best buddy more comfortable and less itchy. That has to be a win-win situation.

Hypoallergenic diets for dogs is a whole article of its own. The diet is to feed a limited menu of ingredients, and hopefully avoid the food the dog is sensitive to.

Doggy Dream Team suggestions as the best food for atopic dermatitis in dogs are:

Harrington’s Sweet Potato and Salmon

Purina HA

Hills ZD

Coconut Oil for Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

Labeled by some as a superfood, does coconut oil have a place for treating atopic dermatitis in dogs?

Coconut oil contains a blend of medium chain fatty acids. Uh? Ok, these are ‘good fats’ that are said to help fight viruses, bacteria, and are a natural anti-inflammatory. Sadly, evidence to back up these claims is lacking.

There’s a lot of misleading information with regards to coconut oil. For example, one claim is it provides “An immediate source of fuel for athletic performance dogs.” This sounds great until you realize it simply means ‘contains lots of calories.’

In short, coconut oil means calories. If your dog has a weight problem, don’t go there.

Coconut oil may help improve skin condition, so consider giving a teaspoon a day to underweight dogs with poor skin…but other there are better alternatives available.

Natural Remedies for Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

Food supplements make a real difference to skin condition. Look for a fish oil supplement, rich in Omega 3, 6 & 9 for the natural anti-inflammatory action. Give the supplement daily and expect to see results after 4 -6 weeks. It may not remove the need for drugs to settle the itch, but it will reduce the dose.

Use a natural moisturizer, such as Shea Pet Skin Repair after bathing to replace lost moisture. Or, if the dog has a sore patch from scratching up-the-ante with a doggie moisturizing balm.

To improve the circulation to the skin and improve condition, groom the dog daily. Comb through to get rid of tangles and then brush over with a tool that massages the skin.

A Special Note about Antihistamines in Dogs

If atopic dermatitis is the doggie equivalent of hay fever…ta dah! What about treating the symptoms with antihistamines?

This is logical thinking but it’s flawed. Sadly, antihistamines just don’t seem as effective in dogs as in people. At best, they may help if given daily, for a couple of weeks in advance of encountering whatever it is that makes the dog itchy.

If despite this you want to give antihistamines a go, then approach it methodically. Avoid wasting money by ‘scoring’ your dog’s itch out of ten (without the antihistamine). Do this for several days.

Then add in the antihistamine, and score the itch for two weeks.

Compare the before and after scores. How did the antihistamine do?

If the result wasn’t what you’re hoping for, try again with a different antihistamine.

And one safety point. Always cross reference the antihistamine with your vet, to make sure it’s safe for dogs (not all are.) And never give a medication that contains artificial sweeteners such as xylitol, as these can be toxic to dogs.

Medicine for Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

How to treat atopic dermatitis in dogs? There are several medical treatment options available through your vet.

  • Canine Atopic Dermatitis Immunotherapeutic Options

A bespoke vaccine containing low doses of allergens, trains the immune system to react less strongly to those pollens.

A specialist lab develops the vaccine, matching antibodies in your dog’s blood to the constituents in the vaccine. The vaccine is injected monthly, all year round, to reduce atopy flare ups.

This works well in one-third of dogs, not so well in another third, and not at all in the final third.

  • Cytopoint

A new treatment, monthly Cytopoint injections disarm the specific pathway linked to over reaction to allergens.

In some dogs this treatment works like a miracle (but doesn’t work so well for others)

  • Pharmaceuticals

From inexpensive steroids to costly, but largely side-effect free, oclacitinib, there are many options to bring that distressing itch under control.

  • Steroids: Corticosteroids are inexpensive and highly effective. But there are many potential side effects. Your vet will aim to get the dog onto the lowest effective dose, in order to minimize the risks.
  • Atopica (Cyclosporine): This drug was developed on the back of transplant surgery to stop organ rejection. It desensitises the immune system and is relatively side effect free. The downside of this drug is the cost…it’s expensive!
  • Apoquel (Oclacitinib): Apoquel is a new generation of anti-inflammatory medications. It targets the cytokines (natural chemicals that cause inflammation) which cause the itch. Again, this is relatively side effect free, but is expensive.

How to Treat Atopy in Dogs 101

Treating atopy in dogs needs more than a single magic pill. Be prepared to attack the problem from lots of different angles including:

  • Bathing the dog to wash away allergens
  • Moisturizing sprays
  • Dietary supplement to improve skin health
  • Yeast control with shampoos and wipes
  • Special foods to eliminate other allergies
  • Prescription medications
  • Allergy avoidance

But remember, the prize is an itch free dog, which is definitely something worth woofing about.

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